Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Tarahumara Mountains: Migrant Death Camps (PATRICIA MAYORGA)

Proceso published this report on 14 December 2015. It has been translated in anticipation of Patricia Mayorga receiving the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Press Freedom Award this November. The Mexican Journalism Translation Project will translate more work by Patricia Mayorga into English in the coming weeks and months so that English readers can familiarize themselves with the work of this brave Mexican journalist. At least 8 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in 2017. – Patrick Timmons 

The Tarahumara Mountains: Migrant Death Camps
Patricia Mayorga (PROCESO)


Migrants at the Julio Ornelas Station (Photo: Proceso)

They make them eat rotten meat. They beat them until they lose consciousness. They watch over them so they won’t escape. They stop them from washing. They do not earn a cent. These are the forced labor campus in the Tarahumara Mountains. It’s a place where drug traffickers dump migrants and exploit them after they have stolen their freedom.

Proceso managed to interview three of the survivors of these camps: Adrián, Mauricio and Aurelio. Their stories reveal a perfectly placed hell on earth, organized and sustained by the authorities.

“Welcome to hell!”

“Welcome to hell! In a moment we are going to introduce you to the devil!” they tell the migrants who get out at the Julio Ornelas train station. While they “invite” them to “work” they beat them.

Julio Ornelas is located in Guazapares, adjacent to Urique. These two municipalities border the state of Sinaloa, near the Golden Triangle where the states of Chihuaha, Sinaloa, and Durango come together.

That’s where Adrián was recruited. He’s restless but happy and comes from Baja California. He is 22 years old and talks about what he has already lived through. “When I was deported from the U.S., the authorities told us we were going to be taken to Ciudad Acuña in Coahuila. They told us it was a new system of migratory control so that we don’t try to cross the U.S. border again: leaving us far from where we are from so that we have to battle to go back.”

They arrived at the migrant refuge in two buses full of deportees. Adrián joined five other people who had been deported and he separated himself from them along the way. He only received a quarter of what the bus trip cost because in that month, September, Coahuila had gone through a natural disaster and the state had to direct funds to the people who had been affected.

They managed to get to Torreón in vehicles. Then they walked to Durango. Later they were put on a truck bound for Chihuahua.

“On September 15th we slept by the train tracks in Chihuahua. The other two guys began to smoke marijuana. The train left early in the morning. I parted ways with them and joined up with another. There were many people by the train tracks but only three of us got on the train. One was about 30 years old and came from Chihuahua. The other was from Hermosillo.”

They fell asleep and hours later they woke up to an AK-47 in their faces. “They poked us in the ribs with another gun. It was like five in the morning. They got us up by saying terrible things: “Move it you sons of bitches.”

Three men had stopped the train. Previously they had placed colored flags to tell the engineer to stop.

“They were youngsters just like us. One was the leader’s son … they forced other people out of different boxcars. We didn’t know what they were going to do. We were seven. One old man refused to go. I thought they were soldiers but they didn’t search us. They forced me out with a bayonet and gave me a kick.”

They walked for a day and a half towards the camp. They walked through a town called Tojabó. That’s where they think the food came from for the band of criminals.

They were forced from the train. Then they were told that they were going to make a “stop” for “a marijuana break.” They would pay them 200 pesos a day. They never received the money. “They told us that when we arrived they were going to butcher a cow. They did that. But the carcass was rotten and filled with worms. There was no way to negotiate with them. Iron or lead, that’s what they told us.”

On the way to the camp they saw many ranches and camps. They saw women who were walking and who were all bloody. “It was their time of the month. We did not speak to them. We almost did not see them. They did not let anybody wash or change their clothes. Sometimes we could bathe if we passed through an arroyo but no more than that.”

“Now I’m going to introduce you to the ‘devil,’ said the son of the thug in charge. They had arrived.

He received them dressed in military fatigues and he warned them: “Whoever escapes will not find freedom. We control these hills. This is not the only camp.”

Adrián was not accustomed to fieldwork. He had to learn. But he suffered physical abuse because he would not give in like the others. “One time they almost broke my arm.”

For almost three months Adrián prepared the fields where they planted poppies and marijuana. They even grew tobacco.

“They fed us bean soup. They spooned us animal feed. Sometimes it was animal feed gruel, or milk whey, or a broth of bones. The thugs ate well. They stole livestock, mostly cows for their meals. We only smelled them grilling meat.”

After six weeks soldiers arrived in a helicopter. “We already had a plot of marijuana drying. I ran away. I did not know if they had landed or if they had arrived and established a cordon. I ran all afternoon. That was my first escape attempt. The next day I awoke after taking shelter under a boulder. I knew that I had no other option but to go back.”

