Mexican drug cartel violence forces people out of their homes


EL CAJÓN, Mexico – Two years ago, more than 100 people lived in this small village in the state of Michoacán, in western Mexico.

Now there are only eight.

A local feast celebrating Saint Michael the Archangel, the city’s patron saint, was held over two days, with loads of food and festive banda, regional Mexican music. There is no party this year – only three men dressing a statue of the saint between cleaning a church.

El Cajón is one of hundreds of villages near the US border that have been turned into ghost towns by crime and violence forcing people to flee, either to other parts of the country or to the United States. The village has about sixty abandoned houses riddled with bullet holes, surrounded by grass and forgotten objects. People left everything behind after the brutal attacks by the Mexican drug cartels.

Abandoned school in El Cajon.

According to the Center for Monitoring Internal Displacement in Mexico, there were 9,700 new displacements due to the conflict in 2020, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in Mexico to 357,000 people last December. Around 24,000 displaced migrants, mostly from Michoacán, are expected to travel to Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States, according to recent coverage by the Border Report news agency.

“Over the past two decades, the way in which criminal groups exercise violence, and against whom, has changed dramatically in Mexico,” said Falko Ernst, senior research security analyst for the International Crisis Group on the country’s deadly conflict. the groups have evolved towards a deep territorial penetration. They seek to control not only the land but also the people. “

From a strategic standpoint, Ernst said, criminal groups clearly recognize how essential it is to have local civilians on their side.

Sometimes they try to entice people with displays of benevolence like handouts.

But more often than not, they threaten people with coercion and violence.

A man stands in front of the altar of the Church of El Cajon.  He was the only person who decided not to leave the place because of the remaining old people who depended on him.

Tierra Caliente

In September, journalists based in Mexico traveled for The Courier Journal to the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) region of Michoacán to document the forced displacement in one of the country’s most dangerous and forgotten places.

In this region, the ongoing conflict between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the Los Viagras drug cartel and armed self-defense groups has left countless dead, thousands displaced to the interior and a growing number of people seeking to flee across the US border.

CJNG is Mexico’s bloodiest and most powerful drug cartel. The US State Department has awarded a reward of up to $ 10 million for any information leading to the arrest and / or conviction of its leader, Ruben Oseguera Cervantes, also known as “El Mencho “.

An abandoned car with bullet holes near El Cajon.

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After gaining access to the CJNG area, reporters saw men who identified themselves as a vigilante group, armed civilians protecting themselves from drug cartels, but who locals said were members of the police. these cartels. After driving 40 minutes on rough roads, reporters noticed a Mexican military barracks in the middle of the road, with .50 caliber guns pointed at the nearby town, the lawless birthplace of El Mencho, Aguililla.

There, the isolation was palpable, with deserted roads and abandoned houses. Gunmen stood near the roadblocks, deciding who to allow entry into the area, which is considered CJNG territory.

An abandoned house near El Aguaje.  On the fence are the letters CJNG, for Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

In El Aguaje, a tall man got out of a van stamped with the letters CJNG and approached the journalists. Three other men remained inside the vehicle.

“Who are you?” the tall man asked, holding a long gun.

“We are journalists,” replied photographer Cristopher Rogel Blanquet. “Your group has granted us permission to be here. ”

The man asked what they were doing there, and Blanquet told him that they were pursuing a story of forced displacement due to violence. The man replied, “Got it. Don’t forget that this is a war between cartels… ”

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Journalists have learned that some of the former residents of this region and other parts of Michoacán had to flee to a neighboring Mexican state. Many hope to return one day.

“They hope that the situation in their home communities stabilizes and the violence decreases,” said Dana Graber Ladek, head of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Mexico. “If they are fleeing violence and looking for safety, it is also a very stressful and undesirable situation for these people.”

Other residents seek asylum in the United States, many of them unsuccessful.

The "El Aguaje" the entrance sign is marked with bullet holes.

More than 900,000 migrants attempting to cross the border have been deported under COVID-related rules that went into effect in March 2020, according to figures from the US Customs and Border Patrol.

A 40-year-old man from El Cajón, who declined to give his name because he feared for his safety, said he had not left the village because his sister and uncle were among the eight people remaining. Because there is no place to work, he said he survives on money sent by family members now living in the United States.

“It was hard to live for more than a year without electricity and running water,” the man told reporters. “I didn’t want to leave because I still have to take care of my sister and my uncle, and not leave them all. There are sick people here, old people, I don’t need to live (like ) that, but I do it for them We are a family now.

Migration and deep scars

Experts said it was impossible to know the true scale of displacement in a country where conflict continues to escalate and the government has not done enough to tackle the root causes.

“It is difficult to assess whether the phenomenon is becoming more common or simply whether displacement is becoming more visible,” said Alvaro Sardiza, surveillance expert for the Americas at the International Displacement Monitoring Center.

Graber Ladek said Mexico is a “very unique country in terms of migratory dynamics” due to its geography and location.

“It’s also a big transit country, so there are a lot of people going through Mexico, the majority of those who have the United States as their destination,” she said. “And of course, this is a country of return. These people who are simply deported, deported or choosing to return to Mexico.”

Interior of an abandoned house in the community of El Cajón.  The people who lived there left because of the war between the criminal groups fighting over the area.

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While there are other reasons for forced displacement in Mexico, the presence of heavily armed and powerful criminal organizations is significant.

Over the years Michoacán has been a strategic location for criminal organizations to stimulate their illegal activities. It is home to the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, a gateway for shipments of precursor chemicals from Asia used in the production of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.

The battles for territory have left deep scars on innocent Mexicans who are not involved in drug trafficking.

“We are civilians, we are not involved in any of the conflicts,” said the 40-year-old resident of El Cajón. “It’s difficult because you can’t get out, or they would think you are supporting one side or the other. We spent over two months in hiding due to the shootings.

As the drug cartels become more powerful and gain territory, more Mexicans are forced to live this way or to leave their homes.

Experts say state and federal governments are not doing enough to help restore law and order.

“Mexico’s federal and state forces have acted, at best, as passive spectators and at worst as active participants in the conflict, taking sides by collaborating with one or another criminal group. “said Ernst, the security analyst.

The uncle of a 40-year-old resident who refused to give his name also remained in El Cajón.

“For now, the watchword is passivity and complicity, and that means these new, more aggressive ways of waging war – such as the deliberate targeting of civilian populations – are allowed with impunity.”

Unless criminal organizations suffer any consequences, Ernst said, “the escalation of violent practices will continue” and “humanitarian costs, including displacement as well, will continue to rise.”

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Experts said federal government officials were drafting legislation to prevent internal displacement. But for now, they expect the problem to get worse.

Back in El Cajón, the 40-year-old tries to stay optimistic.

“Right now we feel free because the shooting has stopped,” he said. “Maybe next year things would get better. Probably with fewer people, but the patronal feast could happen again. “

Karol Suárez is a journalist born in Venezuela and based in Mexico City. Cristopher Rogel Blanquet and Armando Solis contributed to this story.

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