Posted 06 May 2011, by Staff, skyNEWS, skynews.com.au
Tension is palpable on the streets of Cheran, a town in the mountains of Michoacan state, western Mexico, where desperate residents have declared a state of siege.
After months of growing violence related to illegal logging, residents from the Purepecha community of some 17,000 people have had enough.
Three weeks ago, they blocked access to the town with stones and bonfires to try to keep out armed groups they say are protecting illegal loggers and spreading terror.
The last straw was when two of their neighbours were shot dead by loggers, on April 27, and government forces failed to step in.
‘We have no security. We can’t move outside the city,’ said one resident who declined to give his name or show his face for fear or retaliation.
‘This group of alleged loggers – and I don’t think they are just loggers – wanted to take control of our town,’ said the man who belongs to an informal, communal police force that is leading efforts to keep the illegal loggers out.
Illegal logging has been an issue for years in this region, which is famed for forests which annually welcome millions of migrating Monarch butterflies.
But since December the loggers have come in greater numbers, leaving nearby mountains barren and scorched.
An estimated 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) of forest have been destroyed in around six months.
Michoacan is among the regions worst hit by violence blamed on drug gangs which has left more than 37,000 dead, according to media reports, since the launch of a government offensive on organised crime in December 2006.
Residents say violence and intimidation in Cheran has risen along with the power of local drug gangs.
‘Those criminals kidnap us and threaten us saying we have to give them money. It’s not fair because the residents of Cheran have no jobs,’ said one local, declining to be named.
Insecurity is not the only concern for this rural community – the forest also provides one of their main sources of income. Locals have sold wood and resin for a living for generations.
Three weeks into the siege, residents are still trying to attract the attention of the federal government, while relying on community police patrols and 17 municipal police.
There are also five state police stationed outside the town, ‘but they don’t guarantee anything, they never have,’ according to the daughter of an indigenous rights activist killed three years ago.
Since 2008, nine residents have been killed and five others have disappeared.
Local authorities agree federal help may be the only way out of the current situation, but so far their requests for reinforcements have fallen on deaf ears.
‘The solution is for government or military authorities to have a permanent presence to protect the forest. This is what we’ve been asking for, for years now,’ said deputy municipal president Artemio Adame Campanur.
Rights group Amnesty International on Friday called for pressure on state and federal authorities to assist the embattled community.
Cheran’s residents do not know how long they can keep up the blockade, but say they are determined to keep the town from following others in Mexico that have ended up in the hands of criminals.