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Cartels Are Displacing an Indigenous Group That's Lived in This Mexican State for Centuries

Rarámuri communities in the Tarahumara mountain range in northern Mexico are being pushed off their land and forced to flee because violent drug cartels in the area are expanding their presence and tightening their violent control.
Photo by Nadia del Pozo / VICE News

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.**

Sinaloa 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.

Related: Some Mexicans Have Been living in Limbo for Years After Fleeing Cartel Violence

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.

"It's a situation of move away or I'll kill you"

Cartel hitmen also became a common sight.

"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.

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

Urique, Chinípas, and Valle de Juárez are the most affected municipalities by the forced displacements. (Photo by Nadia del Pozo/VICE News)

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."

"What fight against drug cartels? Everything is done in broad daylight, under the noses of the police and the military"

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."

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

Javier Ávila, best known as "father Pato," a priest an activist who has lived in the Tarahumara mountains for more than 41 years. (Photo by Felipe Luna/VICE News)

Even government groups like the national commission for the development of indigenous people, or CDI, have to request permission from the criminals to visit many communities in the mountains.

"Usually all the criminals want fuel. If they ask you for one can of fuel, you should give them two. I try not to mess with them, because they know everything," said an employee of the CDI whose name has been withheld for security reasons.

The same man talked of seeing very young men, almost children, carrying guns as big as themselves, or three weapons at a time. He said many locals head to the city and stop speaking Rarámuri. Then they return to their communities with mobile phones on which they listen to narcocorridos — ballads glorifying cartel exploits.


Locals also say that in recent years drug consumption has suddenly become a problem in the mountains, where it never was before. They say crack, cocaine, and marijuana are the most popular.

With government officials and NGOs unable to operate in the region, criminal organizations have near total control of the territory.

Last February Amnesty International reported there are an estimated 1,689 missing people in the state of Chihuahua. The government reported 351 disappearances in the municipality of Cuauhtémoc which includes much of the mountains.

"There were brains spread over the floor, and one corpse had its belly tore open"

On October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that between 2009 and 2015 there were at least 1908 cases of forced displacement produced by violence in Chihuahua.

"The most disturbing thing for me is what is going on with the theft of farming lands," said Javier Ávila, a priest and social activist best known as "Pato" who has spent 41 years in the Tarahumara range. "There's also the recruitment of young people. There are two options: they get killed or disappeared."

Ávila was speaking in his office in Creel, the biggest town in the mountains. He recalled how on August 16, 2008, an armed group murdered 13 people there, including a one-year-old baby.

"There were brains spread over the floor, and one corpse had its belly tore open," he remembered the horror he saw firsthand. "After a lot of hours the policemen arrived from Cuauhtémoc. They said they could not arrive earlier because it was raining."


The place where the massacre took place is now known as Peace Square, and a monument for the victims has been placed in it. "Because man is capable of the worst atrocities and we can't allow the memory or the history to be lost," it's inscription reads.

Eight years later the violence continues.

Related: Mexican Workers at Canadian Mines Are Under Constant Threat of Cartel Kidnappings, Killings

The stories about kidnapped Rarámuris that are forced to work on drug plantations have become common. (Photo by Felipe Luna/VICE News)

This past March, 26 families from the Bocoyna municipality fled to Chihuahua. Last September more than 300 families left their town in Chinípas because of cartel threats. The Center for Women's Human Rights, which has helped the displaced, reports that at least 200 families in the state's capital have asked for help to return to their communities.

This reality challenges the statements from Chihuahua's human rights commission that it has not received any complaints about displacements.

Alma Chacón, a member of the Contec association that campaigns for the right of the mountains' residents, called what is happening in the region "an invasion."

"It's a situation of move away or I'll kill you," she said. "There's an agreement between both sides [the government and organized crime] and they could not care less about the population"

It has been more than a year since Cruz Sánchez left behind his home in El Manzano and traveled to Chihuahua escorted by the military. He had lost one son, another one was wounded, and his farm had been burned to the ground. He said he has returned once since then. He requested police protection to retrieve some of his belongings. It turned out there was nothing left to retrieve.


Sánchez said he has tried to adapt to life in the city but he is haunted by the loss of his home and the sense that many indigenous people have that when they lose their land they also lose their place in the world.

"You miss everything. We were born there, our parents called it their homeland, and so did our grandfathers," said Sánchez. "We are left with nothing."

Sanchéz added that he has lost count of the number of times he has asked the government to detain the criminals and get rid of the poppy plantations so local communities can return to their land and farm corn once more.

All he has got in return, he said, is empty promises at the same time as the cartels expand their interests in the region that now also include the local forestry industry. Meanwhile, Sanchéz added, there has been absolutely no progress in the investigation of his son's murder.

"People are afraid of speaking up," he said. "Now organized crime controls everything."

Watch the video for this story:

Alejandra S. Inzunza and José Luis Pardo are responsible for reporting and writing these stories. Carlos Bravo Regidor and Homero Campa, faculty members of Periodísmo CIDE, coordinated and coedited these features. Karla Casillas and Jo Tuckman edited this story for VICE News. Nadia del Pozo and Felipe Luna took the pictures and video.

Follow Dromómanos, CIDE, and VICE News on Twitter: @Dromomanos, @PeriodismoCIDE and @vicenews