Thousands of people from the country's southern states were recently internally displaced due to vicious drug wars in their towns and villages, while a procession of migrants heading toward the US border are in the spotlight.
CHILPANCINGO, Mexico — As the first caravan of migrants coming from Central America left the stadium where they were accommodated in Mexico City for the next stop on their way to the US border, another group of refugees were gathering in Chichihualco, a small town at the base of the sierra mountain region that surrounds Chilpancingo, capital city of the state of Guerrero.
Dubbed by some Mexican media outlets as ‘the other caravan’, these 1600 men, women and children are not seeking asylum from beyond Mexico's borders - they are fleeing deadly violence in the sierra mountain region. The arrivals to Chichihualco 22 days ago were from small towns located further up the mountain range. They fled their homes when their neighbourhoods became the site of armed conflicts related to the expansion of territory for organised crime. The ‘narco’ drug trade is particularly well-established in the region where around 50,000 people are involved in farming opium poppies.
Roberto, a tall young man from the town of Filo de Caballos in the municipality of Leonardo Bravo, told TRT World that he fled with his wife and their two-year-old daughter on November 11 when he heard that armed civilians were making threats to others in the neighbourhood. Houses, including his, were being looted as they left.
One of the protagonists of the conflict in Filo de Caballos was comunitarios from the community police group of Tlacotepec, the Policia Comunitario General Heliodoro Castillo. Tlacotepec is a city further up the mountain range. There is strong speculation that the group is linked to Onésimo “El Necho” Marquina Chapa, a well-known figure in organised crime in the sierra, where control of gold-mining territory is also in play.
Roberto is staying in the auditorium along with hundreds of others from the same town. He has sent his wife and child to another town several hours drive away. “They were very frightened and I want them to be safe,” he said.
The confrontations between armed civilian and police elements have left total disorder and destruction in their wake. Eight towns in the municipalities of Leonardo Bravo and Eduardo Neri are mostly deserted. In Filo de Caballos the comunitarios from Tlacotepec patrol the streets, as do the Guerrero state police. The streets are dominated by burned-out cars and family homes have been looted and are pockmarked with bullet holes. The number of dead and injured has yet to be confirmed.
The auditorium in Chichihualco, a worn building usually used for sports matches and community events, is now filled with fold-up tables, a makeshift kitchen and donated goods. In the evenings, the displaced people sleep on thin rubber mats normally used for gymnastics. “It’s so cold, sleeping on the floor”, one elderly man said. “The children are getting sick, they’re not going to school, there’s nothing to do all day. We all have families and jobs … we want to return but there’s no security and no government. Help can’t come fast enough.”
Cycle of violence continues
In the previous week, some of the displaced attempted to go home. They turned back when they were shot at, returning once more to the relative, bare-bones safety in Chichihualco.
There has been an unrelenting cycle of violence in this part of Mexico for some years, perpetrated by organised criminal groups linked to the ‘narco’ drug trade, with which government corruption is also implicated. As this displacement occurred 450 schools closed, many for the second or third time this year. The violence has also affected the functioning and development of hospitals, public transport, and other essential services. In Guerrero conflicts between narcos fighting for control of territory is estimated to be responsible for 2,318 homicides in 2017, a number that is expected to be exceeded in 2018.
David Barragan López remembers when the trouble started. López is an avocado farmer and President of the Unión de Comisarios de los Pueblos, the representative group of local town leaders for the sierra region.
“It was 2013” he says. “The comunitarios bought 20 armoured trucks.” They also acquired grenades and AK47s, adds López - and the government did nothing.
Roberto says the displaced have demanded that the government take action but are being ignored. “They could get the comunitarios to withdraw. The government could disarm them so we could all return to our communities. They’re not from our municipality - they’re trying to take over.”
So what is government doing? It’s complicated
Servando de Jesús Salgado Guzmán, a deputy in the State Congress of Guerrero has recently convened a special commision for the pacification and development of the sierra region, aimed at establishing infrastructure and strengthening co-ordination between the municipalities and towns. He told TRTWorld that the present political moment offered an opportunity to address “the roots” of the intertwined problems of poverty, marginalisation, violence, and opium poppy production in the sierra.
To be sure, a new political era for Mexico begins this weekend with the inauguration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, as President. There is some hope that the new federal administration will foster solutions to endemic violence such as that affecting the sierra region of Guerrero.
This is not the only recent instance of internal displacement driven by violence in Guerrero or indeed in Mexico. There are currently 70 indigenous Nahua people from the municipality of Zitlala in the lower mountain region of the state living in a basketball court in the town of Copalillo, some 55 kilometres away. It is estimated that more than 2,000 have been displaced from this region due to cartel-related violence recently. In the southern state of Chiapas, around 2000 indigenous Tzotzil and Tzetzal people fled their homes due to violence from armed groups. Such displacement has been a constant in Mexico for over a decade. In 2017 alone the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights reported that 25 cases of large-scale internal displacement occurred in Mexico, which affected 20,390 people.
People are displaced within Mexico for similar reasons to why people are migrating from Central America to seek refuge north of the border: violence related to the wars on drugs, and impoverishment caused by government corruption. The solutions may be complex and hard-won - but right now, people like Roberto and hundreds of other men, women and children just want to go home.