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The People Displaced by the Hunt for El Chapo Tell of Helicopter Attacks

Escaped Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán narrowly avoided recapture in a mountain raid in October, and also left the navy facing accusations that its efforts to hunt him down included targeting the civilian population.
Photo by Rafael Castillo

Gonzalo Peña woke up to breakfast one Tuesday morning at his mountaintop ranch when he said the Mexican navy helicopter attack started. He heard and saw bullets pierce his rooftop from above. He ducked into a corner and watched as a helicopter marked "Marina" circled back and fired at his home again.

"Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat," he said, mimicking the sound of automatic gunfire.

Peña, a 31-year-old farmer who said he occasionally grows marijuana and poppy, grabbed his wife and infant daughter and led them into a ditch. The family spent four days, without any provisions, walking through the rugged mountains from Tamazula, in Durango state, until they reached the town of Cosalá, in the neighboring state of Sinaloa.


"I don't understand and I don't think I'll ever understand why they came in shooting like that," he said of the October 6 attack. "I raise cattle. I help my dad. I grow corn and beans, and when there's a chance to grow something else, I do it."

Peña is one of dozens of ranchers who fled their homes in an area that is part of the so-called Golden Triangle, which straddles the states of Durango, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua. The Golden Triangle is the historic heart of drug cultivation in Mexico and is considered under the control of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and the world's most wanted drug lord, escaped from a maximum-security prison in central Mexico in July. Ever since, Mexican authorities — backed by US intelligence and agents operating within gray areas of US and Mexican laws — have been determined to recapture him.

Related: 'Chapo' Prison Break Shows Just How Weak Mexico's Government Really Is

The operations in the Sierra Madre soon sparked reports that the navy was getting close. It turned out the authorities had information that Chapo went into hiding after his jailbreak in the Durango highlands, presumably with the help of the sparse communities of ranchers and campesinos who for generations have grown poppy and marijuana for the Sinaloa cartel's drug empire.

El Chapo, though, managed to get away. And in the aftermath of the operation, key questions were left unanswered: Were the naval helicopters that attacked the ranchers responding to gunfire from below? Or did the attack occur without provocation, as the ranchers claimed?


In the nine years since former President Felipe Calderón sent the country's armed forces to fight the drug cartels in the streets, at least 190,000 people have been killed violently in Mexico, according to a count kept by Mexico-based security analyst Alejandro Hope based on official figures.

In the chaotic struggle for control of the country, the killings have been largely carried out by cartel gunmen, civilian security forces, or the military — the army and navy. The actual figure of violent deaths within the context of the drug war is likely higher and may never be known, since authorities at all levels in Mexico report conflicting homicide numbers. Tens of thousands of more people are missing, and an estimated 1 million Mexicans are internally displaced.

Related: Displaced by Drug Violence in Mexico — and Ready to Vote?

Meanwhile, drug production and distribution continues unabated. A July 2015 report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration shows that the Sinaloa cartel now controls virtually all of the narcotics market in the United States, except for southern Texas and the state of New Mexico.

Although Mexico's army has faced the majority among thousands of cases of alleged human-rights abuses on the part of the armed forces, the navy is also accused of various crimes. They include unlawful detention, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture.

Yet the Mexican navy is still held up by many as the most professional and modern force available to Mexico in its fight against the cartels, compared to the much larger and more traditionalist army. The navy's special-forces infantry units have the leading role in the government's strategy of going after capos.


In 2009, marines took out a chief Guzmán rival, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, in a gunfight in Cuernavaca. Marines captured Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as "Z-40," in Nuevo Laredo in 2013 "without a shot fired."

On February 22, 2014, Mexican marines got their biggest "get" of all, surprising Guzmán, his current wife and their twin daughters in a seaside condo in the Sinaloan city of Mazatlán. Guzmán gave up without resisting.

