Mexican drug cartels have expanded their deadly business into illegal logging, the Washington Post reports. But even as armed bandits chop down thousands of acres of old-growth forest, one town's citizens have banded together to stand up for themselves.

The citizens of Cheran, in Mexico's southwestern state of Michoacan, have formed a masked militia to protect their forests and their homes. As the Post reports, strangers driving into Cheran are stopped at barricades and citizens patrol the forest looking for bandits.

This steps are deemed necessary because of a lack of government protection for the forests, and the environmental danger the exploitation poses. "The bad men come and we are unprotected," a town leader told the Post's reporters. "Without trees there is no water, the soil erodes and no one can live from the land. So we decided to protect ourselves."

Over the past two years, the cartel loggers have shot some villagers who opposed them and kidnapped others. But when the bandits started logging near Cheran's water supplies in April, the townspeople stood up for themselves, seizing and burning 10 logging trucks. One of the villagers was shot in the head during the altercation.

The eight Mexican drug cartels were responsible for more than 10,000 murders in 2010, according to the Mexican newspaper Reforma. The exact cartels operating in Cheran have not been identified.

Since then, Cheran has taken on the look of a revolutionary town, the Post reports, "complete with banners painted with clenched fists, slogans demanding peace and justice, and pickup trucks filled with campesinos wearing camouflage jackets and carrying clubs."

State police, who have not been much help in the fight, have been barred from entering the town.

Neither the police nor the militias have been able to fully protect Cheran. Just last week a man was killed, burned, and his body dumped back on his farm, the Post reports.

Illegal logging is nothing new in Mexico. In 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the practice threatened the homes of monarch butterflies, a problem that has only gotten worse since then — but the presence of the cartels is a new twist. It is unknown if the cartels are leading the practice or merely providing hired muscle to protect the loggers.

According to the website, illegal logging destroys and estimated 26,000 hectares of Mexican forest each year.

A team from Al Jazeera English traveled to Cheran in June and filed this report from the area: