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Why Indigenous Communities in Mexico Need Community Self-Defence

Protest in Ostula, Mexico

Protest in Ostula, Mexico. Taken from the Flickr account of bradpose2, licensed under Creative Commons.

Recent events in Mexico have highlighted the problem of serious human rights violations against indigenous groups. The most recent of these has occurred in Santa María de Ostula, Michoacán state, where the local indigenous community claims to have been the victim of an attack by the Mexican military.

The military apparently aimed to apprehend the leaders of a community police force and other self-defence groups operating in the region.

Community police forces are not an uncommon phenomenon in Latin America. Self-organised security systems with their own managerial structures, these groups operate based on the needs of the local community.

The majority of these alternative security models have arisen to address local issues that have not been resolved by institutional police forces. In Mexico, community police usually deal with problems relating to organised crime groups, which are active in various regions across the country.

According to an online petition requesting the release of Semeí Verdía Cepeda, the commander of the community police force who was arrested following recent events in Santa María de Ostula, Michoacán state:

The indigenous community of Santa María de Ostula has, along with many others in the country, repeatedly come under the attack of criminal groups, principally those connected with drug trafficking. As a result of these circumstances and faced with the impotence of public and national security organisations in the country, the local residents came together to form a community police force.

Today, the community suffers not only at the hands of criminal groups but also at those of the Federal Police and the Army of Mexico.

This is not the first time that military forces in Mexico have been accused of excessive force or even criminal activity, particularly since they were first tasked with ensuring public safety in 2006.

The following post from the Mexican caricaturist Helio Flores which circulated on Twitter makes reference to this fact:

“Fratricide” by @Helioflores_mex. In #Ostula, Apatzingan, Tlatlaya and many other places + unsanctioned. Via @SamuelMdzM

The lack of confidence in security institutions was at least a partial factor in the decision of the people of Cherán, Michoacán to begin to govern themselves independently and resort to local defence initiatives. This same factor has likewise inspired other indigenous communities to follow Cherán's example.

One such community is the Zoque people of San Miguel Chimalapa, Oaxaca state, who took to their online blog to reject the municipal authorities and political parties present in the region and announce the creation of a Community Committee with the aim of defending shared territory and natural resources:

Our Committee has been created as a result of the alarm and concern we have experienced given the way in which our own local and municipal authorities have sold out to the government of Oaxaca. They have been more occupied with sharing resources, programs and projects amongst themselves, their friends and family than with the invasion, plundering and destruction of our ancestral lands and natural resources, which have thus far gone unchecked.

Such struggles for independence encourage us to question the validity of the dominant political and economic system.

There are many more examples associated with the Indigenous Peoples’ Front, including the Otomí of San Francisco Xochicuautla in Mexico state, who oppose a private road project which would damage the forest and lands belonging to them; the Huichol of Wirikuta battling to protect sacred land from huge mining projects and the Yaqui tribe of Sonora, who are focusing their efforts on opposing the construction of the Independencia aqueduct given the threat it poses to the culture and livelihood of the community.

These accounts of strength and resistance illustrate the necessity of pursuing alternative lines of action that promote coexistence and peace, respect the freedom of these communities to control their own future, and enforce human rights. For this to happen, however, it is essential first to become aware of their battles and their very legitimate requests.

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