As violent crime overtakes Mexico, one small town seems to have things figured out. They discovered that the root of all their problems was the politicians and they kicked them out. Not only that, but they’ve also banned elections and gathered up all political propaganda. Politics have been eradicated and so has the crime.
They proved something very important. Humans don’t need “rulers” to survive. We can govern ourselves and do just fine – and often much better – than when we allow corrupt people to have power over us.
The town of Cheran has let the entire country know that political proselytizing is not welcome within their borders. Cheran is located in the state of Michoacán, an incredibly violent area in central-western Mexico.
Checkpoints at the border of Cheran are manned not by police or military, but by local people who are protecting their little town. They haven’t had a murder or violent crime in Cheran since 2011 when they kicked out politics for good. That was the year that residents, most of them indigenous and poor, waged an insurrection and declared self-rule in hopes of ridding themselves of the ills that plague so much of Mexico: raging violence, corrupt politicians, a toothless justice system and gangs that have expanded from drug smuggling to extortion, kidnapping and illegal logging.
Six years in, against all odds, Cheran’s experiment appears to be working.
“We couldn’t trust the authorities or police anymore,” said Josefina Estrada, a petite grandmother who is among the women who spearheaded the revolt. “We didn’t feel that they protected us or helped us. We saw them as accomplices with the criminals.”
On April 15, 2011, the insurrection began.
Multitudes of people from Cheran had “disappeared” when they resisted the illegal logging that was taking place in their forest. The logging was occurring under the mandate of crime syndicates, and one day, the violence and murders pushed the people of Cheran too far. The residents are mainly Purepecha Indians, one of the only groups that didn’t fall to the Aztec empire.
Maria Juarez Gonzalez, whose beloved husband “disappeared” when he stood up to the loggers, contacted some other women and they decided enough was enough.
On April 15, 2011, before dawn, the people of Cheran sounded the bells at the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Calvary and set off homemade fireworks to summon help. Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks.
Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls.
As morepeople responded, an initial crowd of about 30 swelled to more than 200.
Residents dug ditches and placed timber barricades to block entry to the town. As the sun went down, the people of Cheran set tires ablaze and lit campfires to ensure no one would pass.
Eventually, they took five loggers hostage and torched seven of their trucks.
The gangs retreated and hostages were returned.
But the revolt lived on. Known simply as the “uprising,” it entered the lore of violence-plagued Michoacan state, and that was the beginning of the end of politics in Cheran.
The fight wasn’t over yet.
The people of Cheran realized the most important fact of all: they didn’t need to be ruled by people who are only out for themselves.
Politicians are human beings, just like the rest of us. Why should they be given more power and authority than the rest of us? Why should they be able to enrich themselves by taking that power and using it against us?
They shouldn’t. Not in Mexico and not anywhere else. No one is “better” than you. No one should be able to “govern” you. You are able to govern yourself. We all are.
The townspeople grasped an essential fact: The talamontes were part of a larger criminal network that controlled drug trafficking and worked hand-in-hand with politicians and police.
“To defend ourselves, we had to change the whole system — out with the political parties, out with City Hall, out with the police and everything,” said Pedro Chavez, a teacher and community leader. “We had to organize our own way of living to survive.”
They decided to target the nexus between crime and politics that has haunted Mexico and do away with the police, the mayor, the political parties.
How is Cherán now?
The town of Cheran is a peaceful utopia inside a violent state. There are some glaring differences between them and the surrounding areas.
There is no sign of the political slogans and emblems that are ubiquitous in much of the country.
Electioneering is forbidden inside the town limits, as are political parties. Even motorists entering Cheran are obliged to remove or cover up party bumper stickers.
Residents can cast ballots in state and national elections, but they must do so at special booths set up in nearby towns.
Instead of the traditional mayor and city council, each of the town’s four barrios is governed by its own local assembly, whose members are chosen by consensus from 172 block committees known as fogatas — after the campfires that came to symbolize the 2011 rebellion.
Each assembly also sends three representatives — including at least one woman — to serve on a 12-member town council.
The town receives all the funds — the equivalent of about $2.6 million per year, officials say — that are its due from the state and federal governments. Salaries of 200 or so town employees max out at the equivalent of roughly $450 a month, leaving money to help fund the municipal water system and other services, including a trash recycling program that is a rarity in Mexico.
The armed guards at the town entrances are part of a locally selected police force of 120 or so, known as la ronda comunitaria. No one enters or leaves without inspection.