Last 15th of April the People of Cherán K´eri celebrated the third anniversary of its popular rising against the narco-state, and consequently, the beginning of its process for autonomy outside the system’s political parties. These three years can provide us with a perspective in order to analise where is the movement now, as well as the challenges it faces in the short and medium term.
P´urhépecha Nation: Identity and territory
The P´urhépecha people have a long combative tradition. They were the Aztec Empire’s northern border, but were never conquered by it or any other power, until the arrival of Spanish colonisers. Perhaps, for that reason, its language P´urhépecha does not have an etymological relationship with any other language.
The P´urhépecha people from Cherán, in the exercise of their legitimate right to the defense of life, identify themselves with the P´urhépecha flag and the motto “Juchari Uinapekua” (Our Strength), symbols forged in the contetxt of previous struggle and autonomy. That flag is a tribute to the fallen of November 17th, 1979 and represents the organization and people’s struggle against the new ways of domination and exploitation which are a constant assault on indigenous communities.
April 15, 2011
Cherán is a municipality where people are mostly P´urhépecha, with almost two thousand residents, situated in the Mexican state of Michoacán de Ocampo. During the last decade, this town suffered the indiscriminate plundering of its natural resources, up to the point where more than one third of 22 thousand hectares of forest had been affected or completely destroyed. Drug cartels, transnational wood mafias, armed mercenaries and pirates in search of easy money, all of them in coexistence with the political parties, of any description, all combined to form an administrative hierarchy, including federal and municipal police, making up this criminal organization whom the cheranenses face and identify simply as “the bad guys”.
At the break of dawn on April 15th, 2011 a group of women led the uprising, armed with sticks and stones and ready to stop the clandestine tree cutting of the communal forest. “The bad guys” crossed the line when they approached a water source known as “La Cofradía”, which would put the water supply at risk, and consequently the development of life. To lose that spring would mean also the amputation of their cultural identity, because it is a sacred place to the region’s residents.
From bonfires to recognition
The uprising was successful within a few hours, and had a massive response in which the whole town became involved. After the bell-tolling call they captured a group of woodcutter mercenaries and held them prisoner at the church El Calvario for a week. They set up barricades in each of the four entrances to the town and entrenched themselves in a self-siege for over nine months which led them to ignore constitutional election on November 13th, 2011, and to force a resolution from the Electoral court, which entitled Cherán to choose its own council without intervention from political parties through a system of “uses and costums”, in which the traditional figure from the High Council substitutes the municipal presidency.
Four intial bonfires light the barricades at the entrances to Cherán, and by nightfall they spread to 200 street corners. The neighbours gather for self·defense, coexistence, and to recover lost memories: what was government like before political parties? Before they were split (‘partido’ means both ‘party’ and ‘split’). As community members put it, “parties split you and come to divide and confront people”. Around the bonfire, in each corner of Cherán the people gathered and came to decisions about the daily affairs of the four communities. It was then when the need to recover the traditional ways of self·government and self·defense emerged: High Council and Commnunity Ronda.
On November 30th, the Congress of Michoacán formally appointed the High Council, which was previously elected in the communitarian assemblies by the residents, and took responsability for the municipal government at the beginning of 2012. It was then when the community decided to cast out, not only organized crime, but also all elements of the ministerial police, PGJE representatives, and with them, all forms of organization emanating from political parties.
Cherán K’eri’s communal government
The self·government structure in Cherán K´eri is composed of six operating councils , one for each area, in addition to the High Council.
This council [High council] is formed by 12 members, with three representatives for each of the four communities, who speak on behalf of the residents of their own community, representing their interests, needs, circumstances, difficulties and government affairs that are essential to the community. (…) “k’eri jáŋaskaticha” are the spokespeople and representatives of the “ireticha”, the moral authority and also the direct mandataries of the highest communal authority, which is the community assembly.
The principles of Good Government in Cherán under the system of uses and costums can be summarised in the following points (with content and meaning limitations due to not being expressed in its original language):
Principle of collectivity
Based on the premise of humility
Constant consultation for decision making
Learn to listen
Respect, and enforcement of respect for resolutions taken
The communal Ronda is historical, legitimate, legal and cultural
Day after day, the corruption and extortion exercised by the different police forces is becoming more obvious, and for this reason one of the first actions advanced in Cherán’s self-defense process was the removal of all kinds of external police forces, and recovering of weapons for the new police which was indeed going to defend the people and the forest: The communal Ronda.
The concept of ronda comes from the word patrolling (rondar) which is familiar to the indegenous families because it is actually the way they defend their families, heritage, community, natural belongings and identity. In other words, “police are what is imposed by the goverment, the ronda springs from the people”.
“Since insecurity is an issue that affects us all, and all community memebers, at all administrative and territorial levels and in all classes; the possible solutions proposed do not have a generalised application. It involves developing endogenous mechanisms in order to be able to protect the people and fight the influence of and recruitment to organised crime cartels. ”
“The above is something we understood perfectly once we saw our forests and the integrity of our people threatened. From that point on, when the social movement took off, people became aware that, in order to guarantee our security we had to become organised from inside the community, banning the police forces that were associated with the groups we were trying to protect ourselves from. ”
Reflections and learnings from the experience of the Cherán K’eri people
From a revolutionary standpoint one of the things that most draws our attention regarding the movement in Cherán, is its total rejection of political parties, whom they identify as part of the problem and accomplices of the “bad guys”. It’s interesting how, in this context, the debate is not focused on what party governs but in how to govern themselves without a party. This allows them to recover the common identity of community members as opposed to the individual identity of a citizen.
It is at this point that Cherán becomes a hair in the soup for the political party system. One thing we can learn from the Cherán Movement is that when reality surpasses legality, that reality is legitimate. When the people get organised and remain united they can exercise their autonomy and take matters into their own hands, through the practise of something generally acknowledged: that the poeple´s right to self·determination does exist, and that they are capable of managing their own affairs on a communal basis.
Far from turning these experiences into a myth, we can try to look beyond the story and understand the case of Cherán for what it is, a group of people making a concious and constant effort to struggle, not only against external agressions, but against their own contradictions and difficulties, which are the same ones faced by all those who dare to self·manage their lives: how can horizontality and transparency be guaranteed? how to include minorities in the decision making? How to prioritize the collective self with respect to each individual in communal decision making spaces? How to exercise self·defense? …and plenty of other lessons we would never have initiated if no-one had dared to put them into practise and shared them with dignity and humility.
The biggest challenge the people of Cherán face, one which could jeopardize its self·government, are the next municipal elections, to take place in the state of Michoacán in the Summer of 2015. Political parties continue to plot in the shadows, trying to end the movement and will do anything in their power to discredit, confuse and divide, and if necessary they can turn to the well known vote buying tactic. Then it will be time to analise how the movement has coped with this challenge and see if we can celebrate another three years of autonomy, independent of institutional recognition.
The autonomy experiences of the native peoples show us the way to other forms of human coexistence and looking beyond, and towards new ways of popular sovereignty. From a Western, Eurocentric point of view an enormous effort of humility has to be made, and we must reconsider everything that has to be learned from Latin America in general and, in particular, from the native people.
3- Development plan Cherán 2012-2015
5- La Ronda Comunitaria (Comunitary police)