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Drug Trade and War Against Organized Crime Create Ghost Towns in Mexico


Ocurague, a ghost town. This was once a school. Photo courtesy of citizens of Ocurague, used with permission.

The original version of this article was written by Silber Meza and Francisco Cuamea and was published on CONNECTAS’ website.

Every night, the inhabitants of Ocurague, in the Sierra Madre Occidental area of western Mexico, used to sneak away from their homes to hide among the bushes. They would listen from the shadows to the explosion of weapons, the sounds of the 4×4 vehicles and the trucks that flattened the dirt tracks.

When silence fell again, they would calm their fears and return to their homes. It was the signal that the danger had passed. For that night, at least.

This is what life was like in 2011 in this town in the Sierra Madre Occidental, part of the municipality of Sinaloa de Leyva in the Northwest of the country and very near to Badiraguato in the State of Sinaloa. The location forms part of the so-called “Golden Triangle” of the Mexican drug trade, which includes the mountainous parts of the States of Durango, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa.

As the months passed, the locals’ fear grew when violence in the region spiralled into murders stemming from confrontations between organized crime groups. At the beginning of 2012, an armed group kidnapped and killed a young man from the neighbouring town of San José de los Hornos. Esperanza Hernández, a woman in her 50-s, who is originally from Ocurague and moved to the city of Guamúchil in the municipality of Salvador Alvarado in Sinaloa, remembers the following episode:

Cuando mataron al muchacho ese de San José de los Hornos los hombres no se atrevieron a ir a levantarlo, por eso las mujeres fuimos por él, acompañadas del Comisario. Ahí habían dejado un papel donde se atribuían el asesinato; el papel decía que eso les iba a pasar a todos los ‘dedos’ (soplones) de (el narcotraficante Joaquín Guzmán) ‘El Chapo’, que porque ahí era puro Beltrán Leyva (los hermanos Marcos Arturo, Alfredo, Héctor y Carlos Beltrán, antiguos aliados y ahora rivales)

When they killed that boy from San José de los Hornos the men didn't dare to go and get him, and so us women went for him, accompanied by the police inspector. They'd left a piece of paper there claiming the murder; it said that this was going to happen to all of “El Chapo's (the drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán) ‘fingers'” (informers), because this area was now Beltrán Levya's (the brothers Marcos Arturo, Alfredo, Héctor, and Carlos Beltrán, old allies and now rivals).

This new criminal group gave the people in the town a choice: join them, abandon their homes, or die at their hands, Hernández recalls:

Asesinaron a una familia entera. Los cuerpos quedaron ahí tirados. El Comisario, antes de salir, dio aviso a la cabecera municipal de Sinaloa de Leyva. Fue una cosa muy difícil y muy fea: imagínese tener que dejar ahí a los cuerpos, y la gente tener que venirse por el miedo. Una persona decía que venían los Beltrán Leyva a quemar el rancho y a matar al que encontrara

They murdered an entire family. Their bodies were left lying there. Before he left, the inspector warned the municipal council of Sinaloa de Levya. It was a horrible thing to do and very difficult: imagine having to leave the bodies there, and other people having to come in fear. Someone said that the Beltrán Leyvas were coming to burn the ranch and kill anyone they found there.

Hernández talks with a vague expression, as she remembers the murders of 30 people from the area, and the exodus of 96 families that had lived in Ocurague, now reduced to a ghost town.

The terror became too much: Esperanza fled on January 12, 2012, along with her family and the entire town. She left the grocer's shop where she worked, her house, her allotment, her living. Everything.

Since then, this single mother has become an activist, fighting for the improvement of conditions for the displaced. She's made a register of those who ended up in Guamúchil and has compiled a list of those who went to the north of the State, especially the families who settled in Guasave and in Choix.

The trauma caused by this exile has been huge, explains Hernández. To begin with there's the lack of a home and a job, and then there's the unfamiliarity of city life, where everything has a price, even water:

No podemos acostumbrarnos a vivir aquí: allá, si se acaba el gas, hay leña; tenemos gallinas que producen huevo, tenemos carne, queso; tenemos agua. Ocurague significa lugar donde nace el agua; hay un arroyo que nunca se seca. Nunca carecemos de fruta: ¡aquí hay que comprarla!

We cannot get used to living here: there, if you run out of gas, there's firewood. We have chickens that produce eggs, we have meat and cheese, we have water. Ocurague means “the place where the water is born”; there's a stream that never dries out. We never run out of fruit there, but here you have to buy it!

The temperatures are another change: in Ocurague they lived among pine trees, but now they are suffering in temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius. Many of the displaced don't even have a fan.

The majority of the exiles’ demands continue to be the same as they were at the beginning: the return of their families to their towns with guarantees for their safety, or else help finding a job, education, and compensation for the lands and everything else they have lost at the hands of the drug gangs.

On March 6, 2015, Esperanza Hernández was threatened by the criminal groups and forced to flee again, this time to the country's capital, the Federal District. After weeks of paperwork and with help from national human rights organisations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH) awarded her and her relatives protection from the Mexican State. Afterwards, she returned to Sinaloa and is now continuing to work on behalf of the displaced victims.

According to figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Council for Refugees (IDMC-NRC) used by the UN, towards the end of 2013 there were at least 33.3 million refugees in the world. The huge numbers were mostly caused by armed conflict, generalised violence, and violations of human rights.

By the end of 2013, at least 6.3 million people had been subjected to internal displacement in the Americas. The vast majority are in Colombia, where this figure has been constantly rising. In Mexico, forced exile has become more common since 2006, when Felipe Calderón became President of Mexico and began a direct, military-style battle against the drug trade. In response, the criminal groups have fragmented, among them the Sinaloa cartel.

Since 2008, the “federation” in Sinaloa has divided: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada are now against the Beltrán Levya brothers. This has led them to fight for territory all over the country, particularly the area that produces the most marijuana: the mountainous areas of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.

Forced displacement has not stopped since then, and despite its advancement, the Mexican State still has not implemented any clear policies to put a stop to it.

Laura Rubio Díaz Leal, an academic from the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) and one of the few who have studied the phenomenon of displacement, criticises the Mexican government for not wanting to accept that there is a lack of security amongst the people as this would seem like an institutional weakness.

Durante el gobierno de Felipe Calderón se negaba abiertamente que existiera un problema de desplazamiento, y con (Enrique) Peña Nieto simplemente no se habla de eso: no sé qué es más grave, una negación o una omisión del tema.

During Felipe Calderón's time in government, he openly denied the fact that there was a displacement problem, while (Enrique) Peña Nieto simply does not talk about it. I don't know which is worse, denying the topic or ignoring it.

Since 2011, Díaz Leal has managed to document 121 instances of massive displacements in Mexico.

This investigation was published as part of a partnership with CONNECTAS and Global Voices Latin America, and was edited by El Universal and Noreste de México. Click HERE to find out more about the stories that are moving the region.

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