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Twice each year, Ostula puts on a unique form of 16th-century street theater. Xayacates, ghostlike hooded figures, represent chaos and uncertainty. These rituals are being preserved by the current movement. (Scott Brennan)

A family from the hamlet of El Duin in Ostula bathes in a local river. Many of the rural hamlets have limited running water or electricity. The minimal availability of technology enables the continuance of traditional ways of life. (Scott Brennan)

For the past six years, photographer Scott Brennan has been spending time with indigenous groups in Mexico that hope to preserve their ancestral homelands and culture by forming their own semiautonomous governments. Brennan says that so far, the two communities he has spent time with “are enjoying success, a situation not common in Mexico’s drug war.” Brennan told In Sight more about the project and its background:

"The project ‘Indigenous Autonomy and Resistance in Mexico’ is the result of six years of work in two allied communities in the state of Michoacan. These culturally indigenous towns have begun movements toward autonomy from the political party system that dominates Mexican politics. When rampant violence engulfed the country with the escalation of ex-president Felipe Calderón’s War on Drugs in 2006, many indigenous groups suffered increased vulnerability. Some, citing Article 2 of the Mexican constitution, which allows for indigenous groups to govern themselves under local ancestral means of governance, decided to oust the political party system, establish their own security forces and institute policy that deals directly with local needs.

"These movements, while in many ways inspired by the Zapatista movement of Chiapas, are distinct, as they are a direct response to the security situation since the escalation of violence and insecurity in 2006.

"The project began in 2012 in the town of Cheran K’eri. In 2011 the Purhepecha town of approximately 14,000 people rose up to defend their forests from illegal loggers who were backed by organized crime. From 2006 until 2011, the town suffered from the occupation of the La Familia Michoacana organized-crime group. Community members suffered extortion, murder, violence and the massive illegal logging of their ancestral homeland. During this time they pleaded with local, state and federal governments for help, and their calls went largely unanswered. In 2011, community leaders dissolved the local police force, commandeered their arms, ousted the political parties and municipal president, and established their own grass-roots government of ‘usos y costumbres,’ citing Article 2 of the constitution.

"Indigenous groups may be the most affected by Mexico’s violence. Between 2000 and 2017 there were 276 indigenous land rights activists murdered, 138 imprisoned on questionable charges, 126 forcibly disappeared and 125 forced to flee their communities, effectively halting their activism. According to Michel Forst’s United Nations report on Mexico in 2017, leaders of social movements have little recourse to the law: ‘The situation of human rights defenders in Mexico is conditioned by the criminalization of their activities through the deliberate misuse of criminal law and the manipulation of the state’s punitive power by both State and non-State actors, to hinder and even prevent the legitimate activities of defenders to promote and protect human rights.’

"After working for five years in Cheran K’eri, I continued the project in the allied coastal town of Santa Maria de Ostula. Ostula, like Cheran K’eri, has been targeted by powerful interests who wish to dispossess residents of their territory. Between 2006 and 2014, La Familia Michoacana and another organized-crime outfit, Los Caballeros Templarios, began operations in Ostula. Ranchers from neighboring municipalities, supported by these groups, began encroaching upon Ostula homelands. Speculators from global mining conglomerates scouted mineral-rich locations.

"In 2009, Ostula started organizing to put a stop to the intrusions. Its first step was to organize a rural, autonomous police force with members drawn exclusively from the community. This force began with farmers armed with vintage hunting rifles and machetes, and eventually modern weapons confiscated from organized-crime groups. The next step was to recover land, approximately 2,500 acres that had been illegally occupied. The response was immediate. Between 2009 and 2015, in a community of only around 1,000 inhabitants, 40 community land rights activists were murdered and/or disappeared. Official complaints were lodged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Ostula continued to suffer violence and assassinations.

"Despite setbacks, Ostula persisted. In 2015, it succeeded in its most important goal. Organized crime left, and the armed conflict ended within the territory’s boundaries. This is a feat achieved in very few areas of Mexico.

"The resulting peace within the community has allowed the people of Ostula to focus on resurrecting unique cultural customs that contribute to their identity, many of these traditions having existed for centuries. For example, the Xayacates performance is a street theater depicting the battle of the Christians vs. the Moors that was brought into Ostula by the Spaniards. This custom has been ‘indigenized,’ resulting in a syncretist tradition that includes local Nahua understanding and awareness.

The community reorganized and strengthened its assembly form of government. This system, used in many rural indigenous communities in Mexico is based on a bimonthly ‘asamblea’ or assembly of community members to vote on positions, issues, security and spending. In moving this form of government to the forefront, they rendered the entrenched Mexican political system and parties increasingly irrelevant. They also resurrected their local agrarian economy, where land is held and worked collectively by the community.

“They’ve made progress in redesigning their local school curriculum to incorporate local history and even set forth plans to establish a bilingual elementary program in both Spanish and Nahuatl, a language quickly disappearing. The community regularly holds contemporary events and festivals, including chess tournaments for the youth and public mural-painting seminars. Ostula has brought in professional therapists from Guadalajara and Mexico City to deal with the severe emotional damage many community members have suffered from seeing their community nearly destroyed. Ostula is currently setting up its own internal public transportation system. Most importantly, Ostula has used its success as a means of supporting similar communities in their struggles for justice and peace, by working with the national Concejo Indígena de Gobierno, a committee of indigenous groups.”