“I went back frightened. I knew they were going to hit me for leaving. I saw that the soldiers had cut down several trees so the helicopter could land.” Only two of the six who had arrived with Adrián made it back. They were from Sinaloa, Honduras, Aguascalientes, Torreón and Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, a town in Chihuahua.

The soldiers did not burn all of the drugs. They left half intact. The forced labor continued.

The three interviewees say that the leader comes from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, employed by the cartel carrying that state’s name.

Mauricio arrived after the next trip to press-gang more migrants. He is 27 years old and comes from the state of Chihuahua. They also forced him to get out at the Julio Ornelas station. He was trying to get back home. He had left from the Sufragio station in Los Mochis in Sinaloa.

Target Practice

At the camp there is a cabin for the overseers. But the workers sleep under a tree with the chickens. They give some of them a blanket but others have to wrap themselves up in jackets or just the clothes they have. They take their worn out shoes or sneakers away from them during the night so they won’t escape.

At the first crow of the cock, around five in the morning, they have to be ready, with their blankets folded. When the cock crows again they can eat a spoonful of soup. With the third cockcrow, that’s when work begins.

Adrián has brushed up against death. He survived target practice. When one of the bosses became angry because somebody tried to escape he took three or four of them and put a bottle filled with water on their heads. It was target practice. He shot at them one by one. If he hit the bottle they were all saved and they deserved to live. If not, they killed them.

Sick of the insults and the beatings, Adrián tried to flee but the dogs stopped him. The punishment: target practice. When it was his turn the bullet missed. But he was saved.

Mauricio heard that one of the men who arrived with another group was killed. “They showed me where they burned him. There were some bones. They told me that the bosses threw a man off the cliff that made cheese for them. He had stolen a cheese. One of the guys told me that we were surviving thanks to the three or four tortillas they gave us each day.”

“They treated us rudely. They always hit us on the back with a club. One boss almost broke my right arm. It was swollen. I could not carry firewood or bales of marijuana,” says Mauricio.

Adrián finishes what the other was saying. “Mauricio was working in the field and it was easier for him. But all of it was humiliating. What they wanted to do was kill your self-esteem.”

Mauricio continues, “We only talked about what we were going to do when we got out of there. We all said that the person who made it out had to say where we were, to do something for the rest of us.”

The three told Proceso about their experiences in Ciudad Chihuahua. That’s where they received support from the civil society organization Uno de Siete Migrantes (One of Seven Migrants).

The Tarahumara Mountains turned into a hidden training camp for killers, a center of forced labor to plant marijuana, a hell for migrants deported from the United States and who had to ride the rails in cargo trains.

Although they seem invisible to people in the state capital, hundreds of Mexican and Central American migrants arrive in Ciudad Chihuahua to ride the cargo train that runs through the mountains towards the state of Sinaloa.

On December 4th, Chihuahua’s Attorney General received a complaint for people trafficking from Mauricio. He decided to file a complaint because that’s what he promised his still enslaved friends.

On different dates, three of the migrants mentioned climbed into boxcars at the Sufragio station in El Fuerte Municipio. They were trying to make it to Sinaloa. They were forced from the train in Julio Ornelas station in Guazapares township before they made it to Sinaloa.

Like them, dozens of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras had been held by force. Several managed to flee but fear paralyzed them and stopped them from filing a complaint.

The Escape

Near the camp were two hills that served as reference points. One was Tojabó mountain and the other El Manzano, where there is an airstrip.

Adrián and Mauricio agreed to flee when they sent them to milk the cows, an activity that took around an hour. They walked away from the Tojabó village and its five or six houses.

They walked for more than a day. They arrived at La Guáchara ranch. They asked a family for help. They gave them food and offered them work for three days in marijuana fields but with better treatment. They managed to get a ride to Cerocahui in Urique municipality.

The mining town of Cerocahui is guarded by lookouts from the Sinaloa cartel but with bosses different from those of Guazapares. “When we got out from the truck, they found us and questioned us. We told them the truth because we already knew that they came from a different group. It was like a survival instinct. They offered us work. They told us it was voluntary and that we could be there for two weeks to decide if we wanted to stay there or not. They were armed but not with long guns,” Mauricio remembers.

They took us to another hill where there were indigenous adolescents from about 14 to 17 years old. They were from the region. They just had to move the irrigation from one marijuana field to another. They gave them food and allowed them to prepare what they want. It was like a dream. They treated them well.

