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"David Fights Goliath In A Small Mexican Town"


The article about my experience fighting in 2011 with the Purepecha Indians of Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico. Published by “Soldier of Fortune” Magazine in their February 2012 edition.


Click pages to see them enlarged.


Please note:  The Soldier Of Fortune images have been scanned, and some of the text might be hard to read even when enlarged. To be able to easier read the actual text, I added the text version of the article as well.

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© Carl Martin Johnson

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TEXT version of article:


By Carl Johnson

Courage in Cheran

Courage is alive and fighting in the Purepechan Mexican Indian town of Cheran.  The enemy is huge and powerful, but these people, who held off the savage Aztecs in past centuries, are not being cowed into submission.

The town of Cheran in the state of Michoacan, hugs the foot of jungled mountains at the edge of the “Meseta Purepecha”.  This forest has provided the community, now at 18,000 souls, with a livelihood for generations, and is relied upon for  the cohesion of the tribe in the future.  But, the trees are being stolen by clandestine loggers, allegedly protected by mercenaries from the cartel of Chapo Guzman.

As a freelance writer specializing in combat situations, I was intrigued when I came across a brief Associated Press article on the struggle.  Through contacts in Mexico, I was able to arrange an introduction to a Purepechan chief, who was interested in publicity for their struggle, as well as whatever military advice I could give them.  I flew to Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, the next day and arranged to rent a car at the airport.

Drug Lords Chase Off Foreigners

I was fingerprinted at the Morelia airport, evidently suspect because there was no other “tourist” on the flight.  In fact, during my entire stay in Mexico, I saw not one other “Anglo” face.  Tourists have been scared off by the drug wars.  And, I made a foolish mistake when renting my car by telling them where I was going.  They gave me a beat-up old Chevrolet, that, I found later, did not even have a jack that worked.  It seems they did not expect to get it back.

I found the chief I was to meet in the small village of Ichupio.  Don Julio (not his real name…everyone is concerned with retribution from the “narcotraficantes”…even the Purepecha insisted on their real names not being used to protect their families living in other places) was friendly but reticent.  He wanted to make certain I was not a “spy” for the enemy, I later found out.  But, the confidence in my referees in Mexico prevailed, and he agreed to take me to Cheran the next day.

Cheran is about 70 km from Morelia, and the highway is one where you do not want to stop unless necessary.  However, the roads are in good condition, and we took less than two hours to drive the distance.

An Armed Welcome

Entering the town was another matter.  All three main entry roads are heavily blockaded, and, even though Don Julio had told them we were coming, we were met by serious young men, who appeared ready to use the shotguns, rifles and machetes they carried.  One of their people had been “disappeared” the day before, and they were wary of spies. 

At last, a delegation from the village council arrived and I was taken to their War Committee.  The alcalde (mayor) of the town, as well as the municipal police, had been kicked out days earlier, suspected of being corrupted by the “narcos”.  There were no state police either.  The Purepechas  did not trust them.  The “Federales” had come, and gone just as quickly.  They said they were under-manned.  Requests for Mexican Army help had gone unanswered.

I was the only non-Indian that had been allowed into the town.   Escorted under armed guard to  the municipal offices that the War Committee had taken over, I knew I was about to have an interview that my welfare required I handle well.  There was, of course, mistrust as to my motives.  Why would anyone expose themselves to this danger, they asked me?  I told them I was attracted by their courage and considered them an example to the rest of the world.  I would help in any way I could.

There were some skeptical questions, and more grilling about my experience and qualifications.  At last, I was accepted.  In fact, they invited me to stay in the town with them.  No outsider had done this since the trouble began, but they assured me they would do what they could to guard me.  I explained I was accustomed to dangerous situations, and required no “guarda espaldas” (bodyguard).  They  did give me an interpreter, because, although I speak  Spanish, many of the townspeople only speak the Purepecha language.  They also armed me with a brand new machete.

