How drug violence turned one municipality in Mexico's turbulent southwest state of Guerrero into a ghost town.
The 18 boxes of energy-saving light bulbs are stacked neatly in a police station in the community of Tlanipatlan de las Limas, in Guerrero’s Teloloapan municipality. They look brand new, unopened.
They haven’t been delivered because the local store that the government uses to distribute subsidized food and other necessities has been closed since its manager left town.
This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.
In Tlanipatlan, there are more light bulbs than residents.
Nobody’s ever come to get them, says the station commissar, Gonzalo Guzman. Barely 5 feet tall, if that, he looks even smaller behind the large desk in the police station, which bills itself as “the biggest commissary in all the municipality.” The irony grows, given that there has been nobody arrested there all year.
It’s hardly surprising that the jail is never used. The church isn’t either. There have been no masses since May, when the residents fled the town. They were finally fed up with the criminal gangs that fight over the territory, located at the lower altitudes of the Guerrero sierra.
The last straw, according to a farmer who was one of the first to leave,was being forced to provide food for the gang members. “Not just once but for 15 days at a time,” he says. “It had to be a whole calf, or a sheep or a goat. Forget chickens. They didn’t want chickens."
The exodus took just two weeks. Only four of the 400 residents stayed behind at the time. The same has happened in other communities within the Teloloapan municipality. Nobody at all is left in Rincon del Vigilante, for example, a community once comprised of 120 townspeople. Or in Laguna Seca, where it is said that gunmen shot two farmers to death in front of the entire population.
The former inhabitants of these communities are part of what’s called, accurately, the Exiles of Teloloapan.
Teloloapan is something of an entryway to Guerrero’s infamous Tierra Caliente. No place in Mexico has suffered more mass displacements in 2015. Between February and May alone, Teloloapan’s City Hall has recorded more than 1,000 forced emigrations.
A Heavy Silence
Tlanipatlan de las Limas doesn’t look like other impoverished communities in that part of Guerrero. Its adobe houses paint the town’s majestic green hill with a checkerboard of red. From the road leading to it, it looks like a fairy tale town. Closer to it, however, the locked homes and heavy silence of the streets suggest a tale of terror.
The fear extends to the nearby communities, such as Liberaltepec and San Felipe Ocote in the neighboring municipality of Apaxtla, some 20 minutes away. There, on September 19, 60 armed men lay siege to the two communities. For three days, they cut off all communication to and from the outside. Nobody could enter or leave.
Tlanipatlan, after the exodus, was empty for months. The people have started to come back, little by little, but nobody is sure that they’ll stay. That’s especially true for the elderly.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Displacement
Those older residents always string together cempasuchil flowers -- the orange Mexican marigolds associated with autumn -- on the eve of the celebrations of the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is October 4. “These are all my fellow citizens,” says Guzman, the commissar, gesturing toward the 50 or so people gathered together. A head count reveals that in attendance are 24 senior citizens, 10 other adults and 14 children.
Typical of what the remaining residents’ lives are like is the lack of antidote medicine for scorpion stings, a basic necessity in the region. The Health Secretariat hasn’t delivered any in months. Its staff is too afraid to go there.
For the elections last June 7, the residents had to go to vote in another town, Oxtotitlan, because they couldn’t get the required 100 voters together to qualify for a polling station.
Two students attend the secondary school, out of the 40 that used to go there. The numbers are similar for the elementary school and kindergarten.
The gang violence in the area has put an end to bands that once filled the town with music, and to any kind of party (although the commissar says there was a "Grito de la Independencia" ceremony on September 15).
“Corn was growing all around here,” says one of the remaining residents, who is 84 years old. “Now there’s no cornfields. Some ran cattle. Where’s the cattle now?”
But, he says, he is not afraid. “Why should I be afraid of them?” he says, referring to the criminal gang members. “What are they going to take from me? All I have is this old skin.”
In human rights circles, there’s a specific definition of “mass displacement.” It consists of the simultaneous mobilization of 10 or more nuclear families for a single cause. Between 2008 and 2014, there have been 121 such mass displacement episodes in Mexico, the causes being confrontations between cartels and security forces, religious intolerance and political conflict.
In more human terms, “mass displacement” usually means that entire families are forced to abandon their homes, taking only what they can carry.
A fifth of those displacement episodes happened in Guerrero, a state where such events doubled in the last year, making it the national leader. Earlier in 2015, the percentage was even higher. According to data from the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, 40 percent of the 23 forced removals in Mexico in January and February of this year took place in Guerrero, with more than 9,000 people displaced.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Most of them took place in the municipalities of Apaxtla, Teloloapan, San Miguel Totolapan, Chilpancingo, Atoyac, Chilapa and Acapulco.
“The people who have been forced to leave have no mechanism or institution available to them for protection or help,” the commission says in a report.
Teloloapan, the seat of the municipality of the same name, has 12 unarmed police officers to protect 62,000 residents scattered over the 176 communities that make up the municipality.
There used to be 80 officers, but after the attack on the rural teachers college students in Iguala last year, every municipal police agent in the state was required to submit to a “confidence” or reliability evaluation. Only 15 of the 80 agreed to be evaluated. The rest resigned. Nobody asked them why.
Of the 15 who took the test, 12 passed. They were assigned to administrative duty by the Federal Police, who had taken over operations throughout the Tierra Caliente.
Teloloapan Mayor Robell Uriostegui of the Democratic Revolution Party says he has no problem with the federal presence, and in fact would like to see them do more.
“Besides what we can do ourselves, we really need federal involvement,” he says. “But they should carry out some real operations, not just the simulations they’ve been doing.”
He is saying this on his first day on the job as head of the municipal government.
His predecessor wore a bullet-proof vest throughout his term and was always accompanied by federal security personnel. Just before he took office, a video circulated in which he supposedly made a commitment with the Familia Michoacana drug cartel to name a police chief who would not go after them. The former mayor said he was forced to make that video.
Uriostegui says he will use part of his $120,000 monthly security budget to install surveillance cameras. He says he’s negotiating with the military to have a barracks installed in the municipality, which, he says will provide “a little bit of calm.”
The city plans to donate 60 hectares for the military installation. But there’s a problem. Half the proposed land houses squatters who have no other place to live.
The Teloloapan government has started building shelters for the displaced and the mayor is exploring the idea of creating an emergency fund for displaced people.
His reasoning: “How is it their fault that we the authorities aren’t capable of solving the organized crime problem?”
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico, as part of the series, "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.