Tag Archives: La Linea

The War Against Drugs in the Tarahumara Mountains and the Demise of a ‘Robin Hood’ (Patricia Mayorga/PROCESO)

News magazine Proceso first published this article on October 31, 2012.

This article is about the war in the mountains of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango that has raged for years and has only become worse. Even with stories like this one by Mayorga, or this year’s knockout crónica by Marco Antonio López, “Madera, Chihuahua: A Land Living Through War,” there is great reticence in the international community to annoy Mexico’s government by declaring the country’s situation a non-international armed conflict. Mexico has managed to avoid this status even with more than 100,000 deaths since Felipe Calderón widened the drug war in 2006 and even with more deaths from violent homicide in 2017 than in 2011.

And yet the experience on the ground, as Mayorga demonstrates, is indeed one of war: of people violently pushed from their homes, of men with guns, in the government and in organized crime, and of them firing from rooftops, or ambushing civilians.

It’s an intriguing article because it suggests that peace is possible, but not because Mexico’s state guarantees it, but because a drug warlord does. That’s not a term Mayorga uses, focused as she is on the way in which the region’s residents viewed the man who guaranteed their peace as a latter day “Robin Hood.”

Mayorga’s article – now five years old and still relevant — about the war without end in the Sierra Tarahumara has been translated in anticipation of her 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 so that readers who do not readily read Spanish can familiarize themselves with the work of this brave Mexican journalist.

At least 11 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in 2017. – PT

6ca32ab9

Uruachi Township, Tarahumara Mountains, Chihuahua


By Patricia Mayorga (PROCESO)

CHIHUAHUA, Chihuahua. – The assassination of Sinaloa Cartel capo Antonio Erives Arduño, 39, in Uruachi last Saturday has placed the region’s residents on high alert. The leader of this criminal group installed himself in Uruachi beginning in March 2011, styling himself as “protector” of its citizens because state, federal and local authorities are unable to respect and guarantee security.

Toño Erives, as he was known, used to help people with money, with supplies. He used to defend people who left him alone. He rescued teenagers from other gangs but he also enlisted or “tricked” others into his own.

For a year Antonio Erives managed to keep the town “peaceful” but last Saturday his rival arrived – one of the leaders of La Línea known as El Vaquero – to dispute the territory. People sought refuge in their houses while the confrontation raged between the armed groups.

Several people were killed, according to local authorities, although the precise number is not known. The confrontation lasted five hours.

In the Tarahumara Mountains it seems like there’s license to kill. The authorities and society blame the same families from those communities that have mostly sown and produced marijuana and poppies for decades, even though the violence has reached whole villages and left thousands of victims, many of whose names are never known.

Confrontations between drug traffickers have gone on forever. Residents say armed people have always been around and indigenous people and mestizos have always grown drugs. And that justification extends to giving permission to kill anybody, without knowing what he did or how many should be killed. The Chihuahuan mountains are a “no man’s land.”

The Power of Toño Erives

In the last week of March and at the beginning of April 2011, the confrontation between these criminal groups – the Sinaloa Cartel and La Línea – forced a whole village to spend night after night in the mountains. For a week they slept in low temperatures and at the mercy of the elements. This happened in Jicamórachi in Uruachi municipality.

On Monday April 9, Antonio Erives’ niece, Lidia, came down from the mountains. Her mother in law came with her, along with several aunts, and a group of children. They had all fled after some men they did not know burned down five of their properties.

Toño Erives and one of his wife’s uncles (who was assassinated in 2009 at age 19) rose to important positions in La Línea, the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel. Soon he began to stand out in this organization; however, the Sinaloa Cartel convinced him to join their ranks, marking the beginning of Sinaloa Cartel power in the region.

“He was a noble man,” Lidia says, “he gave people protection and he helped them, he lent them trucks so they could go to hospitals. He is a man with attractive features, a good person.”

El Vaquero (“The Cowboy”) arrived at Jicamórachi in March 2011. He was one of the leaders of La Línea and Erives’s former boss. The village held a dance to celebrate the coronation of their queen. A fight broke out among those assembled. Residents say that one of them took a truck laden with drugs and killed one of the men. Two days later a group of armed men, dressed like federal police, burned the villagers’ houses, including that of the town’s doctor, and also several vehicles. The rebel group entered the town shooting at nothing in particular. The people – the elderly, children, and entire families – ran to the mountains. Jicamórachi is tucked between several mountains.