Don’t Mess With Las Madres 

I learned the war had started when two of the women had tried to halt a convoy of trucks carrying stolen timber through the town on 15 April.  I interviewed the women, who said they saw the thieves not only carrying away their wood, but also the futures of their children and grandchildren.  One of the women stood in the middle of the road, her arms raised in protest, only to be run over by the oncoming logging truck. 

It was a miracle, she told me, that she was not killed, and hardly bruised as the heavy vehicle rolled over her.  She said God used her as a way to stop the robbery;  the Purepecha men who saw what happened were enraged.  They massed in front of the trucks with their machetes and took the drivers into custody.

That happened at 4.00 a.m.  Two hours later, the enemy returned in armed force.  Unlike the Indians, the narcos had nearly new automatic weapons.  The men in the back of the pickups fired first into the air, and demanded the release of their comrades.   The Purepechas would not be intimidated;  they faced the enemy unafraid.  One told me later:  “In the words of Francisco Madera ‘It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’”  Then the hired guns fired into the crowd.

Only one person was seriously wounded, and the bravery of the townspeople finally forced the enemy to retreat from the town and escape into the darkness of the forest roads, many of their own injured by rocks and blades.  Three of their trucks were captured and burned by the Purepechas.

As I made my rounds of the blockades with an entourage of community leaders, we improved the defensive positions to help avoid unnecessary casualties in the battles that were coming.  (I cannot reveal details, since the war is ongoing, and the bad guys could read this article.) 

Homegrown Vigilantes

The men of Cheran have created their own makeshift vigilante force since they kicked out the municipal police.  They not only keep an eye out for the “narcos”, but arrest anyone they see committing a crime or appearing to be drunk.   A young boy, Carlos, who is only just fifteen, said  “We cannot let down our guard.  The (narcos) have spies.  If they see our determination waver or our people drinking too much, they will attack.”

A very tall man of middle age, who would not even give his first name, was the coordinator of the forces in his section of the town.  He said “There have been many killings and “desapericidos” (disappeared ones) among our people.  We cannot go into the forest without being with a group.  Just this morning we found my neighbor, Hiram, dead in the jungle.  He had been burned, but I knew him by his cross that he always wore.  He was a religious man.”

A much shorter, heavy-set young man, who was his lieutenant, nodded his head vigorously.  “We have to be alert all the time..If not, we will die.  They (the narcos) are offering rewards for our heads already.  This is a poor area.  The people of Cheran will not take the blood money.  But there are those outside our town who will.”

We also were informed that two messages had been received from the cartel gunmen:  1.) There was a reward on the head of any villager killed or forced to leave  2.) any villager attempting to do business outside the town would be “dealt with”  .  The reward, it turns out was extended to cover me.  (I found the amount..$1,000…a little insulting.)

The spies in the community had let the narcos know of my presence.  Media in Mexico has been “discouraged” from covering the situation, and the last thing the cartel wants is international coverage.

The “Disappeared”

My friends were certain there would be an attempt to “disappear” me that night.  They would not even tell me where I would sleep until after midnight on our way to the unoccupied house.  (I refused to stay in a house with a family, because that would almost certainly bring retaliation upon them; however,  many brave people offered.)  I slept, but with eyes open.

In the morning, we were told a body of another one of the “disappeared” had been found in the woods.  That left fifteen to be discovered, as they eventually would be.  No one believes they are still alive.  The people can only hope their death was quick.

Ten villagers have been killed outright in combat, as well.  None of this shakes the resolve of these brave people.  While so many in the world cower in the face of evil, the Purepecha of Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico, are a shining paradigm of human valor.  I will return to Cheran, when they call me.  They are my friends now.  In the meantime, if the narcos decide to attack in force, particularly with the new armored  cars they have built and their new AK’s, there will be a massacre of a brave people in the hilly, timbered jungle of the state of Michoacan.


Carl Johnson is a freelance writer specializing in combat situations.  He served as a Recon Platoon Leader  with the First Cavalry Division in Viet Nam, as well as TDY with the 75th Rangers, and Counter-Guerrilla Patrolling Instructor at Ft Benning, GA




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© Carl Martin Johnson

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