Mexico: questions surround deaths in Michoacán logging dispute

Eight indigenous Purépecha were shot dead the morning of April 18 near the autonomous community of Cherán in the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Two of the victims were from Cherán, which has been engaged in a year-long struggle to protect local forests from illegal loggers; six of the people killed were from the town of Casimiro Leco, better known as El Cerecito, where many of the loggers live.

According to Cherán residents, the violence began when a group of men from El Cerecito ambushed some 20 laborers from Cherán who were doing reforestation work as temporary employees for the federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat. The Michoacán authorities treated the incident as a shootout, blaming Cherán residents for the deaths of the six people from El Cerecito. Police agents detained a number of Cherán residents later on April 18, and community people responded by detaining a dozen police agents from the Special Operations Group (GOE) and holding them until the next day.

Cherán’s governing council denied that Cherán residents were responsible for the killings of the six from El Cerecito. The workers from Cherán were attacked by “paramilitary groups associated with organized crime and the loggers,” Cherán activist Salvador Campanur told reporters. The same people “are planting corpses in our territory,” Campanur explained. “We don’t know the motive for the six deaths… [T]here are internal disputes between organized crime and the paramilitaries, and what the authorities are doing is to make these deaths appear to be part of a confrontation that didn’t take place.” (Campanur also works with the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity [MPJD], which was founded by the poet Javier Sicilia last year to oppose the Mexican government’s militarized “war on drugs.”)

But relatives of the victims from El Cerecito blamed Cherán residents. At the burial of five of the dead, in the community of Tanaco, on April 19, family members—”who live in extreme poverty,” according to reporters from the Mexican daily La Jornada—denounced Cherán residents as “murderers.”

A little more than a year ago, on April 15, 2011, the people of Cherán rose up against the criminal gangs and illegal loggers who had destroyed a large part of the local forests. Cherán residents then declared their community autonomous, throwing out the municipal government and replacing it with an assembly and a council selected according to Purépecha “uses and customs.” Community patrols provide security and guard the entrances to the town, and the inhabitants plan to boycott state and federal elections.

Even in Cherán there is some sympathy for impoverished Purépecha from El Cerecito who engage in illegal logging. “It isn’t just a police matter,” an unnamed teacher at the Superior Technological Institute of de Cherán told La Jornada, noting that the logging provides employment for hundreds of poor families, who in effect become serfs of the people who trade in the timber. “There need to be options for these people,” he said. “Or if not, what are they going to do afterwards?” (LJ, April 19, LJ, April 20; EFE, April 20, via Latin American Herald Tribune)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 22.

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