A few families managed to flee and more than half of the 122 families in the village have not returned, says one of the former communal land commissioners. The villagers spent a whole weekend in the mountains. Delivery trucks refused to travel to Jicamórachi because of the risks along the way. Children became sick because the weather was chilly, forcing them to return home.

Almost all the villagers who had gone to the mountain and did not flee to other cities returned, except Lidia and her family who stayed on the mountain, hiding with her aunts and uncles. The houses burned by the armed men belonged to her family. They also burned a carpenter’s shop owned by Antonio Erives’s father. The Army arrived at the beginning of April and took over Jicamórachi’s primary school. Their presence allowed the villagers to return home.

Although she was terrified Lidia came down from the mountains. She did not say a word, only nodding in agreement that she wanted to stay with her in-laws. She had lived in the village for a brief time during her marriage but she refused to abandon it, confronting the violence on a daily basis and the demands for illegal payments that had for decades been normal  in the Tarahumara Mountains.

At the time the young woman avoided anybody who asked her for details about the violence. They suggested she leave the village to return to her family but she refused. She said that she did not want to abandon her mother-in-law and her aunts.

One week later she and her in-laws left the village. The State Police offered them a helicopter so they could leave. They arrived in Sonora a few weeks later. Lidia decided to go with her family to one of the state’s large cities. She found work in a department store and that brought her some piece of mind. During a lunch break she agreed to talk about her life in Uruachi.

She accepted that she needed psychological help. She had decided to take her life back. Some weeks later she got married and now she expects to have a baby.

A Wave of Shootouts

After the gunmen took Jicamórachi from Erives in March 2011, he and his people ambushed a caravan of vehicles driven by their enemies as they moved through the township. The leader of the other group, El Vaquero, was the target. He managed to flee in an armored car, according to one of Lidia’s teenage relatives who also belongs to Erives’s group.

A few days later, and by way of revenge, the men under El Vaquero’s control seized a busload of passengers including Antonio Erives’s sister. She was a councilwoman in Uruachi. The gunmen kidnapped her and began to negotiate: control over the region in exchange for the woman.

They agreed to find a place close to Gosogachi to hand her over.

A helicopter took the councilwoman and delivered to her brother. But they had tortured her. They burned her feet. After recovering his sister, “he made war.” Both groups fought each other from different hillsides. Toño’s group won.

In that same time period another of Uruachi’s villages, Memelichi, was taken. Its villagers told people by email that nobody could leave the village. The men ran away to hide themselves, they were so afraid, but the women and children stayed behind in the village.

After “the war” Erives’s enemy arrived in the township’s main village to launch a shootout lasting five hours. Apart from Toño’s group, poorly armed police and “three or four youth” participated in the violence. The young men climbed on the rooftops so their rivals would not know where the shots came from.

By shooting from the rooftops they managed to kill several people. The residents who did manage to talk by phone confirmed that they saw how they wounded and shot several people. Each group carried the bodies away with them, making it difficult to figure out an exact number of the dead or wounded.

The women told stories about seeing teenagers invade their patios with long guns. It made them afraid. The residents confirmed that several apple pickers were forced to fight in the “war”.

The mayor, Aldo Campos Rascón, realized a day later that the town was in shock. Many houses had been shot up and car windows shattered. He confirmed that at least 10 people had been injured. The mayor asked the armed forces to stay on permanently in an attempt to constrain the violence.

“If this situation doesn’t end, the Sierra will turn into a powder keg. The people are arming themselves or they want to join those groups. Young people are mostly the ones who leave.”

“They want to join up for all sorts of reasons. People are tired of living with this fear, so they go with one side or the other. It is complicated and if we aren’t careful very shortly it’s going to explode. The people are anxious and mistrustful,” warned the mayor.

Residents in the municipality soon came to see themselves as under Toño Erives’s protection. They helped the authorities with their tasks, from protecting lives, to taking people to hospital, or supporting those who needed to be fed.

From that moment on, at the end of March and the beginning of April 2011 there were some isolated and sporadic murders. This situation changed last week when Antonio Erives’s rivals killed him. He had become Uruachi’s “Robin Hood.” Fear now centers on how both groups will adjust to each other and the decisions their leaders are going to make.

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. He collaborates with the Freedom of Expression Project at the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. He is participating in #agendadeperiodistas, a group formed in 2017 by journalists to protect journalists. He lives in Mexico City.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

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.

 

Tagged , , , ,