The number of displaced people within Mexico has increased for the first time in three years, indicating that the country's powerful criminal groups have stepped up the type of public violence that harms citizen security.
At least 9,700 Mexicans were uprooted from their homes due to conflict and violence in 2020, about 2,600 more people than in 2019, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IMDC), a Norway-based non-governmental organization, which released its annual report in May. The total number of displaced people in Mexico since 2009 is 357,000, according to the organization.
The IMDC reported 25 major episodes of forced displacement in Mexico. The states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacán topped the list although displacements were also seen in Chihuahua, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa and Sonora.
Hundreds of people fled their homes in the violence-plagued region of western Mexico known as Tierra Caliente, which encompasses parts of Michoacán, Guerrero and Mexico states. In the small municipality of Zirándaro, with a population of merely 20,000, a war between the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and the Familia Michoacana led some 700 residents of one neighborhood to leave by the end of January, according to Zirándaro's mayor, Gregorio Portillo Mendoza. Two weeks later, an additional 1,200 people were displaced from other parts of the municipality.
In Michoacán, some 500 people were displaced in December after confrontations between the CJNG and rival Cárteles Unidos.
Violence between criminal groups hasn't been the only cause of displacements. The groups have also forced residents to leave after placing blockades that restrict the entry of food, medicine and fuel into towns. The town of Aguililla in Michoacán has been the scene of intense fighting this year, during which the CJNG and other groups have taken to using trenches and roadblocks, according to El Milenio. With supplies running low and violence not abating, church officials have encouraged residents to flee and seek asylum.
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While Mexico has seen record homicides in recent years, displacements had declined until last year, with the new uptick showing that criminal violence is once again causing ordinary citizens to flee.
Since 2016, internal displacements caused by crime or violence had steadily decreased, from 23,200 in 2016 to 7,070 in 2019. The International Crisis Group suggests that 2020's spike in displacements may have been caused by criminal groups capitalizing on the chaos from COVID-19. As state funding and authorities were focused on curbing the effects of the pandemic, the CJNG and its rivals used the security void to increase their activity and claim new territory.
Small groups contributed to displacements as well. At the beginning of the pandemic, Los Tlacos and Cartel del Sur battled over poppy crops and marijuana fields in Guerrero, displacing 300 people in the process. Much of the violence in Guerrero and Michoacán was related to turf wars that began before the pandemic but continued nonstop in 2020.
IDMC acknowledges that it has low confidence in its statistics for Mexico due to a lack of institutional data. All figures on displaced people come from local newspaper reports, which cannot track every case.
The Mexican government has made some efforts to address a lack of data on displacements. In September 2020, the Chamber of Deputies passed legislation that would create a national registry to track internally displaced people, an idea that has been discussed for years. The legislation is currently waiting for approval from the Senate.
This lack of data is particularly flagrant when comparing rural and urban areas. "All displacement events reported by media and civil society organizations took place in rural areas. Much urban displacement goes undetected, but results from the 2020 census suggest it is prevalent, particularly in the State of Mexico and...Mexico City," the IMDC report's authors wrote.