The resurgence of the community of Santa María Ostula*
This is the recent story of Santa María Ostula, the protagonist in this tale. Located in the coastal highlands region of Michoacán, between plots of papaya, roselle and corn, this community has been fighting for the return of its territory and for the mending of its social fabric. A strategy is currently being developed for the internal management of educational, cultural and health projects, including community mental health, as well as the recovery of traditions such as pottery and embroidery, and the rehabilitation of the Nahuatl language in its schools.
On 29 June 2009, the indigenous community of Santa María Ostula reclaimed around 1,250 hectares of land that was being used by a troika consisting of members of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), mestizo inhabitants of a nearby town who were granted ownership of the disputed territory, and finally of members of the criminal organisation known as the Caballeros Templarios.
Located in the municipality of Aquila in the state of Michoacán, the interior of the Nahua community consists of 22 commissions and a landholding headquarters, distributed throughout the mountains and along the coast. In Ostula there are currently at least 38 mining concessions granted by the Ministry of Economy. Attempts have also been made to develop tourist complexes, and its strategic location between the ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo (Colima) makes it an object of dispute and dispossession.
A host of characters formed part of each pillar of this edifice, representing organised violence. For example, Mario Álvarez, also known as El Chacal, was twice municipal president (between 1993 and 1995, and between 2005 and 2007), candidate for deputy for the 21st district of Michoacán and, as the instigator, is also responsible for the murders of at least 38 people from Ostula in relation to the return of these lands, previously referred to as La Salia or La Canaguancera but now called San Diego Xayacalan.
So far only one person has been held and subject to prosecution for murder, kidnapping and organised crime. Federico González, alias Lico, was El Chacals fixer, as testified by community members who survived the years of violence unleashed after the lands were reclaimed.
The most difficult year for the community was 2011 when fifteen people were murdered and a good deal of the families were displaced to Jalisco or Colima.
In the context of the armed self-defence uprisings on 8 February 2014, former members of a communal guard, broken up by the Caballeros Templarios in 2009, reorganised and returned to the coastal highlands region to put an end to this period of severe harassment. They succeeded in taking control of the territory and there began a new stage -still ongoing today – in which displaced families are returning and, little by little, peace is being restored.
These are four stories of Nahua indigenous people whose experiences help underline the violence suffered in Ostula. However, above all, they speak about the staunch necessity of defending their community, their territory, and life.
Rare are those occasions when El Amparo del Surf is closed; sometimes it happens nevertheless, due to a festival or because Yola has a meeting with the women’s group. On La Ticla beach, even if it is low season for tourism, there is always one stray surfer or another who has traveled from Australia, South Africa, California or Germany to ride the extraordinary waves offered by this stretch of Michoacan coastline: waves that go in two opposite directions, making it one of the most attractive places in the world to surf.
Yola opens the restaurant and cleans the tables meticulously, arranges the chairs and starts preparing the first coffees and breakfasts, because if there is one constant among foreign visitors, it is that they start early. She is on duty during the early hours of the day, when school finishes three of her children come to help her wash the dishes and take turns cooking. In the background, music plays, and life on the coast rolls on without skipping a beat.
These are better days. «My childhood was good. I could leave the house with no worries, I played with other children and there were no problems. Now my children are also free, they leave the house and walk around and nothing happens, we have no troubles.»
This was not always the case. For a certain time the violence devastated the community of Ostula and forced many families to move out of fear or due to death threats. When the communal lands were reclaimed and the Xayacalan commission was founded in June 2009, small-scale property owners, the Caballeros Templarios and members of the PRI unleashed a tidal wave of organised violence that almost overwhelmed the community.
Yola never left. She remained very wary and never came under direct threat; however, members of this troika occupied her restaurant, prevented her from working, and also took over the rooms that she normally administrates with her father, Don Apolinar, which serve as accommodation for tourists and visitors.
«They would walk around here, going in and out. We couldn ‘t come here to the beach, we had to stay locked up at home. There was a curfew and they circulated the community with their trucks and their weapons, and we had to keep our heads down,» Yola tells me while we spend a sunny afternoon in the shade of her restaurant ‘s roof.
Of her four children, one is already studying at university in the state capital, the next-oldest is in high school, and the two youngest seem to be very happy in the community, chatting with everyone who drops by. For Gabriel, her eldest son, the period of violence was bewildering. He had a sense of danger because he was afraid of being rounded up by the bandits. «They would drive by with weapons at full speed and I saw several times how they would shoot at people right here on the Ticla square.»
Despite the fact that Yola and her children were not targeted directly, Don Apolinar was threatened and severely beaten, and his name was included on a list of those who could be assassinated. Yola ‘s older brother, Teódulo Santos, was killed on 15 May 2012. His name also featured on the list and, in his case, the culprits completed their mission.
Today Yola has reflected a lot on the years of violence that were unleashed as a result of the community ‘s decision to bolster its communal defence force and confront organised crime by recovering the lands that belong to them, as indicated by a colonial ordinance from 1773 and a presidential resolution from 1964, documents that support the community ‘s struggle to defend the territory.
«The festivals and traditions have returned, we have paid a painful price and have lost very dear and prominent people, but the community is strong and very tight-knit, organised and ready to continue defending our land.»
«We do this because we have to. Personally, I don ‘t think I can go back to being a teacher again, there will always be this need to defend the community and so I ‘ll keep doing this,» says Comandante Germán while we perform a routine patrol of the community ‘s southern border.
Germán has been in charge of the security of his community since July 19 2015, when a joint operation between the state police, the army and the navy against Ostula resulted in the arrest of eleven people and the murder of a twelve-year-old boy, Hidelberto Reyes, in addition to the arrest of Cemeí Verdia, one of the commanders of the community guard. Since then, Germán has been serving this need without rest.
Germán took over responsibility for ensuring the security of his community and that of the coastal highland region at an emergency assembly. Despite the constant attacks by the state security institutions, who view him as an obstacle to reshaping the economic geography that would allow trade to carry on, he has still not abandoned his duties.
Trained at the Michoacan teachers’ college, Germán ‘s times as a teacher was a short one. He did, however, make enough of an impact to get some of his students to participate in the security duties required by the extensive territory, with its natural resources such as aquifers and minerals, and its geopolitical interests.
The eldest son of another teacher, Diego Ramírez, Germán maintains that the memory of his father, who was assassinated by the Caballeros Templarios in July 2008, is essential in giving meaning to his effort and dedication. As a representative of the commission responsible for organising the reclamation of lands, Don Diego was the first target of organised violence; his body was found on a beach in San Diego Xayacalan, the commission that today bears his name.
Since 2015, Germán, also known as Commander Toro, has led the defence of the community by strengthening the community guard, but above all by engaging in a regional strategy in which the reduction in crime is due to constant patrols and the inclusion of all aspects of security in each of the requests and calls made to them, for one specific reason: those who make up the community guard, and who at one point were part of the self-defence forces, are originally from this area, and so are the first to wish for an end to the lack of security.
Contrary to the implementation of the strategy of undivided authority that the former president Enrique Peña Nieto attempted to impose throughout the country, Germán ‘s resistance to this set-up led to threats from security officials at both the Michoacán and federal levels. Germán ‘s demand – which he has repeated countless times – is, however, very simple: in order for the non-existent level of crime that has been in effect for three years to be maintained, his work requires support.
Appointed as municipal director of security by José Luis Arteaga, the former mayor of Aquila, Germán pieced together the necessary agreements so that there would be coordination between the security forces of the neighbouring municipalities of Coahuayana and Chinicuila, thus fracturing the efforts of local criminals to recapture drug-trafficking routes and illegally exploit clandestine mines, in addition to traffic precious timber.
The strategy has been so effective that attempts at dispossession that were presented as legal (mining concessions, tourist complex projects, the consolidation of an economic zone controlled by foreign capital, among others) have also been prevented. In this sense the community of Ostula, with Germán as the head of security and protection for the territory, became a great thorn in the side of various economic and political interests competing for control of the region. This is not only a question of illegal business interests but also of a criminal legality seeking to prevail at any cost.
