How one Mexican town stopped corruption and violent crime
Eight years ago Cherán was like any other place in Mexico.
Back in 2011, the sound of exploding fireworks was common in Cherán, a Mexican town in the Southwestern state of Michoacán. The first boom meant that everyone should be on alert, the second boom meant that an attack was imminent and the third that an armed attack was underway. The townspeople were battling to preserve their forest, which had been almost completely cut down by illegal loggers working with organized crime groups. Cherán was under siege and the price of defending their forest was high; extortion, murder and disappearances were everyday occurrences.
Cherán lost over 50 community members between 2007 and 2011. Many of those simply disappeared.
Over the last seven years Cherán's murder rate has dropped to near zero.
What changed? Two words: Socialist Revolution.
When Cherán rose up, the local mayor, his cabinet, and all the local police fled the community and left community members to fend for themselves. This and many other details that would come to light during first months of the uprising exposed the collusion of local politicians and the police with organized crime and the very violent and illicit logging activity.
When Cherán rose up, over 300 campfire barricades were erected at intersections throughout the community. An additional five checkpoints were established at entry roadways to the community. As the police fled Cherán, they also left their weapons, uniforms, and vehicles at the police barracks. The community recovered all of these elements to establish their “ronda comunitaria” or community guard.
Nobody will say it on record to this day, but everyone knows that all cell phone service, all television service, and all radio service was shut off immediately after the uprising. Cherán was disconnected from the rest of the world.
It turned out that those “fogatas” or campfire barricades served as meeting places as much as security. And it was at these fogatas where the people of Cherán decided how to run their socialism.
They banned the politicians, along with the parties that put them in power. Political banners and posters are against the law.
Instead, the people of Cherán developed an autonomous system of self-rule based on horizontal, direct-democratic assemblies.
Constant intrigues in the main political grouping meant that the villagers could never come together to confront major problems – such as the illegal logging – said Pedro Chávez Sánchez, the head of the 12-member council that now governs Cherán.
The council, which is renewed every three years, was formed after the 2011 uprising and eventually ruled constitutional by Mexico’s supreme court.
Cherán is not the only city that has become independent in Mexico, only the most successful.
Fifteen-foot stone turrets are staffed by men whose green uniforms belong to no official force. Beyond them, a statue of an avocado bears the inscription “avocado capital of the world.” And beyond the statue is Tancítaro, an island of safety and stability amid the most violent period in Mexico’s history.
Local orchard owners, who export over $1 million in avocados per day, mostly to the United States, underwrite what has effectively become an independent city-state. Self-policing and self-governing, it is a sanctuary from drug cartels as well as from the Mexican state.
But beneath the calm is a town under tightfisted control, enforced by militias accountable only to their paymasters. Drug addiction and suicide are soaring, locals say, as the social contract strains.
The difference between Cherán and Tancítaro is that Tancítaro failed to set up a local, democratic, community government.