El Chapo's capture gave a boost to Mexico's beleaguered government, and also reinforced the notion that US assistance was crucial to its campaign to capture or kill top drug lords. Intelligence collected by US agents, who began monitoring Chapo's radiating web of messenger cell phones, helped bring the capo down. Then, 17 months later, Chapo slipped out of prison and the chase began again.

The navy waited ten days after it nearly caught up with Chapo before it responded to the press reports about the operation and questions from human-rights observers. Its statement acknowledged that Chapo had narrowly escaped, and said he suffered two minor injuries in his "precipitous" flight. It also mentioned that "international" intelligence had lead to the near-capture.

It made no reference to the claims of unprovoked gunfire from naval personnel on the communities in Durango. No one was reported killed in the incident, which could be considered unusual.

'I don't understand and I don't think I'll ever understand why they came in shooting like that.'


With reporters beginning to draw attention to the displaced who had converged on Cosalá, pressure grew on the navy to give a fuller explanation. Two days later, the navy issued a second statement, in which it reiterated its commitment to human rights. "In every operation carried out by naval personnel, in every moment and in every situation, human rights are strictly protected in any circumstance, as established by Mexico's constitution," it read.

Photo by Rafael Castillo

On the ground in the sierra, marines reportedly told locals they were only there to "to detain el señor" — a euphemism used in Sinaloa to refer to the most feared drug lord in the world. But in early November, displaced ranchers said something else happened entirely. VICE News met several displaced families from Durango, still living in fear away from their homes.

"What are we guilty of?" said one displaced woman, Delfina Escobar, after more than a month with nothing to do and nowhere to go in Cosalá. She said her ranch also came under attack from naval helicopters in October.

Related: The US Military Is Worried It's Supporting Human Rights Abuses with Aid to Mexico

Escobar, 74, told me her relatives had gone back to check on the house — hours away from any store or hospital, or anyone else — and found that someone had gone and ransacked it. Somebody also let her cows out.

Other ranchers told similar stories. But it remained impossible to verify their claims without seeing at least one of the ranches up close.


Photo via VICE News

One morning, displaced families gathered at a local welfare office in Cosalá to hear from a group of lawyers visiting from the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán. The lawyers were there to offer them help filing claims against the navy and the federal government over the gunfire.

At least one of the lawyers, we later discovered, had filed a court injunction in the name of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in an effort to block the capo's extradition to the United States. The lawyer, David Armenta Montaño, confirmed his affiliation to Guzmán in a later phone call, a reminder that the drug lord has an army of attorneys defending his interests in Mexico's court system.

Heraclio Peña, 30, is Gonzalo Peña's brother. He said his property also came under attack on October 6, and he also visited his ranch afterwards and discovered his place had been ransacked. Thieves even took his daughter's baby clothes.

As I would later see for myself, the ranches in question are so remote there is no building — no other soul — for hours in almost any direction. Whoever came to ransack his house did so with some planning.

"And who is going to pay for those damages now?" Heraclio asked.

After repeated efforts to get the Mexican navy to escort our crew to one of the ranches that came under attack, naval authorities based in the area finally said they would not take us. They warned that they could not guarantee our safety if we tried to go up to the ranches ourselves.


'That's what people grow around here, poppy or weed. But the government always comes to destroy it.'

Gonzalo Peña, a pleasant guy who told us he had lived and worked in the United States between 2001 and 2010 before being deported, said he would take us up to see his ranch, El Limón, if we had a vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Our VICE News crew piled into a rented Jeep and headed off on a dirt pathway toward the highlands to the east. We would travel three hours in total, on a trail that could barely be described as a road, and drive back in the pitch of night.

Related: 'El Chapo' Mythology Grows in Drug Lord's Home State of Sinaloa

As Peña led us, our phones fell out of signal range. A GPS locator on my cell phone showed our team moving in a space of unmarked nothingness. We climbed higher and higher in elevation. Our guide, comfortable on the terrain and not wearing a seatbelt to prevent his body from slamming about, seemed at ease yet anxious to see his land again.

"I didn't know they called it the 'Golden Triangle' around here," he said. "Until the reporters came … The Golden Triangle, The Golden Triangle."

