Note: BB readers will recall those people displaced, shot at and homes destroyed by helicopter fire during the hunt for Chapo...these are those people. BB has long reported about Sinaloa forcing these people into organized crime activities. In 2014 BB reported a story of 5 killed for refusing to work for Sinaloa. Read that story at this link
This is the first story in a three-part series on the impact Mexico's drug wars is having on indigenous people — a project by Dromómanos, VICE News, and Periodísmo CIDE with the support of the W.K. Kelloggs Foundation.
By Dromómanos, CIDE, and VICE News
inaloa cartel hitmen killed 18-year-old Benjamín Sánchez on February 26 2015, after he refused to work for them.
A month later Cruz Sánchez, Benjamín's father, was on his way back from visiting the authorities in the nearest big city to their village in the mountains. As he made his way home he received a call from a friend, warning him that the same men who had killed his son were waiting for him on the road.
Cruz left his pickup and continued his journey by foot in order to avoid the gunmen. It took him eight hours walking along mountain trails to get to his community of El Manzano.
Three days later, the gunmen were back. This time two of Sanchez's children heard a voice screaming "finish them off" as they walked to a local shop in the village to buy food. They ran to the house of a relative and grabbed the rifles most families keep in order to scare away the coyotes that roam the area.
The shootout lasted for seven hours. A cartel hitman died and one of Sánchez's sons received three bullets. The military arrived after nightfall. The family decided it was time to leave.
El Manzano lies in the southern part of the Tarahumara mountain range in the northern state of Chihuahua. It is a vast area of enormous natural beauty famed for its ravines deeper than the Grand Canyon, the vibrant culture of the indigenous Rarámuri communities that pepper the mountainsides, as well as a long tradition of cultivating marijuana and opium poppy.
There used to be 34 families living in El Manzano, almost all of them Rarámuri. According to two former residents, the drug business didn't used to interfere with the community. They said that the cartels pretty much left them to work in their fields and tend to their animals in peace. There was nothing to stop them gathering together in their ceremonial centers and performing rituals during fiestas they believe help heal, restore order, and keep chaos at bay.
But these locals say things changed abruptly two years ago when some community leaders were recruited by organized crime. Corn made way for poppies, and residents stopped their communal gatherings, opting instead to keep a low profile hidden away in their farms.
"They wanted the locals to work for them and join their group," said Sánchez, who claimed the gunmen came from the neighboring state of Sinaloa. "Almost everyone is put to work [growing poppy] on their own land. That group controls several municipalities."
After the Sánchez family left El Manzano fearful for their lives, others soon followed until there was almost nobody left.
Two months ago a group of armed men rolled into the community to strip the few who remained of their land. The last family in town had to hide in the pine forests around the village for three days. They watched their community disappear from a distance. Their cattle, clothes, and food were stolen. Their farms were razed to the ground.
The gunmen gave the family three options: they could grow poppy, run away, or die. Once they left there were no more families to threaten.
El Manzano's pain is just one of many tragedies in the Tarahumara where the indigenous population has become increasingly trapped since president Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the cartels almost a decade ago, triggering the country's vicious drug wars.
Today, groups of armed men are visible at road intersections, where paved and dirt roads come together. There's a self-imposed six o'clock curfew in several communities.
The remains of burnt vehicles lie along the path that leads to the community of Samachique where locals say a massive confrontation involving more than 50 gunmen took place last year and was never investigated. The locals do not speak much. They are silenced by fear.
One of the few Rarámuris who dared to speak, as long as his name was not published, said that the day prior to our conversation an acquaintance knocked on his door in very bad shape and said he had escaped from a poppy plantation.
"Right now they are harvesting their stuff, so they need a lot of people. They search the community and abduct them," the man said. "They never pay them."
The man said that the cartel had tried to recruit him last year, but he had managed to slip away and had gone to work picking apples elsewhere in the state instead.
"What's happening is that the cartels are multiplying. There are two [the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels] but they have split and now they are everywhere," said Isela González, director of Sierra Madre, a NGO that defends the land rights of indigenous people. "There are more guns, more drugs, and nonstop drug farming."
González has worked for almost two decades with Rarámuri communities, but death threats mean she has not been able to set foot in the mountains since 2013. At that time the municipality where she was working had a homicide rate of 164 per 100,000 residents, according to the Citizen Observatory of Violence, about four times higher than the rate for the entire state that year.
"What fight against drug cartels? Everything is done in broad daylight, under the noses of the police and the military," González said. "With that much impunity there has to be collusion from the authorities."