Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 11, 2023

Purepecha Tribe: A Power Struggle Between the People and Government


woman at table

Many tribes like the Tzotzil in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Purepecha are struggling with the Mexican...


During a battle between self-independence, corruption, and the will to survive, the Purepecha people of Santiago Azajo, Michoacan, have found themselves at a crossroads. The Purepecha are facing a tribal council that conspired to acquire signatures that forced the town into self-governance in July 2021 and the restructuring of its political hierarchy and tribe budget.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

Purepecha have fought to keep their land and traditions intact since the Mesoamerican era. Their roots are centered on the southern west coast of Mexico, but many have migrated north into American states such as Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and California. Their struggles vary from war with other tribes, restructuring with the independence of Mexico, and now corruption within tribal council.

In the present day, the tribal community elects its representation on a council for the town of Santiago Azajo. The council oversees all political matters in the municipality of Coeneo, Michoacan. Representatives serve on a local level and play a vital role as the main communication line between the villagers and their state and federal government. Representatives help create daily solutions like fixing water pipelines to bringing in security for festivals. The Supreme Indigenous Council is composed of the president, treasurer, labor, justice, and financial comptroller and is open to anyone who would like to represent the community. Members are elected every three years. Those who serve on the tribal council seek reelection since most of the tribe has relocated to the United States and only travel back to Mexico for holidays and vacation.

According to the 2020 census reported in Santiago Azajo, there are 1,614 full-time citizens. Long-term villagers who tend to be older live on remittances sent back from their families in America. The literacy rate is low—22.2% of the population does not read or write, and is therefore considered unfit to serve on the council.

Community of Santiago Azajo. Image by Digital 3.0 information Agency. Mexico, 2021.

The village of Santiago Azajo created an uproar that made national headlines in mid-January 2022 due to the protest and blockades set by the village around neighboring cities including Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. Protests came after the town rebelled against their tribal council for conspiring and acquiring signatures that forced the town into self-governance. An article released by the Mexican Congress of Michoacan dated from August 20, 2021, stated the village of Santiago Azajo became self-governing on July 19, 2021, as voted unanimously by the town through signatures, presented by the town council.

This act was accomplished by the council, without discussion with its villagers and without proper voting. The article covered the council minutes and various clauses related to the responsibilities that need to be withheld by the council representatives under its new self-governing political restructure.

A new topic would surface in the middle of the shuffle: the release and allocation of the village’s direct budget. The state of Michoacan is paving the way for Municipal Organic Law that acknowledges native rights, making them the only state in the country to do so. Daily issues in the rural towns like Santiago Azajo were normally addressed by the corresponding municipality. Since the self-governing announcement, the town has had major struggles around various responsibilities like garbage disposal, water pipe routes, a security presence, and now the allocation of the town budget.

Citizens have resorted to door-to-door knocking, looking for volunteers to help pick up trash along the town and the main roads headed into the village. Children have been seen picking up crushed aluminum cans in hopes of selling for cents on the dollar to a recycling company. The already limited resources diminished when the tribal council pushed its town into self-autonomy without thinking about its repercussions.

Volunteers fixing water pipelines. Image by Luis Calderon. Mexico, 2021.

Self-governing towns within the Purepecha are not a new trend, and many towns have successfully transitioned into their own political identity. The Purepecha town of Cheran, Michoacan, is famously known for spearheading its autonomy in 2001. The town established its own police force and various councils that focus on health, security, social programs, infrastructure, and education.

While this may sound like a vital transition to keep the Purepecha tribe alive for years to come, the reality for the people of Santiago Azajo has been vastly different. Some long-term residents like Olegario Esteban and his wife Susana have concerns about the stability of the new restructure and the ways its village arrived at its crossroad. Since the illiteracy rate of the village is high, tribal council usually hosts a quarterly town hall at the local courtyard and presents current ideas for the approval of the community. Residents state the former council held a town hall in 2021 to discuss receiving a lump sum of their annual federal budget with financial comptrollers overseeing their allotment. At this town hall meeting, the signatures were presented as a way to accept the full annual federal budget, but the main topic of self-governance was never addressed. Conversely, the collection of signatures led the community of Santiago Azajo to join with the communities of San Angel Zurumucapio and La Cantera to achieve recognition of the right to Indigenous self-government in the new legal framework of the Municipal Organic Law of Michoacán and assure that the direct budget be released by the municipality of Coeneo.

