Early one morning, Fernanda heard a knock at the door of her home in the village of Ocurague, a handful of rough houses high in the mountains of the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa. A neighbour’s six-year-old son stood outside, clutching his baby brother to his chest. Gunmen had burst into his house during the night, and the rest of his family were lying dead in the patio, he said. “We left the bodies where they were and we all left that same day,” said Fernanda, who uses a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.
The massacre took place in 2012, but the gunman who killed her neighbours are still in control of Ocurague, and Fernanda and a dozen others who fled the village have been unable to return. “We thought it would be just be for a short while, until things calmed down. Three years later we still can’t go back,” she said.
Mexico’s drug wars have claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people in the last eight years; around 22,000 others have disappeared. The exact figures are the subject of intense debate, but another aspect of the violence has received much less attention: violence between warring crime groups and security forces has also forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
“This has been an invisible problem. We are dealing with authorities who do not want to recognize how serious this is,” said Laura Rubio, an academic working on internal displacement with an NGO called the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights.
A recent study by the commission concluded that at least 281,418 people have been internally displaced in Mexico since 2011. This total includes 141 “mass displacements” of 10 families or more. The organisation is hoping to use these figures to pressure the authorities into officially recognising Mexico’s displaced as victims of the violence, in order to help them get access to government support as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
The mountain range that dominates much of Sinaloa counts among the worst affected areas. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families are believed to have been expelled from the towns and villages across the area which has a long tradition of cultivating marijuana and opium poppies, as well as producing some of the country’s most infamous drug traffickers, such as Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who was arrested last year.
For many years, that history of law-breaking did not prevent local people from leading lives which were for the most part peaceful, said Fernanda and other former inhabitants of Ocurague. But towards the end of 2011, two murders in the region signalled the outbreak of war between the Beltrán-Leyva cartel and their erstwhile allies in the Sinaloa cartel. In the months of terror that followed, residents got used to seeing patrols of armed men in camouflage fatigues and masks. Some sent their teenage daughters away to live with relatives in less dangerous towns; young men also fled to avoid being forced to join cartel forces.
One family escaped their house just in time to avoid a visit by the gunmen – then watch from the woods as it was burned down. “We felt so helpless watching it happen, but there was nothing we could do,” recalled one member of the family.
As the tension mounted, the residents of Ocurague appealed to the army for protection – to no avail. After the massacre of Fernanda’s neighbours in January 2012, a couple of former residents said they even saw military vehicles loaded with electrical appliances they presumed had been looted from abandoned homes.
“We don’t know if they [the authorities] are motivated by fear or by money, but they haven’t done anything to help us. When the armed groups saw that they got even bolder and killed more people,” said Esperanza Hernández, one of the very few displaced people willing to see her name in print.
Three years later, the families say they still feel abandoned by the Mexican state. Many have settled in the sweltering lowland city of Guamúchil, where they struggle to find odd jobs to pay rent and put food on their tables. The group said that the only help they have received has been a donation of school uniforms. “The government has never wanted to accept that the violence was forcing people to leave the Sierra,” said Hernández. “It has been deaf and blind to what is going on.”
In August 2013 Hernández and a few others secured the promise of a military escort for a return visit to Ocurague. But when they arrived at the prearranged meeting point, the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. The group tried to proceed alone, but they turned back after being stopped and threatened by gunmen. The murders in that part of the mountains peaked in 2012, and have since dropped dramatically. Most local believe this is because the Sinaloa cartel ended as the victor of the turf war, but the state government says that improved security tactics have left the Sierra almost completely “pacified”.
“There are hardly any displaced people any more,” said retired General Moisés Melo García, the security coordinator in Sinaloa. “Little by little they have been returning to their towns as they see the new situation.”
But the most of the Ocurague refugees feel unable to return: some have heard that their homes are now occupied by new families; former neighbours describe how gunmen still roam the area, and fields which were once yellow and green with maize now glow with the deep red of opium poppies in bloom.
“We dream of going back, but we want to go with the protection of the authorities, because we are free people and we want to stay that way,” said one young man. “If I went back now it would be to be killed or recruited.”
By Jo Tuckman - The Guardian/April 3, 2015
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