From September 2011 to February 2012, hundreds of families fled the Sierra Madre in Sinaloa state after criminal gangs killed locals and burnt their houses to the ground. Almost a year after the exodus, the towns are still abandoned.
Jorge had his hands covered in dough when he heard the shots that killed his neighbor Juan. He was preparing tortillas for breakfast. After the shots, he heard the voices of those who’d just killed Juan, shouting. He was startled but remained calm. At least that’s how his
family saw him the weekend of September 2011. He asked them to gather some belongings. They were leaving San Jose de los Hornos, a village in the foothills of the western part of the Sierra Madre. He gathered some food, started the engine of his pickup and dialed his friends in the neighboring village of Ocurague. Gunmen were heading towards them.
“There are 30 armed men. They killed Juan and they’re moving on. You better get out,” Jorge told them.
It was a startling development for Jorge and his neighbors. San Jose de los Hornos is a sparse rural community with a peaceful exterior. There are some 100 houses located along three rough roads. Pine trees and surrounding hills give the village a beautiful backdrop. The houses that sit on the five-meter-wide main dirt track are a little showier -- yellow with small domed roofs. After they killed Juan, the gunmen burned down these houses.
The events broke an unspoken rule in the area, Jorge said. The gunmen, or "gavilleros" as they’re known, had always been a presence. But they had not targeted those who live in the areas who were on the fringes of the drug trade. Juan’s assassination changed the equation. And that same day, Jorge, with his own family and 100 other families, abandoned the village.
The Mexican federal government does not recognize forced displacement. In 2011, the Norwegian Refugee Council published a report estimating that in the last 10 years, 160,000 people had been displaced in Mexico. Mexico’s Interior Minister, Alejandro Poire, immediately played down the figure and questioned the Council’s methodology.
When Animal Politico approached another government official, Max Alberto Diener Sala, the Human Rights Representative of the Interior Ministry, he admitted the government had no position on the matter.
“There’s not enough data or enough evidence to determine that this phenomenon is really happening or that the government needs to intervene,” he explained. “This is the position of the government as is.”
[See InSight Crime's Mexico News and Profiles Page]
The government decision has real-life consequences. Until the government recognizes the problem, organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cannot openly work in Mexico.
“It’s very worrying from the perspective of those affected, because in practice what it means is that these victims do not receive adequate attention because the government does not recognize them, and because it blocks other agencies, such as the UNHCR, from doing their job,” explained Sebastian Albuja, representative of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The Council says that Mexican authorities should develop a national study that allows people to have an accurate idea of the magnitude of forced displacement. This, the Council says, will boost the work of Mexican governmental groups such as the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). The CNDH, for its part, is seeking to influence public policy and raise official recognition of the problem, but, like the UNHCR, remains sidelined.
Jorge has a cheerful smile. (His real name, along with others from Sinaloa who appear in the story, was changed at his request.) Like his parents, he was born and raised in San Jose de los Hornos. He has dedicated his life to cultivating corn and beans, and raising livestock.
“Until four years ago, we lived a quiet life. No one bothered us. People who grew marijuana and poppy plants could sell them freely. The army came regularly to make seizures but then would leave. To those of us who didn’t get involved in that business, they wouldn’t say anything. They would leave us alone,” Jorge said. A pot of beans he was making for breakfast bubbled above a fire next to him.
The town where Jorge was born is part of a network of 13 mountain communities in Sinaloa located in the so-called "Golden Triangle." The triangle, which includes parts of the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango, draws its name from the illicit crops that grow in abundance here. San Jose de los Hornos sits on the edge of the municipalities of Sinaloa de Leyva and Badiraguato.
[See InSight Crime's Sinaloa Cartel Profile]
Until the late nineteenth century the residents of these communities cultivated corn, beans, apples, apricots, figs and citrus fruits. They also worked in mining, which was used to make coins for the nation’s treasury. In 1905, with the closure of the mine in Culiacan and the economic crisis that ensued, hundreds of families began growing poppy. The plant had arrived in Sinaloa with the Chinese communities that settled there in 1885. The poppy, the locals soon learned, could be transformed into sticky gum, processed into heroin and sold to consumers in the United States. In less than three decades, heroin became a highly profitable business and the area took on its new name.
