When outlaw loggers with automatic weapons invaded the mountains and cut down the ancient woods — and once again the government failed to stop them — this town said enough.

Now every stranger entering Cheran is stopped at barricades made of logs, guarded by locals who cover their faces in masks. In the surrounding forest, a homegrown militia toting rifles creeps through the underbrush, signaling the way forward with birdcalls, on daily patrols to protect the timber.

The fight is about trees. But it is part of a greater struggle in Mexico, to beat back rapacious criminal organizations that keep extending their reach, from drug smuggling to migrant kidnapping, from gasoline rustling to software piracy — and now timber theft. In Cheran, this struggle is being waged by civilians impatient with the government’s inaction or, they charge, its complicity. 

Mexican officials say they assume that organized crime is participating in the timber thefts here in the western mountains of Michoacan state, but they have made only two minor arrests.

“The bad men come and we are unprotected,” a town leader said. “Without trees there is no water, the soil erodes and no one can live from the land. So we decided to protect ourselves.”

Locals say the bandit woodcutters were guarded by gunmen carrying military-style weapons who acted like they owned the place. In two years, the rogue loggers cut down thousands of acres of the ancestral old-growth forest, said a former mayor. They shot the village activists who opposed them. They kidnapped other men from this town of Purepechas, indigenous people who still speak a pre-Columbian language.

Mexico has faced illegal logging for years, but now security experts say that Mexican cartels appear to be entering into the illicit trade, either by orchestrating the logging or serving as armed muscle and then taking their cut.

In April, as the gangs began to fell the massive tropical pines that surround the town’s water sources and springs, citizens confronted the outsiders, seizing 10 logging trucks piled high with timber. A gunman shot one of the townspeople in the head. The citizens burned the gangs’ trucks and detained five drivers, who were later released by state police.

“They stopped because we stopped them,” said Victor Manuel Medina, a craftsman who was manning one of the checkpoints coming into town, where at night bonfires light up dozens of street corners.

Taking up arms

In June, the people of Cheran sent the state and municipal police packing, shuttered city hall, and replaced the mayor with a communal council that authorized a local militia, which now carries out armed patrols.

Now Cheran looks like the headquarters of a resistance movement, complete with banners painted with clenched fists, slogans demanding peace and justice, and pickup trucks filled with campesinos wearing camouflage jackets and carrying clubs.

State police have set up their own camp a few miles from town, but are not allowed to enter Cheran.

But the confrontation is far from over. 

“A week ago someone came and threw pamphlets around saying they would burn the houses, the churches and the children, the old people. They signed it ‘father of the devil, Los Zetas,’ and no one saw who brought them,” said a young man in a mask who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

It is common in Mexico for one mafia to blame another by posting false messages.

“We hear they are the Zetas. We hear they are La Familia. No one knows. They want to intimidate us,” said Trinidad Estrada, a high school coach here, speaking of two rival cartels.

In an emotional meeting with some of his harshest critics, President Felipe Calderon last month was confronted by a representative from Cheran who asked the government to stop the logging and arrest those responsible. Calderon acknowledged the need “to strengthen, even more, the institutions.’’

“The community of Cheran is organizing to protect their resources and prevent the illegal robbery of their wood,” said Enrique Duran of the National Forestry Commission's reforestation program. “We are making efforts to establish security in the zone and eradicate the organized crime or other robbers of the lumber.”

Gunmen still lurk in the mountains. The burned body of a Cheran resident was dumped on his farm a week ago.

The Cheran militia took two reporters to a once crystal-clear town spring that is surrounded by hundreds of splintered trunks of century-old trees. They were illegally felled in April by the armed loggers, who hacked a road through a once-peaceful forest. 

Armando Hernandez, 52, a father of three, was shot dead nearby on April 22, while at work at a reforestation plantation where his co-worker disappeared in February.

 “It was an ambush,” said his widow, Alisa Campos Aguilar. “They were waiting for him, well-armed. The government has done nothing.”