Reports of a looming humanitarian crisis are emerging from the mountain region where Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuaha meet in Norhtwest Mexico. They come after military operations lead by the Mexican marines to allegedly recapture the most wanted man in the country, drug dealer Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
The area is informally known as the Golden Triangle due to the active drug trade in its hard-to-access towns, hidden in the foliage and nestled between the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Since October 14, 2015 the army has engaged in sustained clashes with an armed group supposedly protecting Guzmán, who ran away from a maximum security prison in the Highlands at the heart of the country last July.
In his report for the local media outlet El Debate, journalist Raúl Rodríguez Cortés said:
La operación fue realizada hace una semana en Tamazula, Durango, por personal de la Unidad de Operaciones Especiales (Unopes) del 27 Batallón de Infantería de Marina y de las Fuerzas Especiales (FES) del Cuartel General del Alto Mando con sede en la Ciudad de México.
La operación naval se puso en marcha tras interceptar llamadas telefónicas, correos y mensajes de texto en los que se indicaban desplazamientos y puntos de encuentro para reuniones entre jefes del cártel de Sinaloa que se verían en la zona serrana entre Sinaloa y Durango. Se cree, incluso, que Guzmán Loera estaba por encontrarse con su lugarteniente en el cártel de Sinaloa, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
The operation took place a week ago in Tamazula, Durango. It was lead by the Special Operations Unit (Unopes) of the 27 Infantry Marine and Special Forces Batallion (FES) from the High General Command of Mexico City.
The navy operation started after intercepted phone calls, emails, and text messages indicated movement and meeting points for the Sinaloa cartel chiefs, who were set to gather in a mountain area between Sinaloa and Durango. They even believed that Guzmán Loera was going to meet with his lieutenant in the Cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
After the operation, some media (including the one quoted above) claimed that the drug lord sustained injuries to his face and one of his lower limbs. At the same time, few agencies have reported on the consequences of the military action for the civilian population, who besides living in a remote area face the unleashed violence of the armed forces (from the State) and the gangster groups.
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Noroeste (a regional journal) produced an early report soon after the confrontation on the state of the displaced people who took shelter in Cosalá, one of the 18 municipalities that form Sinaloa:
De acuerdo con el Alcalde de Cosalá, Samuel Lizárraga Valverde, el DIF local tiene contabilizados, de acuerdo con la ayuda que se solicita, alrededor de 600 personas en situación de refugio por el desplazamiento forzado de sus comunidades desde que inició el éxodo de habitantes de la sierra la semana pasada.
According to the major of Cosalá, Samuel Lizárraga Valverde, the local authorities have counted—using the data from the people who have asked for help—close to 600 refugees after the forced displacement of their communities since the population exodus from the mountains started last week.
The report later adds:
Organismos como Article 19 y la Comisión de la Defensa de Derechos Humanos de Sinaloa han definido la situación que se vive en Cosalá como “crisis humanitaria” que debe atenderse con urgencia.
Organizations such as Article 19 and the Human Rights Defense Commission of Sinaloa have defined the situation in Cosalá as a “humanitarian crisis” and said it should be handled with urgency.
The following video by El Debate shows some of the affected persons after the operation and hightlights the testimony of one of them:
No les interesó que hubiera niños […] cuando menos pensamos [apareció] el helicóptero… y nos dijimos que va de paso, como siempre, cuando [de pronto] se dio vuelta y empezó a echar chorros de balas.
They didn't care there were children […] when we least expected the helicopter [appeared]… and we told each other that it was just passing by, as always, when [suddenly] it turned back and started to shoot a rain of bullets.
The actions of the State, allegedly aimed at recapturing Guzmán, emerged in the media a few days after journalist Carlos Loret de Mola shared the audio and video of the moments before and after the drug lord escaped. The material shows the prison guards searching for Guzmán outside his cell. Minutes after noticing he isn't there, they start searching underneath the army bed in which he slept, all without activating the contingency protocols in case of a breakout. In his opinion piece, published by El Universal, León Krauze said that the video is evidence of the seeming negligence and added that “México is a joke to the world. It is maybe our biggest shame in at least 20 years.”
The damage suffered by the population as a consequence of the clashes has also been reported by a handful of international media, such as AFP and MSN, which published a report on the events, putting the spotlight on the citizens whose homes and possessions have been shot to pieces and even set on fire. The international coverage also mentions the disappearance of at least eight people since the State's forces first opened fired against civilian houses.
A few months ago, the blog Estado Mayor republished a piece with the transcript of a speech given by the specialist Brenda Pérez in a displaced people forum, where she shared some numbers that expose the size of the problem around the country:
Recordó que la Encuesta Nacional de la Dinámica Demográfica señala que 6.4 por ciento de la población migrante del país cambió de lugar de residencia por la delincuencia, equivalente a 236 mil 800 personas.
También la última Encuesta Nacional de Victimización del INEGI expone que 1.3 por ciento de las personas manifestaron que algún miembro de su familia cambió de residencia por la violencia, equivalente a millón y medio de personas.
She remembered that the Demographic Dynamic National Poll says that 6.4 percent of the migrant population of the country changed its place of residence due to delinquency. That's about 236,800 persons.
Also the last Victims National Poll by INEGI exposes that 1.3 percent of the people claim some member of their family moved because of violence. That is close to a million and a half people.
In a strict sense, the internally displaced persons—people who have left their homes behind because of an armed conflict—are entitled to humanitarian help according to human rights law, says the International Red Cross Committee. However, that doesn't mean that those who have been displaced in Mexico have effectively received the aid that the human rights standards warrant, as it has been rightly pointed out by Insight Crime in a piece written by Kyra Gurney.
The issue of internal displacement is not endemic to the Golden Triangle area. Guerrero and Michoacán in Souhteast Mexico are other states where people have had to abandon their homes, leaving behind whole “ghost towns” given the government's war against organized crime.