The murder of a woman from the indigenous municipality of Cherán, Michoacán, has shaken the tightly-knit local community and reopened old wounds from more violent times in the past.
Almost seven years ago, angry residents of the municipality in the state’s Purépecha region rose up against the local government and replaced it with a citizen-controlled Consejo Mayor, or Great Council.
Locals had had enough of armed criminals who carried out killings, kidnappings and extortion in the area and illegally logged the region’s pine forests.
They were also sick and tired of politicians from established political parties who were in control of a municipal government that was widely seen as corrupt.
A community self-defense force took over security enforcement from municipal police and under its own rule, the community succeeded in eliminating organized crime.
Cherán went on to become an exemplary model for self-government. Kidnappings and extortion became problems of the past and the last time there was a homicide in the municipality was in 2012.
Last week, however, 32-year-old Guadalupe Campanur Tapia was found strangled on the side of a highway in the nearby municipality of Chilchota, about 30 kilometers north of Cherán.
Campanur had been involved in the fight against crime in Cherán, helped to overthrow the local government in April 2011 and had participated in local security patrols including those in municipal forests.
Even though the murder apparently didn’t occur within municipal boundaries, the fact that Campanur was part of the local community meant that news of her murder has hit Cherán hard.
“It affected us a lot . . . because in the last six years we have become accustomed to a quieter life,” said Pedro Chávez Sánchez, one of the members of the Great Council.
“Because she was a woman, because she was an activist, and because she participated in the citizens’ movement, her murder deeply angers us,” he added.
Inevitably, questions about the motive for Campanur’s death have followed.
Was it linked to her environmental and political activism?
Cherán residents told the newspaper El País that it’s too early to tell, adding that while she had recently attended community meetings like a majority of local residents, she hadn’t been directly involved in local patrols for the past two years.
But there are precedents. Environmental activists — such as Tarahumara environmental defenders in Chihuahua — have been killed in Mexico before.
Was it the result of a personal conflict?
The state Attorney General’s office (PGE) said that none of Campanur’s family members were aware of any threats against her, but added that the motive for her murder remains unclear.
Can it simply be explained by the rising levels of violent crime in a country that recorded its highest homicide rate in decades last year?
Michoacán is one of Mexico’s most violent states, and 1,510 new homicide investigations were opened there last year.
It was also one of five states across Mexico that the United States Department of State recently warned U.S. citizens not to travel to in its updated travel advisory.
Whatever the motive, the news of her death has provoked an outpouring of anger and a cry for justice, not just in Cherán and Michoacán but across the country as well. Violence against women, including femicides, has risen sharply in many parts of Mexico.
Michoacán Governor Silvano Aureoles said that the murder “will not go unpunished,” although authorities have not yet identified any suspects.
In response to the murder, council member Chávez said that local authorities and the self-defense force have beefed up security. He remembers Campanur as a “comrade” with “a dedication, like the majority of the population here, to defend our community.”
“We have maintained our struggle to confront this situation of insecurity, and the death of a member of our community hurts us deeply.”