He assured us that he and his neighbors had never seen "El Chapo" nor dealt with "any of his men." No, he added, he wasn't armed.

Nearing sunset, and now with a distant view of the Pacific Ocean to the west, our crew made it to a clearing where a burned out pickup truck sat below some trees. Peña sighed deeply as he placed his fingers on several punctures in the scorched metal. They appeared to be bullet holes. He was visibly bothered, as if he reliving the moments of the attack.


"My Dad and I bought this car," he said. "After we sold some cattle."

Photo via VICE News

Down a ditch and across a creek, Peña led us to his wooden plank ranch house. He explained that it was still under construction. The floor was packed dirt. A few rooms sat below the sheet metal roofing, where several gunshot entry holes were visible. Some gunshots had pierced the tent where he and his family slept.

A calendar hanging on a wall marked Monday, October 5, the day before the early morning raid. In a separated outdoor kitchen, Gonzalo's wife had left a pot of beans and a few tortillas over a fire. The beans had turned into a hardened brown mass. The tortillas were curled inward and were hard as stone.

Gonzalo sighed again. "This is my house," he said ruefully. "Ay Dios mío."

According to military figures, the Tamazula municipality, where the Peña ranch is located, is the leading producer of marijuana and opium in Durango state. Earlier this year, the navy said it decommissioned six clandestine meth labs in the Tamazula area between August and November.

I asked Gonzalo about the possibility that his ranch came under attack by the navy as some form of punishment or revenge.

"Revenge for what?" he retorted. "Well that's what people grow around here, poppy or weed. But the government always comes to destroy it."

Peña's response underlined the fact that, beyond cartel middlemen, weed and opium farmers in Mexico usually have no idea where their crops go and get paid relatively little for them.


Mexico's Secretaría de Marina, as the navy is formally called, declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview with VICE News. The force, like practically all of Mexico's government, is notoriously insular and shies away from unscripted interactions with the news media.

'All the people who are there are paid off people, right?'

Nonetheless, a navy press liaison named Lt. Sergio Suazo took several of my calls, and spoke with me about the allegations that the navy attacked the ranches without justification. He said that would be impossible.

"There are a lot of things that don't sound logical. A helicopter would have to get extremely close to shoot on a specific house like that, and the force of the sustained winds made by the helicopter is like that of a hurricane," Suazo said. "That sheet metal should have ripped off."

Suazo said the navy would have nothing to hide if it was involved in a gunfight. He noted that the force releases a press statement every time its infantry units engage with their weapons. Maybe, Suazo offered, someone else attacked those ranches. He didn't elaborate.

"All the people who are there are paid off people, right?" the naval officer added.

Photo via VICE News

I asked others for their thoughts on what might have happened that day in Durango. The theories varied, and kept returning to the assumption that someone at the ranches fired back at the marines.

"The thing is they aren't just villagers," said Mexican columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio, who has written on Chapo's whereabouts since the July escape. "Villagers who open fire aren't villagers. They are armed people, for [El Chapo]."

Hope, the security analyst, noted that just this month, Mexican army and navy units have surrounded and occupied Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Guzmán's hometown. There is probably fresh intelligence that suggests someone close to Chapo is in the area and could lead authorities to the drug lord, he said on Monday.

"My guess is that the operation is becoming increasingly heavy-handed. They want to really get rid of this guy, as soon as possible," Hope said.

Gonzalo Peña and his brother Heraclio and their families remained in Cosalá, still displaced, as of this Monday. There are no jobs for them, and no means to make a living if they can't raise cattle and grow crops like back in their homes.

"They've never come shooting, not like that," Gonzalo had told me of the navy operation in October. "They've come trying to get information, but you don't know anything, and they try beating it out of you. … And that's normal, but never shooting."

Related: Mexico Is Failing Its Citizens on Human Rights, UN Commissioner Says During Visit

Andres Villarreal in Culiacán and Rafael Castillo contributed to this report.

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth