A small band of citizens in Mexico has stood up to what they call their corrupt government, demanding accountability and calling local elections a fraudulent display of the politics of cronyism.
It might sound like a common conflict in any of the remote towns in Mexico that in a less than a month will elect mayors and lawmakers from within the country's established political parties.
But it is actually the opposite.
In Cheran, Michoacan, some residents are now openly opposed to its citizen-led "high council" form of government, put in place here to great expectations just four years ago. And surprisingly, the dissident residents of Cheran want Mexico's old party system back in place.
VICE News traveled to Cheran, an indigenous farming community set amid Michoacan's forested hillsides, to observe the town's "high council" election on May 3. It was not a pretty sight.
Dissident residents were blocked from entering the buildings where locals chose new council representatives. Those who did vote made their choice known by standing behind their candidate, while those opposed said the process was tainted by bribery.
"[The council] is nothing more than a reflection that this is not about the political parties or the criminals, it's about power," Crescencio Castañeda, a 56-year-old farmer and respected figure in Cheran, told VICE News. "That will corrupt anyone, even if they are from this town."
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Cheran residents at the May 3 council election. (Photo by Alejandro Guerrero)
The power struggles in Cheran have divided a community that since 2011 served as an example for other Michoacan municipalities that wanted to defend themselves against organized crime. Even the state's autodefensas civilian militias, led by figures such as Hipólito Mora and Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, used Cheran's act of self-determination as an example to follow in the fight against the Knights Templar cartel.
For years before that, Cheran faced unchecked violence and extortion at the hands of drug-trafficking groups such as the Knights Templar. On April 15, 2011, the inhabitants of this predominantly Purépecha entity rose up against the criminal organizations that were killing, kidnapping, and threatening them.
The people seized entrances to the town, kicking out the police and Mexican military forces. Cheran residents swiftly took security into their own hands.
'Everyone has been bribed.'
By November of that year, residents' actions were endorsed by the Mexican government under the application of a law known as "Uses and Customs," which allows indigenous communities to establish self-governance by popular decision-making.
In January 2012, the municipality formed its first "high council," consisting of 12 representatives, three for each of Cheran's four traditional barrios. Although it worked well during the first months of 2012, Castañeda and others said, by midway of that year "everything began to fall apart."
"We realized that the bad guys are still here," Castañeda said. "They are here among us."
Related: Mexico's Self-Defense Militias Follow Cartels Into Deadly Internal Conflict
The May 3 election apparatus was simple. Residents of each of the four barrios — Karhakua, Jarhukitini, Ketsikua, and Parikutini — gathered at local public schools to designate the new members of the council.
At around 10 am, commissioners appointed by the current council were placed at the school entrances, to monitor residents who enter to vote. Once inside, voters and commissioners named five residents to a "debate table," which would be in charge of counting the people's show of hands.
'If they don't like you, they don't let you vote.'
Once the "debate table" was chosen, the previously nominated "high council" candidates stood before the community, and the people lined up behind their candidate.
But monitors at the voting place entrances simply didn't let certain people in — people opposed to the council system.
"If they don't like you, they don't let you vote," said resident Raul Francisco Quiroz. "That shows what their so-called democracy is."
So the dissidents took to the streets to protest, gathering around the voting assemblies and calling for the old parties to return.
"The ones we elected as our representatives have betrayed us," Castañeda said. "That's where my comrades learned to steal, to kidnap and to threaten, all for the sake of money."
Another protester, Maria de los Angeles Fabian, alleged the council candidates used bribery to get votes. According to the 30-year-old Purépecha woman, the candidates offered government positions to earn the support of locals, a claim that couldn't be verified.
"Everyone has been bribed. The candidates bought off the people, and the candidates were bought off by the criminals, who gave them money in exchange for their votes, because they want to return to the area," Fabian told VICE News.
"I'm not afraid of them. Maybe we are a small group, but we want this system to be cancelled, and we don't care if they come to intimidate us later," she said.
Three days later, on May 6, Michoacan's electoral institute legally recognized the Cheran people's vote by their own system, and not the state's. The decisions made by the council became recognized by all state institutions, which provide funds for the municipality.
Related: Watch 'The New Zapatistas'? VICE visits Cheran
Cheran leaders meanwhile say that will not hold the general state election on June 7, making it the only municipality in Michoacan to do so. (Although in a sign of the community's fractured atmosphere, a separate village within Cheran municipal limits, Santa Cruz Tanaco, said it will hold the elections.)
That's left Cheran residents tired of the council structure to yearn for the old days, when parties used a well-oiled practice of handouts and social subsidies to capture people's loyalty at the ballot box. It was a system that in hindsight worked, some residents told VICE News.
Adela Chari Cata Ramos, 59, is a sun-weathered woman who lives in a small house made of wooden scraps. She said life has become more difficult for her and her 17-year-old disabled daughter since the implementation of the high council. The council has refused to help, she said, and the money she earns is not enough.
"When the others were in charge, at least they gave me provisions. I had a job," Cata Ramos said, adding that she now sells candy on the street to support her daughter and herself. "My daughter could die any day."
Other residents told VICE News the council elected in 2011 had failed them. Veronica Juarez, a 25-year-old woman who sells food at the town plaza, said that three years ago her husband beat her so badly that he forced a miscarriage when she was seven months pregnant.
When she went to the civilian authorities to denounce the violence, she said members of the council told her "you probably did something to deserve it."
'The idea of being old and knowing about the indigenous life is outdated.'
Participants in the May vote said Cheran's council system works, and the dissidents are mere provocateurs.
Pedro Chavez, a fresh-faced businessman, is one of the candidates elected to the high council on May 3. He told me that the nearly 400 people who chose him "were not bribed or paid for."
"We won't allow ourselves to be provoked by them, because we didn't come here to fight," Chavez said of the dissident residents, while hugging and shaking hands with hundreds of supporters. "If they don't want us to govern, well they should leave."
Related: 'It Was the Feds': How Mexico's Federal Police Slaughtered At Least 16 Civilians in Michoacan
Two Cheran women said they were not allowed to vote for not approving the council system. (Photo by Alejandro Guerrero)
Now, as a council member, he said he'll work to pump up Cheran's economy, since one of the community's main problems is the high unemployment rate.
"That's why some people say we offered jobs in exchange of votes, or that we are are going to put our relatives in high positions. But that isn't true, and it will never be so," said Chavez.
The council states that its members must be old men, who are believed to have the experience to represent the values of the indigenous community. But Chavez, only 37, isn't exactly old for Cheran.
"The idea of being old and knowing about the indigenous life is outdated," he responded to questions about his age.
Cheran's community security force is still active and "that is the only thing about this system that has worked," Castañeda, the farmer, said.
"I'm not afraid of them. I've dealt with narcos, politicians, and now the members of the council, who seem to be following the same path," he said. "Cheran is stronger than its bad people."
Related: Inside the Autonomous Mexican Community That Ejected Drug Cartels
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @Melissadps.