Illegal logging operations had been razing the oak forests surrounding the town for years, with the backing of one of the sprawling cartels that now effectively controls large swaths of Michoacán, the Mexican state in which the town of 20,000 resides.
And since neither the local police nor the Mexican government seemed interested in following up on the community’s complaints, Cherán’s residents — most of them indigenous Purépecha people — suspected these entities were cut in on the deal. After loggers began kidnapping, raping, and murdering locals, and the clear-cutting began to threaten a nearby spring, the town’s women made up their minds to fight back.
Early in the morning of April 15, a few dozen of them, armed with rocks and fireworks, surrounded a bus full of loggers. They took two loggers hostage and kicked the rest out of town. Then they ejected the mayor, the cops, and any representatives of Mexico’s main political parties they could get their hands on.
Seven years later, the cartels haven’t come back to Cherán, and neither has the government. A citizen militia tightly controls the border around the town, searching visitors for party propaganda along with more common types of contraband. On voting day for the recent presidential election that put leftist reform candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in power, Cherán residents who wanted to cast a ballot had to travel to neighboring towns to find a polling place.
Cherán now has a council of citizens instead of a mayor and a citizen watch patrol instead of police, and it effectively exists outside the rule of the Mexican government, thanks to a supreme court decision in their favor. Sending the feds packing seems to be working out for Cherán. Crime is down, happiness is up, and the forest is starting to grow back.
In 10,000 years of human civilization, we have yet to come up with a single form of government that’s functional, stable, and capable of scaling up to fit our forever-expanding societies. From god-kings to colonial empires, every idea we’ve had for organizing large populations under one power structure has collapsed when it was stretched too far. It seems like the only ways to unite people behind a government are to threaten them (like North Korea) or bribe them (like Denmark, which is so swamped with oil money that its secondhand-vinyl sellers can afford to winter in South America).