Jota Natividad is a resident of the hamlet La Ticla. Before peace was achieved, he was forced to work by armed men, had to keep his head down, and go to and from his plot of land on the beach. "That's no way to live. We're a proud people," he said. (Scott Brennan)

From July to August, Cheran K'eri gathers volunteers to hike into the forest and plant trees in deforested zones. Community member Miguel (left) says: "What we're doing here will be well worth it someday soon. Our children and grandchildren will once again have shade to play in and trees to stare up at and dream into." (Scott Brennan)

Local security forces monitor all incoming traffic at the northernmost barricade of Ostula at the hamlet of Xayakalan, on the coastal highway. This photo shows the local uniform of the security forces: jeans and a polo shirt. The government of Ostula functions on a shoestring budget. Its enemies are often outfitted with modern gear. (Scott Brennan)

Residents troll with nets for small fish, locally called "Gardumo," which provide food for the subsistence community. The fish, which appear only five times per year, can be found where the Ostula River empties into the Pacific Ocean in La Ticla. Mining and mega-resort development would threaten this key food source. (Scott Brennan)

In the town of Cheran K'eri, entire families, couples and individuals trek to reforest zones devastated by illegal logging. These volunteers are of all ages and genders, and spend their weekends planting trees under the protection of heavily armed guards on horse- and muleback. These volunteers face the threat of retaliation by organized crime backing the illegal logging of their ancestral territory. (Scott Brennan)

In the hamlet of Palma Sola, within Ostula, residents welcome the Virgin of Ostula with a syncretist religious procession. (Scott Brennan)

Ostula and its security force deal with internal policing issues. Seen here, a local man is locked up in a makeshift prison for a minor offense. This man was caught with a small amount of narcotics on him, most likely methamphetamine. In the zones around Ostula, the production of methamphetamine fuels violence, corruption and deep social problems (Scott Brennan)

In Cheran K'eri, a traditional Purepecha wedding is celebrated by a young couple. Before the movement these types of weddings were less common, and young couples increasingly chose more-modern styles. Since the movement has reignited Purepecha pride, traditional weddings have seen a resurgence. (Scott Brennan)

Martha spent a full day traveling to harvest a handful of watermelons. She crossed the Ostula River with her donkey and hiked through mountains to reach her fields. Ostula's eastern border is high in the mountains, yet much of the population lives in hamlets that are on a thin coastal plain. Farming and fishing practices in Ostula, an agrarian community, remain mostly traditional. (Scott Brennan)

Ancient Nahua grieving rituals are key to the community's healing. Pictured here is Emilia, the mother of Hidelberto Garcia Reyes. At only 10 years old, Hidelberto was killed by a stray bullet when the Mexican military opened fire on residents of Ostula at a protest in 2015. Here, she grieves on the grave at the second anniversary of his death. (Scott Brennan)

A young man at the local school in La Ticla. Behind him is graffiti supporting the national teachers union. Teachers in Mexico have started massive resistance movements against privatization in education, and Ostula and many communities in the resistance have voiced support for them. (Scott Brennan)

In the courtyard of their local school in La Ticla, middle school students conclude their daily flag ceremony. (Scott Brennan)

Onlookers observe the preparation of the ancient local indigenous street festival theater of Xayacates in Ostula. The tradition was brought from Spain in the 16th century. The representation of the European battle between the Moors and Christians mixed with indigenous elements to form a syncretist tradition that remains intact. (Scott Brennan)

Local musicians in the hamlet of Ixtapilla prepare a performance at the second anniversary of the death of 10-year-old Hidelberto Garcia Reyes, who was killed during a protest. (Scott Brennan)

Growing up in the Mexican countryside, children are regularly around guns. Shown here is Cemei, a former community leader from Ostula. Cemei was a legend in Ostula until he began to work directly for the political parties in neighboring Aquila, viewed as a betrayal by the community. (Scott Brennan)

A young guard with a homemade rifle at Xayakalan, Ostula's northern most border, on the coastal road. (Scott Brennan)

Tomas is a fisherman from the hamlet of La Manzanillera in Ostula. Here he prepares for a night shift at sea. The fishing villages along the coastline of Ostula are largely self-sufficient. The isolated beaches from which these fisherman launch were used by narcotics traffickers and have been surveyed for future tourist development. (Scott Brennan)

"El Gavilan" (the Hawk), a security leader of Ostula, is seen here at the territory's northernmost point on the coastal road. Here the security forces have set up a barricade checking who enters and exits the community. El Gavilan leans against a new concrete construction, part of an effort to physically establish a presence on the border. (Scott Brennan)

A young man from La Placita, a neighboring mestizo community, flirts with local girls from Ostula at a soccer game. Sporting events facilitate important mestizo-Nahua social interactions, reducing Ostula's relative social and political isolation. (Scott Brennan)

The interior of the truck of one of Ostula's security leaders. (Scott Brennan)

A farmer in Ixtapilla, a hamlet of Ostula, prepares his land for next year's crop using slash-and-burn techniques. (Scott Brennan)

Joaquin, a respected town elder, in his small home. Joaquin grew up speaking Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the region. The language was officially discouraged in favor of Spanish when Joaquin was a child. (Scott Brennan)

Paula Lopez, 18, of Mexico City, concentrates on lighting her award-winning design. The annual "globos de cantoya" (hot air balloon) festival, held by the Cheran K'eri government, attracts participants of all ages to send their entries into the night sky. Lopez's three-story balloon took the competition's grand prize. (Scott Brennan)

High school students from La Ticla study English overlooking the Pacific Ocean. International tourism companies are attracted to Ostula's largely undeveloped coastline. Elements of federal and state governments covet tax revenue and new infrastructure. Ostula's resistance movement aims to keep such interests at bay. (Scott Brennan)

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