Vigilantes Take Over Mexico Town

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An indigenous community in southwest Mexico has taken up arms and barricaded their town, reportedly in protest against the government’s failure to protect them from powerful drug gang the Familia Michoacana.

A video by El Universal (see below) shows the vigilante group, armed with sticks, stones and machetes, which is patrolling the town of Cheran.

Since late April, the town has maintained a self-imposed state of siege, blocking roads and refusing to let outsiders enter. It began after woodcutters, or “taladores,” allegedly under the protection of the Familia Michoacana, cut and burned about 36,000 hectares of forest on community land, according to El Universal’s report.

When the security forces were slow to act, residents took matters into their own hands.

On March 15, locals took a group of woodcutters hostage. The municipal police tried to intervene, resulting in a shoot-out that wounded one bystander. In protest, residents burned trucks belonging to the woodcutters and refused to allow the police force — numbering 38 in total — to re-enter the town.

The El Universal video identifies a man known as “El Guero” as the local leader of the Familia Michoacana. Residents said he would come periodically to Cheran, accompanied by a group of armed men, to demand “cuotas” or extortion payments.

Since the appearance of the self-protection groups in Cheran, El Guero has stopped showing up, according to the video report.

Perhaps more even than the anti-violence protests that rocked Mexico City on Monday, the emergence of self-defense groups is an indication of the Mexican government’s failure to provide basic security for its citizens. The Familia Michoacana have allegedly disbanded, but their influence in southwest Mexico still lingers, as is demonstrated by the recent investigation opened into one town’s entire police force, which is suspected of working with the group. With this kind of public distrust in local authorities, Cheran’s decision to arm women and children and have them patrol the city streets makes sense.

In some ways, Cheran is a microcosm that explains how gangs like the Familia were able to emerge and become power-brokers in rural Mexico. Socio-economic opportunity here is practically non-existent outside of farming and the drug trade. As the video report indicates, most of the municipality’s population — an estimated 20,000 — have migrated to the U.S., wiring monthly allowances back to their families. Besides this support from emigrants, much of the local economy is centered around on agriculture, which explains why the Familia’s alleged protection of slash-and-burn woodcutters would inspire so much outrage.

The Familia’s ability to step in where the police did not, and essentially act as enforcers to protect the woodcutters, indicates why they have often been compared to a “parallel state” in Michoacan. Meanwhile, the state is almost entirely absent: Cheran’s municipal president, Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) member Roberto Bautista Chapino, has in effect been working without a municipal council since 2008, when protests about insecurity almost forced him out of office.

Cheran is supposed to get a new municipal police force soon; until then, authorities have said they will deploy the military to the area.

But with public anger slowly building in Mexico about the failures of President Calderon’s security policy, it remains to be seen whether more Cheran-like vigilante groups will appear across the country.

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