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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, July 16, 2012

The displaced: the agony of losing everything

El Universal. 7-16-2012. ( 

According to researchers, there is an indiscriminate persecution taking place in the Sinaloa mountains, as if in a war zone; they estimate that more than 20,000 inhabitants have fled.

Ignacio Alvarado

Mazatlan. One night in May of 2011, several trucks entered surreptitiously into La Noria, the historic town northwest of Mazatlan through which, for centuries, wagons loaded with gold and silver would come down from the mines in the Sinaloa and Durango mountains. The trucks drove through deserted streets while dogs barked frantically. Finally, they stopped in front of a dwelling and about twenty individuals armed with assault rifles got down. The dogs' barking was silenced by the sound of gunfire. From a distance, out of the only window on his house on top of a hill, Ricardo witnessed what he himself describes as "a true hell on earth."

"Even though I was pretty far off, about 100 yards, I could feel the gunshots. It sounded like thunder. But what scared me the most was the the flames, the fire that came out of the rifles. It lasted an eternity. It was about ten minutes during which God was not around."

By then, in effect, La Noria had become nobody's land. Communities in townships like Nuevo San Marcos and Juantillos, for example, had been left desolate after the massive flight of their inhabitants. Violent gangs would attack constantly and murder or kidnap men and women, either because they belonged to a criminal group or simply because they refused to cooperate with them.

That's why, that night, Ricardo, who up to then had resisted the idea of leaving, woke up his wife and three sons to gather a few belongings and abandoned their land at sunrise, something he never thought he would do in all the 70 years he had lived.

"It was not easy. It is not easy to leave your life behind. And it's worse for somebody who is not aware that bad things are happening because one is always going around making people happy, you know. You go to work and from work, home to sleep. More than anything else, I would go to the town to sleep, but I could not do that any more because of the gunfire that could be heard on all sides when night fell. Hell, I tell you."

Ricardo is a musician. Years ago he formed a group, La Nueva Estrella (The New Star). They played a repertory that included ranchero and norteno music in bars and restaurants in Mazatlan, 35 kilometers away. Every day, up to the time he fled, he would leave his house almost at mid morning to take take one of the four routes that covered the round trip to and from the port city. He always came home at night.

"I was never scared. Everything was very peaceful. But we're in a country that nobody understands. We're not in a revolution or anything like that, and that's why we don't understand the violence. In addition, we're the ones paying for what's happening, we're paying for others, for other people's disputes. They say that the mafia of sicarios... But you can't tell who's who, and we don't want to know," says the man, defeated, in the yard of the house he built out of wood and cardboard at the foot of another small hill outside of Mazatlan, in a place eloquently known as the San Antonio Invasion, a sort of camp for refugees from the violence,  where there's no water, drainage, electricity or a future.

The spread of shacks is extensive. Before last summer, however, this was just a muddy area that some opportunist, backed by some political party, decided to occupy with a few needy people. Another thing; the drama materialized. On the street that goes to his house, Ricardo knows at least 30 families from back home, and most of them arrived there during the the hellish period he witnessed. They are not the only ones. In Mazatlan, there may be another 8,000 persons in the same situation, according to Arturo Lizarraga, a researcher with the Sinaloa Autonomous Univesity (UAS) who specializes in migration studies. The exact date this happened, he said, is impossible to know.

"There's no firm number of displaced persons, he explains. What is a fact is that there is an indiscriminate persecution taking place in the mountains, like in a war zone.  What's worse is that the people are caught between two fires: on one side the State forces and on the other, the gangs.  So there are very many localities that, although they may have not disappeared completely, have a high percentage of homes that are completely vacant. I estimate, therefore, that more than 20,000 mountain inhabitants have fled without anybody, not even the authorities, having any idea of where exactly they are and how they are surviving."

High migration

The Sinaloa mountains are experiencing one of the most intense migration phenomena in the last 60 years. Lack of (economic) opportunity during that time has left (people) with two predominant options: either they go to the United States or they hire themselves out (to work) in the amapola (poppy) and marijuana fields. But there was never an exodus such as the one in the last five years, says Lizarraga. Because the migration pattern also changed and veered almost completely towards urban zones such as Culiacan and Mazatlan, which has triggered other social phenomena.

