Hoping to preserve ancestral homelands and culture, these indigenous groups in Mexico have established semi-autonomous governments

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.”

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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