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.


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