Roll Call in the town hall meeting, Image by Instituto Electoral de Michoacán. Mexico, 2021.

Santiago Azajo has just reached its first-year milestone as a self-governing body. Through a tough year of controversy and mistrust the town came together on many occasions, one of them at the blockade and protests set in Morelia, Michoacán, in January 2022. Around 200 citizens bussed themselves to the council meeting where the former Supreme Indigenous Council accepted the budget without taking the whole town’s opinion into consideration and for their personal agendas. Enraged citizens obtained national coverage when more than 60 citizens were arrested after storming and raiding government offices and assaulting their tribal council.

The Frontline Defenders organization set in Michoacan advocated for the release of the arrested citizens. While the release of all 69 members was granted, some were penalized, and the Mexican government asked for repairs to be made and repaid. At the same time, all conversations related to the direct budget were tabled for a later date. Discussions would only resume after the town of Santiago Azajo resolved the tension within its own council and had additional time to put an assembly together that would define whether the town would accept self-government and appoint a pro tempore council.

News coverage of a protest at a county jail. Image courtesy of Changoonga Media, Morelia. Mexico, 2022.

Upon hearing about the controversy the town of Santiago Azajo found itself in, its citizens abroad also held town hall meetings in the state of North Carolina where the majority reside. Citizens led the dialogue to bring everyone up to date on the events. While in Mexico, the acceptance of the Supreme Indigenous Council pro tempore was formed along with its self-governing identity. The direct budget was addressed at a town hall meeting in Santiago Azajo in May 2022. The majority felt the town should accept the budget but were skeptical it would be misused or misplaced by council. During this meeting 332 community members agreed to formally request Michoacan to hold an election to accept the fiscal budget. The state granted a reelection and released an agenda to the public detailing the election process to formally establish the new Supreme Indigenous Council for the town and to accept the full budget for the fiscal year. Election was scheduled for September 23, 2022, with immediate results to follow. Given the town’s history with misrepresentation and deceit, leaders requested the Electoral Institute of Michoacan (IEM) to conduct and oversee the election process. IEM provides poll workers and booths, updates voter registrations, and advocates for election integrity. IEM agreed to the request and rescheduled the election for October 23 2022, allowing extra time for voters to prepare and participate.

Public announcement of meeting for September 2022. Image courtesy of the State Government of Michoacan. Mexico.

Public announcement of rescheduled election for October 2022. Image courtesy of the Electoral Institute of Michoacan (IEM). Mexico, 2023.

In the early morning of October 23, 2022, the Electoral Institute of Michoacan set up confidential voting booths with poll observers and a voter registration team in anticipation of election day. Citizens lined up one by one to register and cast their votes and then sat in the assembly to await the results. Results would announce the much anticipated decision of the political and financial restructure for the town. Within the late hours of the night, IEM finalized results announcing the new council and the town's decision to accept the fiscal budget—a decision made by a close differentiating margin of 4 votes.

Election day in Santiago Azajo on October 23, 2022. Images by Electoral Institute of Michoacan (IEM). Mexico, 2023.

While there is much work to be done, the town of Santiago Azajo and the Purepecha tribe have once again shown the world their fight to survive. The interim council has shown transparency and its town stays hopeful the new representation will continue to work for the people. The town continues to advocate for basic rights and necessities such as accessibility to water, a clean environment, public security, and political integrity.





teal halftone illustration of a young indigenous person


Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Rights
yellow halftone illustration of two people standing back to back


Land Rights

Land Rights

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues