Photo by Daniel Ojeda/VICE News
This is the story of a Mexican village called Santa María Sur that was lost to its inhabitants.There are many other towns and villages like this one. Researchers from the ITAM university estimate there are 280,000 people displaced by organized crime in Mexico. But this story is a bit different because the inhabitants of Santa María Sur stayed together after they fled their homes.The community holds approximately 10,000 acres of fertile land about 200 miles, but seven hours drive, from Mexico City. It lies in the municipality of San Miguel Totolapan in the Hot Land region of the southern state of Guerrero — an area known for opium poppy cultivation at its higher altitudes, and for the different trafficking groups competing to control it.
The residents of Santa María Sur lived in scattered cement houses about 15 minutes walk away from each other. They kept some livestock and planted corn, beans, chili, lemon, and mango in fields nurtured by the Tehuetec river. The river attracted deer, iguanas, and rabbits that were hunted by the locals and eaten in open-air festivals, and downed with cold beers to beat the heat.
The people of Santa María Sur say that gunmen began arriving in about 2012, but the village remained tranquil. When the numbers of armed men increased they worried more, but thought they could still keep things under control."In the beginning, they did not mess with us, or us with them," says community leader Eduardo Macedo. "Then, those men divided into groups and began fighting over the area."
The division was routed in splits in the Familia Michoacana drug cartel. Some gunmen remained loyal to the Familia. Others took the side of a group known as Los Pelones, and some fought for another called Los Tequileros.The former residents say the battle did not directly affect them until the different groups began looking for new recruits. They forced the villagers to walk for two hours before dawn to weekly meetings at the top of a cliff where they were offered "jobs.""They told you they would beat you with a hose if you didn't go," Macedo recalls. "They talked tough and loud. It stays with you."
Macedo says that one day in June 2014 one of the groups — "If I say which one I will be dead tomorrow" — called an afternoon meeting in which the villagers were told they would have to fight and would be given guns the next morning."You don't say no to those people," he says. "We said yes, but as we made our way back to the village we were all thinking the same thing: we had to leave."The people of Santa María Sur called the state's police and the army asking to be rescued. They secretly packed their bags, gathered their savings, and said goodbye to their homes, livestock and pets. When the army trucks arrived they realized there weren't enough vehicles to carry their possessions so they left them on the road."I had never seen so much sadness… all the women and children were crying," Macedo recalls. "We said goodbye to everything. I felt bad, very bad."
'You don't say no to those people. We said yes, but as we made our way back to the village we were all thinking the same thing: we had to leave.'
Macedo, who is 65 years old and has four children, left with the clothes he was wearing and 200 pesos (15 dollars) in his pocket. Another 180 people left in the same way. Others took their own cars.When the sun came out, all that was left in Santa María Sur were animals. The narcos shot them in revenge.
"How would you like me to call you in my story, señora?" ."Give me a strong name, so that they don't know that it's me, because I cry a lot. A name like Josefina could work."
Living in Limbo
"Then Josefina it is."Josefina is 62 years old. She has four children and three grandchildren. She used to be a corn farmer and own a brick house. She says that the army and police took her and the other refugees from Santa María Sur to the city of Iguala, four hours drive away, and dumped them on the streets "like dogs."
Josefina tells how the town decided to go to the state capital, Chilpancingo, another hour down the road, where they protested outside government offices until they were provided a provisional shelter in a building with almost no windows, two toilets for everybody, a bad smell, and a terrible aura of sadness."You had to go to sleep hearing the sobs of the person next to you," she remembers.The former residents of Santa María Sur kept pressuring and, a year after they had fled their village, the government moved them into a hotel where each of the 22 families could have their own room.
"Give a strong name, so that they don't know that it's me, because I cry a lot"
Today the Diplomatic Hotel has a man in a balaclava and a rifle standing on the door. People are allowed to get past the lobby only if they are recognized by the guard.The hotel's hallways are painted in peach, blue and yellow. They barely get any light. Flowerpots with dead plants are the only decoration. The furniture in most of the rooms consists of a bed, and a little desk. The management took the TVs out of the rooms before the refugees from Santa María Sur arrived. With no land to farm, most earn minimum wages as construction workers.
"Waking up in this room is hard," Macedo says, though he has the most luxurious lodging in the hotel. "It's a small hell on Earth."Macedo says the authorities have not given the community any options to relocate, and have warned against them trying to go home for their own security. In other words, he says, they have left Santa María Sur in the hands of the criminals.But while he longs to leave, as soon as he steps outside the hotel he is on constant alert. Every person that passes a restaurant where we are talk makes him nervous. He startles when a strong wind blows and a tree branch hits the window.
"Commissioner, what would you do if you could return to Santa María Sur?""Oh! I would feel very happy. Yes, I think that I would break down in tears," he says. "But then I would be frightened of the narcos coming back for me."
Follow Oscar Balderas and Daniel Ojeda on Twitter at @OscarBalmen and @DanielOjedaJu