For some customers, it was a strong painkiller, said Eleuterio Rios Espinoza, the former council member of Badiraguato and twice government secretary for Sinaloa state.
“They did it to ease the pain of the soldiers who participated in World War I,” he said, referring to the US army.
Rios, 76, is from Sinaloa and is an expert on the dynamics of the violence in the mountain region over the last century. His theories on the origins of poppy, however, are more questionable. In his book, "Sinaloa, Society and Violence," published in 1991, he argues that the "boom” of the poppy and marijuana production Sinaloa was a result of the US intervention in the early part of the 20th Century. Most scholars attribute the growth of poppy production to the Chinese.
What is indisputable is that Mexico is currently one of the main suppliers of heroin to the US, and its role may be growing. The United Nations and other international watchdogs have recently expressed concern about the increase in poppy crops in Mexico. Poppy is not the only plant in the area. The army’s sporadic seizures made the "Golden Triangle" the area with the highest number of marijuana plants destroyed in the country in the last decade. The terrain’s altitude (1200-2000 meters above sea level) favors these crops. For every hundred acres the army finds nationwide, 60 are found in the “Golden Triangle.”
By outward appearances, people live well in this area. Many families own trucks or those small All Terrain Vehicles (ATV), which can cost up to $4,000. Many others have satellite TV. And for years, communities accepted the quid pro quo. The plants brought a bubble of prosperity to the local economy where nearly everyone benefited directly or indirectly. Aside from the growers, there are numerous others caring for and collecting the marijuana, and, of course, those transporting and selling them to drug cartels. Locals who did not plant drugs say they were not bothered by the people that did. There were isolated killings; they were attributed to fights between rival gangs.
The Saturday Jorge decided to leave his farm, he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw other families of the town following him. A few kilometers down the road in the neighboring town of Ocurague, he saw that gunmen had torched several other houses. He would later learn that these same gunmen had killed another resident of San Jose de los Hornos, Fabian, and had burned his house down. They’d also burned down the grocery store and two other houses. Before leaving, the men had given the locals a choice: work for us or die.
The murder of his neighbor Juan, though, was the tipping point. Jorge says Juan had left the drug business several years before, so his death came as a surprise. The autopsy found that he had been tortured and shot 40 times. Some later said that torture lasted all night; in the morning, with a rope tied around his neck, the gunman had dragged him several meters down a dirt road and unloaded their rifles into his bruised and battered body. When they heard the shots, his neighbors realized their co-existence drug traffickers had come to an end.
“They’re kids like 15 to 20 years old. They come from Juarez (Chihuahua state) and Navolato (Sinaloa). Some work for the Beltran [Leyva Organization], others for the Juarez Cartel and the Zetas,” Jorge explained later over coffee.
The gunmen, he said, began to arrive in 2008. They left an immediate impression. Prior to Juan’s assassination, Jorge says 11 murders had been attributed to that group. The motive, he said, in almost all of the cases: terminating operatives working for their rival, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo.”
Guzman was born in the village of La Tuna, Badiraguato, about 500 meters downhill from the San Jose de los Hornos. He is the most wanted drug trafficker in the world, and, for information leading to his capture, the US government is offering $7 million. He’s also, according to Forbes magazine, one of the world's richest men with an estimated fortune of over one billion dollars. Over a 30-year career in the business, he has, to no one’s surprise, made many enemies. Some of these enemies were once allies, among them the Beltran Leyva family.
[See InSight Crime's Chapo Profile]
According to the Center for Research and National Security (CISEN) in Mexico, the rivalry between Chapo’s organization and the Beltran Leyvas emerged in early 2008 after the imprisonment of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in early 2008. The capture "generated a loss of confidence" between the two groups that transformed into "a cycle of violence in Sinaloa, Nayarit, Sonora, Durango and parts of Jalisco and Guerrero," CISEN wrote in a report.