«We ‘re not going to allow criminals to return, we know where they are and we ‘re going to combat any evil that afflicts the community and the region. It is our duty and we do not want violence to return to these lands,» Germán states emphatically.
In October 2016, the Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI; national congress of indigenous peoples) held an assembly over several days, resulting in the release of a controversial proposal for political participation: the establishment of a Concejo Indígena de Gobierno (CIG; indigenous government council) with members from each of the indigenous peoples of the country. In order to participate in the electoral contest in July 2018, they were represented by a spokesperson.
The idea that indigenous peoples would participate in the elections, and that this was a proposal from the CNI, triggered discord in the stances of analysts, opinion formers, and militants from across the political spectrum. Finally, following another meeting of the CNI in May 2017, an initial version of the CIG was released along with the nomination for the initiative ‘s spokesperson: María de Jesús Patricio, or Marichuy as she is known to those close to her.
Socorro, a woman with a permanent smile who comes originally from the Palma Sola commission, is a member of this council. As a councillor for the CIG, she toured the country alongside Marichuy, bringing the story of Ostula ‘s struggle to many forums and authorities, and also returning to her community with lessons learned from these tours.
Inside the community, she herself became a model for other women to participate and make their way into spaces that are traditionally occupied by men. Socorro plays an active part in the community council, which reviews the decisions of the community and everything related to it. In other words, she is a voice of consultation and of great respect. She also headed the Ostula landholding headquarters for a year, so administrative decisions were subject to her management and review.
Although this is the beginning of the transformation of the role of women within the community, Socorro serves as an example influencing other women in the community who, although they are not always interested in occupying positions, they are interested in participating in decision-making and in having their voices heard in the assemblies that govern the way Ostula is organised.
«It would be good if workshops were organised on autonomy and pooling resources so that the community would have a better idea of how to build itself. It has been very important to hear all the experiences of the indigenous peoples in order to be able to share them with the community, and also to make it known that we are fighting against violence and to defend our territory.» Socorro lives by the sea in one of the commissions in Ostula most visited by tourists. She comes and goes from the house, attending assemblies and meetings to discuss the municipality ‘s work in everyday life and, more and more, other compañeras are sharing her enthusiasm, vitality and strength in order to make their voices heard.
«Compadre, I ‘m going to stop at the cemetery, I need to visit my mother ‘s grave.»
«We ‘re late, don ‘t mess about, we need to hurry, it ‘s your big day and they ‘re all waiting for you. You ‘ll soon see how they react if you ‘re late…»
«I know but I won ‘t be long, this is important, I have a feeling. Look, we ‘re already here Rafa, wait for me here, we ‘ll go fast and get there in no time. No worries.»
«Hurry up before it gets dark and Paty gets more pissed off. I ‘ll get the blame, just you wait and see.»
It was my birthday and Rafa had been with me all day. It was the afternoon and they were waiting for me at home, up there in Ostula, and it was my fault we were running late, but I had to visit my mother. I was dreaming a lot about her in those days. She would talk to me but I couldn ‘t hear what she was saying, but I did remember that we would be in her tomb and she would come and speak to me.
So I went that day, when it was my 50th birthday and my whole family was waiting for me so we could eat. I walked into the cemetery and went directly to the tomb, sat there next to it and waited, closed my eyes and waited to see if she would speak to me. Suddenly I began to hear her, her voice low, but now I could really hear it.
«Teódulo, try to straighten everything out, you ‘re about to end up where I am. Don ‘t worry, it ‘ll all happen very quickly. We ‘ll meet again soon.»
I left with a bad feeling in my gut, but more or less calm. Rafa was desperate, smoking as always (who knows how many cigarettes he smokes a day). As soon as I came out of the cemetery he got into the car and we headed to the party. He asked me if I had managed to talk to my mother, but I couldn ‘t say much about it, so I said yes but I hadn ‘t understood her very well.