They soon figured out that the armed men went into the hills to recruit youngsters for their training camps. “They give them weapons and they go to attack another territory and make them shoot. The ones that can’t shoot well they leave until they learn.”

On November 20th, when there were festivals in Cerocahui and Bahuichivo (both places have cartel bosses), one indigenous person from the region said they wouldn’t let them go and it was still forced labor. He showed them how they could escape.

They left Cerocahui for Bahuichivo by walking. They hitched a ride to San Rafael and from there they got to Ciudad Chihuahua. They went to the train tracks where they found food and were interviewed by members of the organization, Mas de Siete Migrantes (More than Seven Migrants), who offered them legal, psychological and economic aid while they stayed in the city to file their complaint with the Attorney General.

On December 4th, Adrián filed his complaint and returned to where he comes from. Mauricio also went back to where is from. Aurelio has left for the United States with the intention of rejoining his family.

Investigative reporter Patricia Mayorga is a prize-winning Mexican journalist from Chihuahua. She works with Proceso, Mexico’s premier investigative news magazine. After the murder of her friend and colleague Miroslava Breach in March 2017 in Ciudad Chihuahua, she went into exile and is currently in hiding. The Committee to Protect Journalists will honor her with its Press Freedom Award this November.

Translator Patrick Timmons is human rights investigator and lawyer, and a journalist. His articles have appeared in the Texas Observer, CounterPunch and NACLA. He collaborates with the Freedom of Expression Project at the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego. He is participating in #agendadeperiodistas, a new group formed by journalists to protect journalists. He lives in Mexico City.


Madera, Chihuahua: A Land Living through War (Marco Antonio López – La Silla Rota)

Madera, Chihuahua: A Land Living through War
Marco Antonio López (La Silla Rota)

Las Varas 1

Las Varas, Chihuahua has a population of 1,417. It is the site of brutal confrontations between two warring drug cartels.

Las Varas, Chihuahua is a town where nobody knows who is in control nor what rules apply. To survive people know what it takes to stay safe after six in the evening. Survival is what they think about when they use the highways crossing Chihuahua’s western mountain range.

Las Varas, with its population of 1,417 people, is where two drug cartels fight over territory, according to the explanation from the Office of the State Attorney General in the Western District. La Línea of Ciudad Juárez and the Sinaloa Cartel have let loose war in Chihuahua’s mountains, submerging the western part of the state in a violent dynamic, severely impacting the region’s tiny population. Death, shootouts, kidnappings and disappearances have become routine, daily events.

Those in control for now are the state, federal and military security forces. They arrived this Wednesday after a confrontation between both criminal groups leaving fifteen dead and wounding five people. But the second in command of the Chihuahua State Police, Alberto Chávez also says that once they leave the area will be unprotected, at the drug traffickers’ mercy.

So the police do not have permanent control. Nor do La Línea or the Sinaloa Cartel. The mountains are the land everybody wants and nobody has. The paradox is that the people who have least control are the ones who live there.

Las Varas 2

At the town’s entrance there is a sign that says, “Las Varas.” The rectangular metal bearing these letters has holes in it from at least a dozen heavy caliber bullets. Next to the sign there is a cemetery, and in it lie the dead with their rights to a name, remembrance, and Christian burial. The entrance to the cemetery is littered with spent shell casings, its gate shot up more than a hundred times. A bullet-ridden cross serves as a warning against poking around.

Las Varas 3

Two improvised bunkers sit right there by the main entrance. The hideouts are littered with cartridge boxes, two mattresses, food, cans, and bottles of beer. The police here said that they belonged to La Línea.

Behind the cemetery is a place set aside for those dead who, somebody decided, don’t deserve a cross with their name. Without a marked grave family do not know where to stop by with flowers from time to time. Five graves were found right there: a total of seven bodies in a state of decomposition. A mess of bones. All of the dead bodies were mutilated and two were decapitated. Untended graves. Nobody is looking any deeper into things. Although the second in command says that there are permanent traces of what happened, there are no investigators because they are all occupied elsewhere, collecting cadavers or identifying unnamed bodies.

Further into town there is a warehouse, the scene of a brutal massacre. Outside, shot up doors and walls. Inside there are bloody pools and blood spatters, macabre decorations left by merciless killers. Right here the lifeless bodies of those fifteen men and the five left alive but wounded were gathered up and taken to Chihuahua. The prosecutor says that the confrontation between the two criminal groups began around six o’clock on Wednesday morning, lasting about an hour, with security forces arriving afterwards. However, an official said that where you see a blood stain on the wall, that’s where an injured man was resting when somebody else found him and shot him in the head. His brains were spattered across the wall. The official version is dubious if not kind of tactless. “That’s where that pig was,” he says under his breath.