Since 2007, the people displaced from the mountain communities have overwhelmed the municipal authorities.Then Mayor Alejandro Higuera Osuna declared to the local press that his administration was not capable of dealing with the demands of those fleeing from the violence. "Our material capacity to offer an alternative to displaced persons has been exceeded. We're not prepared for the consequences of the violence, we don't have a plan, it doesn't exist."

The mayor talked about there being 2,500 families in this situation, many more than the 1,700 families that governor Mario Lopez Valdez alluded to last May.

Loar Lopez Delgado, secretary of the municipal presidency, would not speak about what this entails. What is a fact, declares the UAS researcher, is that these hordes are reflected in the Mazatlan  crime statistics. "When they can't find work in the U.S., when they can't find work here, they have no alternatives other than the underground economy or violence."

Lizarraga found that the highest percentage of migrants was composed of young people between the ages of 17 and 29 years of age (6 out of 10), and the exponential increase in homicides in Mazatlan coincides with that displacement. "Crime went up. The most serious year in the entire history of Sinaloa was 2010. What we are talking about is that Mazatlan was one of the most violent cities, not just in Mexico-- it was third nationally-- but in the world, with a level of 57.93 homicides per each 100,000 inhabitants. These figures are from INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadisticas y Geografia, equivalent to National Census Bureau)."

Ricardo, the displaced musician, fits at least one of the two realities described by the researcher: unemployment. Since he fled, La Nueva Estella, his music group, disappeared. He has tried to find work as a soloist, but the violence has led to the closing of a substantial number of the businesses in Mazatlan where he used to find work, and has also scared off the tourists.

Economic losses

In his book, "Scenes of Violence and Insecurity in Tourist Destinations: Mazatlan, a case study", UAS researchers Arturo Santamaria and Silvestre Flores explain that the restaurant industry lost 70% of its business in 2011, a proportion similar to that suffered by commercial establishments who closed due to the lack of tourists. As an example of the collapse caused by the homicide numbers in 2010, they point to the arrival of cruise ships, the economic backbone of bars, restaurants and jewelry and handcraft shops. From the 103 ships that arrived in 2008, only 27 came in 2011. With respect to the environment in which displaced people look for jobs, shelter and food, without being able to find any, he says in his interview: "The pressure this generates is something we have not measured with any degree of precision, but one can imagine what is happening."

Tough situation

In the one-room dwelling that Olga's husband erected, about 200 yards north of where Ricardo lives, you can see poverty in every corner. She, her two adolescent daughters and a two-year old infant moved there after they fled from Santa Maria, a small community in the mountain area of El Rosario, south of Sinaloa.

An armed group came and shot to death her husband's three brothers. Over there, Olga says, he worked in the fields. Now, in Mazatlan, he goes out every day looking for work as a garden trimmer. Sometimes he brings back money for food, sometimes he comes back empty handed. "The situation is very tough,you know," says Olga, "The small amount of electricity we have is just enough to run a small fan, and the heat is unbearable. Then, when it rains, everything gets flooded, we lose the few things we have. Over there, we left our house and our clothes and our furniture. All our things, but we cannot go back...Over here we feel more or less protected, but we're not safe. God's will." 


  1. I make prayers for Los Desplazados every day of which also I am. I don't complain because even though I'm homeless, no job, and no family, at least I'm in a tranquil part of this world for now. I wish I can do more to help, but I stay aware and make my voice heard when I here ignorance. One person who believes for a better future - paz.

  2. All those cartels some of you jock aren't gonna do a damn thing for those people with all that money they wont even be able to spend.

  3. good story i live here in mazatlan and met a few of these people. i hope they can return home someday. the sad part is most expats here have no idea what happens in those hills. they drive around there and wonder why they were robbed!

  4. What Mexico needs in a revolution....arm the people so they can defend themselves..have the army train them in the handling of weapons....death penalty for drug traffickers, rapist, kidnappers, murderers, extortionists, crooked cops and politicians, money laundering people, etc. Allow the US to drone the cartel pukes as they do in Pakistan....Joint forces operations by Mexican and American special forces.

  5. What Mexico needs is the legalization of drugs in the U S.

  6. .
    I wonder why so few comments on this post. It's of interest to me.

    When such tragedy falls on our doorstep we begin to seek support from others.

    Thanks for the detailed important coverage post Reporter 'Un Vato'


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