Indigenous Communities in Mexico Take up Arms to Defend the Monarch Forest
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Caught between organized crime, avocado cultivation, and international conservation, Indigenous towns are organizing autonomously to defend themselves.
Monarch butterflies overwinter in the forests of eastern Michoacán and the State of Mexico (Salvador Altamirano)
"Quick, ring the church bells."
On December 14, Doña Librada was in church when, around seven in the evening, she received an unexpected call.
"Quick," a voice on the other end of the phone urged her, “ring the church bells.”
The 48-year-old church caretaker left her chores and pulled the ropes and rang the two bells crowning the pale blue tower that overlooks Donaciano Ojeda, a small Indigenous town located in the middle of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) in eastern Michoacán, Mexico.
That night the reserve was in a state of confusion. A five-minute drive away from the church, in the neighboring town of Carpinteros, locals combed the forest in pursuit of seven armed men. The men—bearing assault rifles and ammunition-laden vests—had been sowing panic in the community for hours. They had stolen a truck from a neighbor and installed roadside checkpoints where they charged locals a fee to pass. When a family from the nearby community of Francisco Serrato refused to stop at their checkpoint, they shot at the car, killing an innocent young woman who has not been identified. They then fled.
News of the killing spread quickly. Only moments after the bells sounded, hundreds of neighbors were already gathered in the church, ready to scout the forest with machetes and shotguns. They knew that those responsible were from criminal organizations, though their specific affiliation remained a mystery. Often simply called malosos (bad guys), criminal organizations have recently deepened their foothold in the community, wreaking havoc on humans and nature alike.
That night, the malosos escaped under the cover of darkness. According to community members, a full 10 hours passed between their first call to authorities and when they eventually arrived. When the National Guard and state police reached the community, they sought to contain and disarm the local “mob.” Disillusioned with this slow and inadequate government response, members of the forest communities decided it was time for a new approach in their ongoing struggle against criminal organizations: forming their own Indigenous police and government.
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