Mexicans forced from their villages by violent drug gangs are seeking assurances from the president for their security if they go home. But a safe return may still be a while away.
MEXICO CITY –– More than 300 desplazados (‘displaced people’) from the mountains of Guerrero state, Mexico, are presently camped outside the National Palace in the Zocalo, the central plaza of Mexico City, to demand action on the deadly violence in their remote towns and villages.
“We were having Sunday together in our family home when suddenly we heard a huge shootout begin,” says Marisela Castulo Guzman, sitting up straight on an old donated mattress. She is speaking to TRT World from the makeshift encampment, composed mostly of tents and tarpaulins.
Castulo is a community leader in the small remote town of Los Morros in the Sierra Madre del Sur region of Guerrero, a southwestern state of Mexico.
The shootout started at 1pm and didn’t stop until 11pm, she says.
“It was absolutely horrible. The children were crying and screaming. We couldn’t call anyone because there’s no telephone signal in Los Morros.”
It is generally understood that the shootout was perpetrated by a criminal organisation from another municipality, posing as community police. Castulo also says there was widespread looting and occupation of houses throughout the town, where the armed group has now taken control.
This event occurred on November 11 last year. Castulo fled with her husband who has diabetes, and her seven-year-old daughter, Frida, who has a disability. With more than 1,600 others from Los Morros and other pueblos in the municipality of Leonardo Bravo, Castulo and her family were received in Chichihualco, a larger town and the seat of the Leonardo Bravo municipality, further down the Sierra Madre mountain range. They have remained there ever since, living in an old auditorium and entirely reliant on donated food, bedding, clothing, and medicines.
The displaced say that cartel-related violence came to the sierra in 2013. “Before that it was peaceful,” says Flor, an elderly woman who also fled Los Morros in November.
Gloria, 26, is from Polixtepec, about 54km from Chicihualco. She says her family was first displaced by an armed group in 2015.
“They killed my three nephews and my sister-in-law,” she tells TRT World.
“They arrived at their house, shot them, killed them, burned the house. They’d brought grenades.”
She says: “We want peace. We want to go back to our Sundays with our families.”
As TRT World reported in November, the families camped out in Chichihualco were the latest to be forcibly displaced by violence between organised crime groups in Guerrero who fight for control of strategic and lucrative territory for growing opium poppies, transporting heroin and marijuana, and extorting the logging and mining industries.
They were dubbed ‘the other caravan’, in an echo of the much-publicised migrant caravan then travelling through Central America and Mexico to seek safety and security at the US border. Many members of that caravan were also fleeing violence related to organised crime, especially the ‘narco’ drug cartels that dominate this part of the world.
One week before, another mass displacement had occurred in La Montaña, east of the Sierra Madre. Seventeen Nahua Nahua families fled the town of Tlaltempanapa, in the municipality of Zitlala, after being the victims of violence and death threats from the organised crime group that has taken over the town.
“They took out three people from our house” says Joaquiña Cantor. “They grabbed them, hit them, and put them in a truck. We didn’t know where they were, if they were alive or not…. I went to [the municipal centre of] Zitlala to to request help from the army and the municipal police but they paid no attention...so we decided to leave.”
With her two children and her grandchild, plus 16 other families, Cantor walked through the night. “We left at 8pm, the children in between the adults,” she tells TRT World.
It took two days to reach a place were they believed they would be safe.
The party arrived in Copalillo, another municipality about 50km away, and were put up in a covered basketball court.
“We’re suffering there,” she says. “We don’t have water or anything to eat, the children aren’t going to school…”
The families from Tlaltempanapa say they cannot return to their homes and are seeking sustainable relocation. The town is known to be under the control of Los Ardillos (‘The Squirrels’), a cartel associated with control of opium poppy farms in Guerrero. Everyone not associated with the cartel has left on account of violence, kidnappings and death threats.
“People disappear and don’t come back,” says Cantor. “We can’t go back.”
The desplazados decided to join forces and travel together to Mexico City to demand action from the federal government. In the months leading up to his election President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (popularly known by his initials AMLO) promised to give special attention to the security situation in Guerrero.
Castulo says AMLO “spoke wonderfully” about ending the crime and violence in the region. However, after 14 days living on the sidewalk directly outside the seat of the AMLO federal government—with little food, just enough water for drinking and not enough for bathing—, there has been no direct response from the presidency.
Since arriving in Mexico City, representatives of the group have met with Alejandro Encinas, Undersecretary of Human Rights, Migration and Population from the Ministry of the Interior, as well as the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. On Thursday, the federal Congress approved AMLO’s plan for a National Guard which has been promoted as a solution to the security problem across the nation.
Encinas has promised to deliver a concrete proposal, but Castulo is still hoping that AMLO will personally intervene. “We just want 10 minutes with the president,” says the community leader from Los Morros. “We want a document, with his signature on it, that guarantees we can return to our pueblos.”
Cantor says the displaced from Tlaltempanapa also seek a presidential guarantee. “We demand relocation, so we can live a dignified life and our children can go to school,” she says.