As Mexico’s cartels continue to wage war against each other and government forces, many Mexicans find themselves quite literally caught in the crossfire, forcing thousands to abandon their homes in search of safety.
The headlines are constant, focusing on the brutality and murders of the cartels. Poured over by expert and the media are the implications of the violence for U.S. policymakers, the latest murder statistics, or the effect that the Mexico’s “drug war” is having on its internal politics. Largely overlooked is a segment of the population who are most affected by the conflict: Mexico’s increasing number of internal refugees
Although the volatile situation in Mexico makes hard data difficult to obtain, researchers at the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimate that 115,000 people have been forcibly displaced by Mexico's drug violence, and that the number is on the rise. As Sebastian Albujathe, IDMC’s Mexico program director, told Reuters this week, the actual number may be even higher, because the government does not keep track of displacement patterns.
"The focus of the government is obviously on beating the cartels,” said Albuja. “Beyond keeping a tally of people who have been killed, they are not tracking the impact of this violence on the civilian population.”
According to the IDMC’s data, many of those displaced come from the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Mexico (Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa) where Joaquin Guzman’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel control huge swaths of rural farmland used for cultivating marijuana and poppy plants.
One small village in Durango, Tierras Coloradas, was almost completely destroyed last December by masked gunmen presumably linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. According to the Reuters piece, nearly the entire town evacuated after 50 to 60 men in ski masks torched half the village - including two schools and the community store - as an assertion of their authority. As a result of such violent attacks, Durango's state government is scrambling for funds to rebuild homes and schools in the state, attempting to resettle some 1,400 people displaced people even as it lobbies the federal government for assistance in fighting the drug traffickers.
Not all displacement occurs in rural areas however; a significant portion of Mexico's displaced come from urban areas as well. For instance, in November The Economist reported that at least 6,000 people had fled Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, in response to shootouts between the region’s two competing drug trafficking organizations, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. As a result of the violence the town’s government abandoned its offices, moving its headquarters 15km away to Ciudad Miguel Alemán, where it also established a makeshift refugee camp.
This wave of displacement has promped comparisons to Colombia's refugee crisis that began in the late 1980s as guerrillas, paramilitaries and Colombian security forces all waged war for control of large swaths of the the country, particularly where drug cultivations were concentrated. An increasing number of Mexican soldiers and policemen are receiving counter-narcotics training in Colombia revealing that policymakers in both countries see some close parallels in their respective security situations.
Although Mexico and Colombia share a similiar, militarized approach to drug trafficking operations, the effects of the violence are somewhat different. As figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees indicate, this is hardly a neat comparison. With over three million internally displaced persons, Colombia has the highest displaced population in the world outside of the Sudan. Clearly, the future of citizen insecurity in Mexico is path-dependent, and the country is not simply doomed to mirror the situation in Colombia.
Still, the forecast for Mexico is not necessarily so bright. As recently released government statistics show, 2010 was the bloodiest year of Mexico's war on organized crime, and everyday Mexicans are growing increasingly fearful. As one 40-year old farmworker told Reuters, "people don't go out. There are no dances, no parties because of the threats they'll be machine-gunned."