Mexican city with local ties fights drug cartel, government

By Gus Bode

While many Cobden residents celebrated the Mexican people’s culture at its Purépecha Festival Saturday, others were focused on events nearly 2,000 miles away.

Many Cobden and Alto Pass residents have ties to Cheran, Mexico, where townspeople are locked in a violent struggle with loggers they believe are backed by a drug cartel.

Fed up with violent drug cartels, loggers illegally deforesting their land and a government that failed to help them, the people of Cheran barricaded the roads to town. Townspeople said the loggers were clearing nearby pine tree lands, which are important to their Purépecha culture, and they accused drug cartels of helping and providing loggers with weapons.


Details are hard to pin down because communication between relatives and family in Cheran has been limited. Someone sabotaged communications towers, which cut off phone and Internet service for several weeks to the town of an estimated 18,000 people about 200 miles west of Mexico City.

But people with family and friends in Cheran said residents are trapped behind their own barricades.

Jacinto Huaroco, left, of Makanda, and Juan Campos, right, of Cape Girardeau, hang the Mexican and American flags Saturday before the Purépecha Festival in Cobden. The festival celebrated the indigenous Purépecha culture from the state of Michoacán, Mexico and featured traditional food, music and dancing. Southern Illinois has a large Purépecha population due to migrant patterns dating back to the 1950s. –€“ Brooke Grace | Daily Egyptian

“They don’t have any justice ,and they cannot buy food,” Adelina Fabian, of Alto Pass, said of her family in Cheran. “The food they had is gone.”

Fabian has worked at Rendelman Orchards in Alto Pass for 11 years. With one of her six children translating, Fabian said family members believe they will have to guard the town for at least another year.

“Cheran has basically been a prisoner of itself,” said Pedro Tomas, a leader of DeMigrates Cheran, a support group for immigrants from the town.

Tomas, of Murphysboro, said the drug cartel will not allow shipments of food and other supplies to reach Cheran. He said schools and businesses have closed as a result.


Tomas said Cheran residents took five loggers hostage after bullets flew between the townspeople and loggers. He said the loggers kidnapped several residents of the town in retaliation.

Two Cheran residents, Pedro Juarez Urbina and Armando Hernandez Estrada, were killed while guarding the town, reported Cambio de Michoacan, a regional newspaper for the state of Michoacán.

Investigators believe the loggers are backed by La Familia, the drug and crime cartel U.S. authorities have said is the top methamphetamines provider to the Midwest and is responsible for countless murders and kidnappings.

“They provided heavy weaponry to the loggers who came into town,” Tomas said. “They came in any time, day or night. Whoever tried to stop them would get killed, kidnapped or disappear.”

Southern Illinois’ ties to Cheran and the Purépecha people date back to the 1950s, when scores of people moved north to work as farm laborers in the Alto Pass and Cobden orchards.

Warren Anderson, an anthropology professor at Southeast Missouri State University, began studying people’s migration from Cheran to southern Illinois in 1979. He estimated about 2,500 migrants worked in Union and Jackson counties during the mid-1990s at the height of harvest season. Anderson said 85 to 90 percent of Union County’s migrant workers at the time were from Cheran.

Dancers at the second annual Purépecha Festival perform “The Dance of the Little Old Men,” Saturday in Cobden. The dance is a tradition throughout the state of Michoacán, Mexico and is meant to pay tribute to the elderly. It is usually performed by youth in the community. –€“ Brooke Grace | Daily Egyptian

He said many Cherans would return home for La Fiesta de San Francisco, a festival so popular among migrants and immigrants that some will leave at the height of southern Illinois’ apple picking season to attend.

Jacinto Huaroco, of Makanda, said he made trips to Cheran several times a year, but he will not go home for La Fiesta de San Francisco this fall.

Anderson said it is getting increasingly hard for migrants and immigrants of southern Illinois to travel to Cheran because of the ongoing conflict.

Estanislao Tomas, owner of La Mexicana Grocery in Cobden said fear for family safety in Cheran is the Purépecha community’s largest concern. He said Cheran residents must be constantly vigilant, which is causing strain on the Cheran community.

“Sometimes they don’t have the money to hire someone else to guard the neighborhoods, so they have to do it for days at a time without any sleep,” he said.

Cheran residents have formed their own government system and have told political parties they are not welcome in town.

“Cheran has developed a community governing system in which all the decisions are made by members of the community,” Pedro Tomas said. “Other towns in Mexico who are facing similar issues are watching Cheran closely.”

Pedro Tomas said a good thing about the conflict in Cheran is that the town is being viewed as a model community, not just in Mexico but around the world.

With support from Germany, Spain, France, England and the United States’ immigrant community, Pedro Tomas is hopeful.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but the people have come together. We believe Cheran can succeed after more than five months under siege.”

This is not the first time the Purépecha people have fought to preserve their land. In the 1400s, the Purépecha fought the Aztecs over land in what is now the state of Michoacán.

Historians say the Purépecha empire was strong enough to rebuff both the Aztecs and fierce tribes from the north in several fierce battles.

Anderson said today’s Cheran residents are, in some ways, not that different from their ancestors.

“Cheran has over the decades, regardless of its size, maintained this very indigenous quality to it like very small towns,” Anderson said.

Brooke Grace can be reached [email protected] 

or 536-3311 ext. 251.