«You ‘re crazy, man, the last thing you need is the dead talking to you. We have to hurry up because you know how things are, some people don ‘t like cars other than their own using the road and your truck ‘s already well marked.»
«I know, these people are never going to understand that they have to leave us alone, we ‘re not going to leave the land to them and they ‘re not welcome here. Let them go do their thing elsewhere, but leave us alone, and well, at least they ‘re not killing anyone anymore.»
-«How many are there now »
«We ‘re not sure, there are some they can ‘t find, and the last one was El Maizón, not even the caravan he was in could stop those evil bastards. But we ‘re going to defend the community, we already have our guard and we cannot surrender.»
«Be careful, man, they already have you on the list, they ‘ve told you many times, and although they talk a lot you should keep your eyes peeled.»
On the day of my wake, those people went back to their old ways they didn ‘t let the mourners accompanying the small procession bearing my coffin make a commotion. Many were afraid and didn ‘t dare leave their homes, but those who did come out had to stay quiet and almost keep their heads down.
Near the cemetery there was a guy with a white truck, like mine, but newer, it was parked on the side of the road and had the doors open, the radio turned on full blast, and there were several guys with weapons. Who knows if any of them were the one who killed me, from where I am I can ‘t tell. What I could sense was that my buddy Rafa couldn ‘t hold back and yelled, «Viva Zapata, the struggle continues!»
It was very difficult to stop them from killing me. In the end, neither Mario Álvarez nor Lico could take it, losing all that land they wanted to keep using for their business. They thought that by killing those who we helped reclaim the land, we would give it back to them. But that ‘s not how it was; it never will be.
The battles of La Salia
Along the coast or in the mountains, the first minutes of light after every sunrise reveal a handful of people getting up and tending to the needs of the land, of the beaches, of the newly sown plots or those about to be harvested, the need to prepare food and for the children to go to school, for them to take their classes not only in Spanish but also in Nahuatl, a language that is gradually recovering.
And while the sun sets and some shops close, others open once again to serve the tourists co-existing quietly in the guesthouses of some of the commissions. If it is time for one festival or another, then the lights on the palm-leaf roofs are lit up and the paper decorations, the virgins and the saints acquire other, brighter tones.
At least twice a year, the appearance of the characters known as xayacates is a presence that riles those representing the power of the oppressor. They taunt and cause calamity, mocking the imposed order and assiduously turning it on its head: They wear masks of fabric or of tree bark, carry two ammunition belts loaded with lemons and bananas, smearing the least cautious in any group they approach. They run, scatter, and regroup.
When the community took back the lands that belonged to them, it was the xayacates who danced in and behind whom the community stood firm in their daring to confront the criminal political power.
After a decade of struggle, loss, displacement and pain, the community of Santa María Ostula retains its strength and its willingness to move forward. Daily life there is quiet, rooted in simple things: occasionally cutting down coconuts and drinking from them to cool off; fishing, going to the farm or on a trip to other nearby towns to restock the stores from time to time.
Many girls and boys play in the irrigation canals and in the trees, bathe in the rivers and in the sea, learn the art of using the cast net or of weaving equipal chairs with wood. Life goes by quietly; however, there is always the subtle tension of the return of violence and of new chapters of death and dispossession occurring due to the possibility of the return of criminal groups, including the political parties.
Ostula made it clear that it is capable of responding to its internal needs collectively through its communal institutions, in the same way that it has consolidated, in particular, a security system that, although not without its complications, achieved in four years what decades of partisan governments never could.
The challenge facing the community today is undoubtedly the dilemma between giving up their security for a truce with the State (which will always be short-lived) or consolidating their autonomy beyond classical boundaries. Transcending the horizon of specific defence from the community guard towards the consolidation of autonomy in other spheres such as health, education, culture and justice is some of what is being discussed today, under those roofs providing shelter from the sun.
Translated by Adam King
*. A version of this text was published on the website Albora in August 2019: https://www.albora.mx/tierra-de-xayacates/