The Rev. Antonio Mora ministers to a town under siege, where masked men guard checkpoints, the charred remains of logging trucks block roads and a banner in the town square demands a military presence. Set in the misty hills of Michoacán State in Mexico and surrounded by pine forests, Cherán is a place where loggers armed with chainsaws and assault weapons once clear-cut trees with impunity. The local mayor and police department were alleged to be in league with the criminals, and community leaders who resisted were assassinated.
The local population finally lost patience when the loggers encroached on the town’s water source. Armed with two-by-fours, hatchets and bottle rockets, they chased off the loggers in mid-April and, later, the police department and the mayor. The uprising of April 15 failed to surprise Father Mora, although he and others in the community say the actions were spontaneous and unplanned.
“They’d tell me, ‘Father, we’re scared. We’re arming ourselves. We’re tired of this,’” he said. “It was a response to the anger, rancor, helplessness and sense of abandonment by the authorities.”
The uprising in Cherán is one of the few grass-roots revolts against the growing reach of organized crime, whose illegal enterprises and bloody turf wars have claimed 40,000 lives since a government crackdown began in December 2006. It also highlights the frustration with the failure of various levels of government to protect communities against organized crime, which increasingly has moved in on small-time nuisances—such as logging without permits—and turned them into thriving illegal enterprises. “The only thing the state government has done is wash their hands of this and pass along the problem to the federal government,” said Father Mora.
Cherán unfolds across a hilly region 250 miles west of Mexico City, and many in the mostly indigenous Purepecha population of 14,000 depend on the forests for their livelihood. A local combat committee now has teams manning checkpoints and patrolling the forests and has called for the military to intervene, but the main federal government response has been to send sacks of food and household basics.
“We don’t want them to militarize the town, rather patrol the areas with illegal logging,” said one leader, who, like many in Cherán, declined to provide his full name for fear of reprisals. The situation in Cherán had deteriorated over the past three years to the point that locals recall animals left without natural habitat roaming the streets in search of food and truckloads of logs rolling through town with armed escorts in tow.
The community’s uprising highlights the tricky situations parish priests and diocesan officials must face in carrying out their routine duties and social ministries in conflict zones in Mexico. Before the uprising, Father Mora worked on reconciliation projects that began after a political feud tore the town apart during the 2007 local elections. As the logging problem worsened, he celebrated a funeral Mass for those killed by the criminal groups protecting the loggers.
After the uprising, “People asked me to get weapons for them,” the priest recalled. Instead he provided spiritual support for residents during an enormously tense time as thugs—most likely from the quasi-religious crime group La Familia Michoacána or a splinter organization, the Knights Templar—would threaten to return with guns blazing. The military and federal police never showed up.