In Search of Autonomy in Cheran, Mexico

Welcome to Cheran

Previously, I’ve detailed on this blog the comfort and normality that traveling through Mexico during the last couple of months has brought. Most of that time has been spent enjoying the hot and humid Oaxacan coast but my partner and I recently found ourselves with two weeks free and decided to visit the cooler climes of Michoacán. While traveling around the state we were able to visit the self-governing town of Cheran to see what anarchy in action looked like.

The Town That Kicked Out The Government

In 2011 the citizens of Cheran, Mexico became fed up with government corruption and criminality. Politicians, police, illegal logging, and organized crime went hand-in-hand in this town of approximately 16,000 before they dismantled the whole system to begin an era of self-rule. The population is predominantly comprised of the indigenous Purépecha people whose political, economic, social, and cultural institutions have remained intact through the centuries and lay the groundwork for their current system of governance.

Leading up to the 2011 rebellion, organized criminal dealings and political corruption were mainstays of life in Cheran. The locals, no longer content with rampant violence and a government complicit in these actions, took matters into their own hands. The story goes that on the morning of April 15, 2011, a group of women confronted a group of illegal loggers as they were leaving the forest with vans filled with wood. A tense stand-off between the loggers, police, and townspeople developed but dissolved without bloodshed. This peaceful, unified act against the status quo marked the first step on the town’s road towards independence.

From that day forward a new system of governance began emerging as the criminals and politicians were driven out of power. Today, a small 12-person council are elected every three years and are held to account by neighborhood assemblies. A series of commissions looks after a wide array of community matters. Security is handled by a citizen-led force called a ronda comunitaria. A much more detailed account of the town’s government can be found here.

Anarchy In Action

Originally I had hoped to make contacts with people in Cheran to better understand what life there was like. When I was unable to do so we just spent the day there walking around taking in the ambience.

Once my partner and I alighted from the bus we found ourselves in a town like many in Latin America. Diesel fumes filled the air, the market was bustling, children ran through the streets freely while men and woman took their afternoon rests. To my surprise we found that many people were wearing masks and the main square was closed off but like in much of Mexico there was no actual enforcement of so-called health protocols.

We soon found a taxi to take us to the one hotel in town, Hotel Isabelli where we found ourselves situated in the most comfortable room we’d had in our week of traveling. In need of food we went back out in the small town and found ourselves a loncheria open serving up tortas. As we ambled through the streets we were met with curious stares and made small talk with a couple of people interested in, and yet happy, about our visit. I fought back the urge to ask the many questions running through my head but, not being aware of cultural norms, simply enjoyed our little chats.

This cycle repeated itself again in the evening after we had a rest at the hotel and again the next morning when we went in search of breakfast and found delicious chilaquiles, cinnamon rolls, and coffee at Ay Wey. On the surface there is absolutely nothing out of place in Cheran and it is this unremarkably remarkable observation that made our time in Cheran so pleasant.

Proof of Concept

Though I wish I had been able to make deeper connections here, it was a joy to see anarchy in action. Hollywood has done it’s best to program the public to believe that to exist in a state of anarchy (or voluntaryism or anything at all outside of the state’s control) is to exist in a state of Hobbesian disorder. In fact the town of Cheran exists in defiance of not just this stereotype but against many of the arguments which claim living in a stateless society is impossible. Several of the most common objections to anarchism were overcome just on our walks around town:

Anarchy is Utopia – Cheran isn’t paradise but it stands as living proof that anarchy, self-rule, can and does work. It is not the job of the anarchist (or voluntaryist, etc) to envision what society looks like for each person on this planet but for each person and community to discover what is best for themselves like they have done here.

Anarchy = Chaos – As detailed above, we found that this was a town like so many others in Mexico despite their different system of governance. There was no confusion as to which side of the road to drive on, or what time it was, or whether Christmas would still fall on December 25th. If you didn’t already know the history of Cheran you wouldn’t have a second thought about how things would function.

Corporations will take over – A valid concern and yet, we didn’t see the typical Mexican chains like Oxxo or Chedraui let alone Walmart or Target. Come to think of it, there was a Comex store selling paint and I did find an ATM but Amazon wasn’t buying plots for warehouses and Microsoft hadn’t distributed tablets to all the school children from what we could tell. It appeared that an economic balance had been struck that delivered the goods and services required of the town without the people having to resist a corporate takeover.

But they kicked out the police! – Yes, and in their corrupted place established the ronda comunitaria, a security force made up of locals. It isn’t perfect, forces were suspected of killing a young man earlier in 2020 which outraged the community who reportedly burnt several vehicles in lieu of lynching those responsible. One bad instance doesn’t make this community an experiment in self-governance gone awry however. Since Cheran became autonomous crime and violence have plummeted, making it one of the safest communities in all of Mexico.

Is there a social safety net in place? – While I don’t know the full extent to which the town manages this situation there are plenty of signs that they look after their own very well. Many “operational councils” make up part of the government which look after everything from public health and rubbish collection to education and women’s rights. The community apparently invests in itself economically too, as several collectively-owned ventures such as a sawmill, a greenhouse, and a concrete factory now operate in town. Additionally, they are invested in rainwater collection and reforestation, practices which look after the land as well as the people.

What about the roads? – All good! Just reassuring anyone out there who still thinks the federal government should swoop back in and take control.

In Cheran we didn’t find utopia or a panacea to all the ills of the state but it was a glimpse of what is possible, a sign of hope that this type of society is achievable. What’s required to manifest this reality elsewhere isn’t a flag, or a symbol, or a leader but rather a philosophical approach that unites those with a common desire for autonomy. When this small town in the hills of Michoacán stood together against corruption and violence they took back life and liberty for themselves, what’s stopping us from doing the same thing?

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