There are stretches of blood on the warehouse floor. They are black, that color blood makes when it dries. They are run through with the marks of truck tires trying to getaway. Nine vehicles – one of them armored – were seized there, along with long arms and fragmentation grenades. By midday Thursday what remained were bags of corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other food along with cushions, casings, bullets, bags, clothes, and marijuana. Everything behind a metal door bearing a stenciled sign: “Failing to make time for God means living is a waste of time.” It too is shot up.

Las Varas 4

The cemetery and the graves are by the town’s eastern exit, the one that leaves for the state capital. The warehouse with its massacre and its remains are to the south, towards Madera. The municipal building is in the town center. It is closed. Nobody came to work. There is a little building, barely the size of a room right beside the municipal building, its front wall riddled with holes left by large caliber bullets. The windows are all shattered. A burnt out truck sits right by the door. The room was a command post. Last week an armed group ambushed two state police officers, murdered without anybody able to stop the brutal attack.

In less than a month, eight bodies turned up, two police officers were murdered and fifteen suspected drug traffickers were killed. All of it happened in Las Varas. One person, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, said the graveyard was shot up because it was the site of another battle leaving as many or more dead from the warehouse fight. But no police turned up and each group carried off their own dead. These facts, however, do shock: at least twenty-four people were killed in the last month. Most of those buried bodies are just bones in several graves. The town has fewer than 1,500 residents.

The person who told the story about the graveyard said armed men who are not police have placed roadblocks on the highways. These men ask about where you are going and your purpose. They decide if you can continue on or not. They can take whatever they want from you, including your car. “That’s why I have this cellphone,” the man says, before proceeding to say how they took his other one on the highway from Madera to Las Varas.

The countryside is impressive and overbearing. Las Varas is one of 42 communal land holdings (ejidos) in the municipality of Madera. It’s the town that provides access to deep into the mountain range. It has a waterfall, a scenic overlook, rivers, swim parks, archaeological zones. All this beauty makes Las Varas magical. On sight paradise springs to mind. But these are abstract notions and the facts overwhelm instead. Violence has made this place into something quite different: a town with and without law in the service of drug cartels.

Las Varas 5

The natural beauty that makes Madera attractive is also its principal problem. Situated on the highway that wends into the mountain range, it has become a strategic point for drug trafficking. That’s why factions within the two cartels fight over this place, says Félix González spokesperson for the Western District of the Chihuahua Attorney General’s office.

The problem became so big that the municipal police, with its 100 officers and less than forty patrol cars became overwhelmed. State authorities entered into an agreement with the town, assuming control over security since 18 February. But violence is still on the rise. “Unfortunately, these things that cannot be avoided. It is a war between them. It’s like a family feud,” observes second in command Alberto Chávez Mendoza.

Las Varas 6

Of the fifteen killed in the shootout, five have been identified. They came from towns in Chihuahua. The youngest of them, Luis Leonel C., was 18 years old. Rafael C. was 25. Hugo Antonio G. was 33, Álvaro T., 35, and Astolfo C., 47. They spent their last day alive surrounded by the terror guns cause when aimed to kill.

The five wounded men were arrested. Only one of the wounded comes from Chihuahua, Leonardo G., who is 18 years old. Carlos H., 24, was born in Hidalgo. Efraīn G., 25, is from Michoacán. Marco Anotnio M., 27, comes from Tabasco. And Luis G., 36 years old, was born in Minatitlán.

A week ago, Chihuahua’s governor, Javier Corral announced a salary increase for state police officers, grants for their children and an increase in their life insurance policies. He committed himself to reducing violence in the state and of bringing calm to Chihuahua’s residents. The state attorney general, César Augusto Peniche, said the homicide rate was deceptive and that really security had improved.

Las Varas 7

The prosecutor’s office in the Western District impounded the shot-up trucks from the confrontation. One even has a bloody handprint on the bodywork.

A woman came out of the coroner’s office in tears. She had to identify a dead family member so that he could a have a name and a grave with a cross on it to visit from time to time.

A convoy of about thirty squad cars with more than sixty state police and prosecutor’s officers patrol the highway that winds into the Chihuahuan mountains. Soldiers on the lookout for criminals. Two helicopters soar above the immense pines. A commander says that they are about to leave and that the cartels will continue their fight over the region. In this battle the one with more kills wins.

Journalist Marco Antonio López Romero writes for La Silla Rota. He is based in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and freelance journalist based in Mexico City. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project.


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