Following the break, the Beltran Leyvas formally allied with two other large drug trafficking organizations, the Zetas and the Juarez Cartel. The three groups formed armed cells to take on Guzman operatives in his stronghold, the Sierra Madre. Chapo responded in kind. Authorities, using an admittedly inexact science, attribute about a quarter of all homicides to fighting between these major organizations. Caught in the middle are thousands more. San Jose de los Hornos, for instance, was one of at least 60 villages of the Golden Triangle that saw large numbers of people flee the violence.
Eight months after the displacement of Jorge and his family, the governor of Sinaloa, Mario Lopez, publicly recognized that in the mountainous area of Sinaloa state, there are communities who have had to abandon their homes because of the violence. It was May 14, 2012, and the governor was touring by helicopter some of the abandoned towns and met with displaced families.
After landing in one of the villages, the governor heard the stories: the victims explained their reasons for leaving their villages and described the fear they had of being killed if they returned. Three people who were at the meeting said that during part of the talk the governor scolded the people in attendance, complaining they had kept their silence for years in order to cultivate illegal crops or benefit indirectly from the trade. He eventually committed to increasing surveillance in the state’s Sierra.
“We will do it with the support of the army and state police,” he emphasized.
A week after the visit, the Ministry of Human and Social Development in Sinaloa released a census of "displaced" communities in the mountains. In the two-page document, the ministry recognized the displacement of 1,203 families. They were displaced "from their homes for various reasons, such as drought, the search for education alternatives for their children, the option of a better income, or as a result of insecurity." These families lived in 65 mountain communities located in seven municipalities in Sinaloa, the document said; in all, there are around 5,000 people displaced.
Putting “insecurity” at the end of the list angered Leonel Aguirre, the president of the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Sinaloa.
“The authorities play down the issue of displacement by violence by saying that people were displaced by drought or that the number of displaced is less than it actually is. [This is] evidence of their unwillingness to implement a policy that addresses the problem,” he said.
Sitting at the desk in his office, surrounded by stacks of petitions, statistics and court documents, Aguirre estimates there may be between 25,000 and 30,000 displaced people in the state.
“It is a (rough) calculation, because right now no agency has any accurate study that lets us know what’s happening in Sinaloa,” he admitted. “What we do know, is that the government is wrong to promote a military presence, because it isn’t with soldiers that you build, in the medium and short term, peace and tranquility in the affected areas.”
After his breakfast, Jorge, along with other displaced men and a journalist, returned to San Jose de los Hornos and several other abandoned villages in the Golden Triangle to check the condition of their land holdings and properties. It would be a quick visit, he announced. He’s not ready to return for good just yet.
“I’d like to return with my family, but I’m afraid that criminals will come back and kill us,” he said.
To get to San Jose de los Hornos and the surrounding towns, the group left from their temporary home, Surutato. Surutato was founded in the early 19th century, around the time of Mexican independence. It sits at 1,460 meters, but according to local authorities, has managed to remain on the margin of the drug trade by implementing successful alternative economic projects, such as planting chillies and tomatoes. Still, it is feeling the conflict in the Sierra. More than 400 people from communities within the Golden Triangle, have taken refuge in Surutato since September 2011.
During the journey, which lasts more than an hour, there is no sign of gunmen or fighting. The danger comes more from the roads themselves, which cut through steep ravines. As a precaution, the men drive less than 20 km per hour. The path is lined with pine trees and the air is clean. On some turns, you can make out the cliffs of the mountains of the Western Sierra Madre. The scenery is a lush green but the further you travel, the more you feel the cold. There is no visible presence of police or military. At one point, after two army helicopters flew overhead, one passenger commented: “Those are the ones that fumigate fields of marijuana.”
Just then Jorge stopped the truck in front of the house that used to belong to Fabian, one of those who was murdered by the rival groups. Fabian’s house was reduced to furniture and burnt walls. In what was once the living room, there were family photos scattered on the floor. In the garage, a charred truck sat. In the adjoining house, the facade was full of pockmarks from bullets.
San Jose los Hornos itself was a ghost town, save for the mules and cows wandering aimlessly. Occasionally the animals snorted in what could be interpreted as a response to the presence of their owners. Nothing remains of the splendor of the town that was once so lively on the weekends -- children playing on the patios and motorcycles constantly driving up and down the main street.
In Ocurague, a 10-minute drive from San Jose los Hornos, the scene is similar, but some residents remain. When Jorge and the others arrived, two young men in a truck greeted them. They had decided to stay to protect their property, they said. They claimed to be part of a larger group who were keeping watch of the abandoned houses. They said it was working -- there had been no new incursions by rivals in recent weeks. The men did not reveal their names or the names of the towns under their watch.
After exchanging information about their families’ situations, Jorge and the others pulled out a cooler a beer they had brought with them. While they opened the first round, one of the guards asked Jorge and his friends to return and work with them.
“You have to come back. Now is when we need to demonstrate that we’re strong, that we aren’t going to leave our lands for them,” he implored.
The men swigged their beers.
“People are afraid, they think that it’s not time yet,” one of Jorge’s friends said.
“It’s the only way to protect the towns and show that we aren’t leaving,” the guard returned.
Jorge did not speak.
Two months after the visit to San Jose and Ocurague, the towns remain abandoned. And neither the police or the military patrol the area.
“We don’t have any information about abandoned towns,” said a high level official from the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA). The official spoke on condition that his name not be used. SEDENA is the same institution that, for more than three decades, has implemented eradication schemes, including fumigation and manual destruction of illegal crops in the area.
“It’s a conflict that has to do with the vacuum of power that exists in the mountainous region of the state,” explained Marco Santos, Director of Information at Periodico Noroeste in Sinaloa.
Santos said the residents of the mountainous regions of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua are not the only ones who have had to flee their communities due to violence. Businessmen and politicians have left the state and some the country in the face of the kidnapping, extortion, gunfights and killings that have occurred in cities throughout Sinaloa.
“We’re talking about the ‘Jet Set’ of the political class,” he added.
Jorge and his friends returned to Surutato at dusk. There, he dropped off some furniture, utensils, plates, and boxes that an Ocurague neighbor had asked him to carry back. Even so, Jorge said he was not tired.
“Tired is what you feel when you have to dig trenches,” he said with smirk and a hint of the dark humour that characterizes people in these mountains.
At the door of the house he shares with several displaced families, a dog greeted Jorge when he arrived. The animal seemed to be wary of his owner who was covered from head to toe in a thick layer of dirt. Once inside, the other families gathered to hear about his trip. In the kitchen, they bombarded him with questions about their properties, their animals and their village. Jorge explained there had been no new incursions and that their possessions were safe “for now.”
However, security was not the only concern of the displaced in this house. The adults argued about whether they should return just to plant their crops before rainy season. They also discussed their withering and untended land, and the need to get more food because the government and church supplies were running low.
Jorge took a shower, and his expression was more relaxed as he exited. He was smiling, almost, it seemed, happy. He played with the dog and children who ran around a small patio. While he may have wanted to go back to San Jose de los Hornos, he realized that it was impossible now. He knew that would mean joining the other men guarding their holdings since the authorities were not willing to do it.
“To return now would be suicide,” he whispered.
Nearby the children played with an old soccer ball made of rags, and the adults continued to discuss whether they would return to San Jose de los Hornos.
In June of 2012, two weeks after Jorge and other members of the community made their trip to San Jose los Hornos, five members of a family were killed in the town. Three of them -- the father, the mother, and their 17-year-old son -- were shot on Saturday, June 16, when they returned to check on the condition of their property. The other two victims were nephews who returned to the town three days later to seek vengeance. In both cases, the state authorities -- who in the Sinaloan governor’s words promised to increase security with police and military reinforcements -- did not know about the murders until the victims’ wake.
*Francisco Sandoval is a reporter for Animal Politico. See full Animal Politico on displacement, including videos and statistics, in Mexico here.