The below is an excerpt from Dual Power Then and Now: From the Iroquois to Cooperation Jackson by Addison Winslow, published in Issue 9 of Roar Magazine.
Police-Free Cherán, Mexico’s Safest Municipality
Illegal logging was a side-gig for Michoacán’s drug cartels, but for the people of Cherán it meant the destruction of their livelihood. On the morning of April 15, 2011, after years of enduring the deforestation and violent, humiliating, repression, the people rose up.
On the first day of the stand-off, the mayor and police were banished. Volunteers blocked the three roads entering the city, and people set up street fires on each block to serve as outposts. These fires, called fogatas, served to facilitate communication and diffusion of information as well as provide vigilance through the night. Fogatas are now the basic unit of Cherán’s system of government.
Cherán is a city of 20,000, the largest settlement of the Indigenous Purépecha people. They have longstanding traditions of communal governance, but before the uprising, Cherán was run like any typical Mexican city, with electoral contests between political parties.
During the uprising, Cherán resolved to ban political parties and replace them with communal government. About six months after the start of the uprising, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Cherán’s right as Indigenous people to govern themselves according to their traditions. Since then, other municipalities have followed suit.
Cherán is now the safest municipality in Mexico, likely due to the rigorous accountability of their system of government. Community patrols organized during the crisis now receive modest salaries and patrol only their own neighborhoods. A rotating group guards the forests and maintains checkpoints on the entrances to the city.
Cherán’s political system, basically arranged by the time of the Court ruling, is an eminent example of neighborhood democracy. Anywhere from six to 60 people are grouped into a fogata, like a block club. They each have a regular meeting space and an elected coordinator. Issues are discussed at this level, and then are passed up via the coordinator to one of the four neighborhood assemblies. Information and news from the assemblies are likewise passed downward.
A 12-member council forms the highest administrative body of the city, but everything remains subject to the intense and often theatrical scrutiny by the neighborhood assembly. It is not uncommon for the inexperienced citizens chosen for the public councils and commissions to be scolded to tears before the dozens of gathered fogata coordinators, who might be live texting the events to people in other neighborhoods. It all makes for a robust and participatory public life, epitomizing the principle, “the people command; the government obeys.”
The Council of Common Goods administers Cherán’s numerous communal enterprises, but the assembly has every right to intervene and must be consulted on matters like production quotas, hiring and firing. Much to the vexation of the manager of the sawmill, the assembly refuses to permit the felling of healthy trees. Instead, Cherán pursues a massive reforestation project, including perhaps the largest tree nursery in Mexico. Meanwhile, the trees are used for resin, which is exported to Europe and the United States.
The city also owns and operates a quarry and block factory for construction, in addition to one of the largest rain catchment systems in Mexico. This was installed by the communal government in a crater on top of one of the surrounding hills, swiftly and utterly outcompeting the previous system of private water which relied heavily on imports.
Although Cherán planned early on to reduce economic dependence, state and federal government supports remain critical to the operation of the communal enterprises; and like much of Michoacán, remittances from workers in the United States are an important source of income, linking Cherán to external economic conditions.
If neighborhood democracy in Cherán is to withstand the unified hostility of Mexico’s political parties, and if the extraordinary model of democracy it represents is to be strengthened and expanded, they will need to develop economic independence to match the stability and self-determination they have achieved in their political system.