Armed self-defense efforts in the Mexican state of Michoacán have opened a debate about what Mexican citizens can do to protect themselves against violent drug cartels in a country where arms ownership is heavily restricted. Citizen militias in the states Tierra Caliente region have attracted international media attention and led to the formation of an officially recognized “rural police” force. But in the highlands of the state’s indigenous Purhépecha region, a similar effort has already marked three years of armed, community self-defense… but under a system of traditional indigenous law-enforcement and accountability.

For the past several years, residents of Michoacán have been living in a climate of violence where extortion, kidnapping and murder have become routine. The first town to revolt as a community against organized crime is Cherán. In the process, residents of this largely indigenous town kicked out the politicians and police they say were in cahoots with the cartels and installed a new governance system based on Purhépecha traditions.

What sparked the uprising was the illegal logging of the community’s old growth forests by criminals. “There are many aspects which allow us to think and live as human beings in a distinct manner,” says Jeronimus Lemus, an active member of the community who regularly participates in government meetings. “Our elders say ‘sesi dekani’ which means to live well which many communities mention and is essentially the other side of capitalism. Our wellbeing is not based in the accumulation of riches, it is grounded in everyday vitality.”

A branch of the new local government, the Council of the Commons, works towards the preservation of the forest and communal lands. Fresno, a council member who for safety reasons declined to give his last name, says the work entails operating three communally-owned businesses — a sawmill, a greenhouse, and a concrete block factory and also patrolling the forests to prevent illegal logging.

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