TIJUANA, Mexico — “These are my children,” said Lorena, touching a necklace shaped like a string of children hand in hand that hung around her neck. “One of them is gone.”
Lorena, who asked VICE World News not to use her real name for fear of reprisals for telling her story, let out a deep sob before continuing.
“They tortured him in front of my eyes, they ripped him from my arms,” Lorena said last month in an interview at a migrant shelter in Tijuana. “I was able to survive, but my son, my boy, I don't know where he is, I don't know if he is alive or dead.”
Lorena is from the town of Aguililla in the Tierra Caliente area of the Mexican state of Michoacan, where a war between one of Mexico’s most violent criminal groups, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym) and a coalition of local gangs called the United Cartels has set off an exodus.
Thousands of people have fled, the vast majority of them to Tijuana, where they hope to apply for asylum in the United States. Father Juan Diego Mendoza, a Michoacan-based priest who travelled to Tijuana to help his state’s refugees, told VICE World News that he believed that around 15,000 residents of the Tierra Caliente have arrived in Tijuana since January.
It was a June afternoon when Lorena heard a commotion in the street while visiting a neighbor. Rushing outside, she saw armed men, their faces covered by hoods, who were shouting that they were working for “El Señor Mencho,” the nickname of CJNG top boss Nemesio Rubén Oseguera Cervantes.
They were beating her 20-year-old son, she said. They intended to force him to join their ranks.
Lorena recalled how she pleaded with the men to release her son. When he said he didn’t want to join the cartel, they beat her, too, kicking her and breaking her nose. They grabbed her hair and dragged her down the street for several hundred feet, leaving her bloody. Layers of her skin were left on the ground behind her.
The men tossed Lorena and her son into the back of a truck and continued to beat them mercilessly as they were taken to a hill far from Aguililla, she told VICE World News. “I love you very much, Mami,” he told her as the truck climbed. “I told him that I loved him too, but I asked him not to answer them because they beat him every time he did.”
When the truck stopped, her son asked the men if they were going to kill him and if so, to do it right away. Instead, they began to torture him, burning the plastic rope tied around his neck and dripping the hot plastic drops in his eyes and on his body. Lorena said she was forced to watch the torture for several hours.
Then they separated Lorena from her son, and that was the last time she saw him.
Then, the men beat her until she lost consciousness, and finally threw her into a muddy well on the hill. She told VICE she believes her aggressors thought she was dead by that point. The CJNG has circulated videos saying that the cartel does not harm women, crude propaganda that rings hollow to Lorena and many other victims.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, Lorena maneuvered her body into the middle of the well so that her face was above water and she could breathe. She managed to break free of the cords binding her hands by rubbing them on stones, and then used branches in the well to pull herself out, she recounted.
By the time she emerged, it was dark. Concerned for her other children, she followed a light in the distance that turned out to be Aguililla. As she approached, she began to shout the names of her other younger children, but no one replied.
Her other children had fled and hidden under a tree when their older brother and mother were abducted earlier that day.
They remained hidden until late that night, silent before their mother's calls because they feared that the hooded men were with her, forcing her to find them so that they could be kidnapped as well.
When they finally saw her, stumbling alone, they embraced her, and then she told them that their brother was missing.
In the morning, the family took two buses to the state capital of Morelia, where a relative bought them flights to Tijuana to apply for asylum in the United States.
Much of the recent violence around Aguililla is linked to El Mencho's attempts to take over the region where he was born and grew up. Since 2018, the war in the area between CJNG and the United Cartels has been one of the bloodiest in Mexico, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed a $10 million reward for information leading to El Mencho’s arrest. There have been widespread reports of forced recruitment into the criminal groups, like that of Lorena's son, along with extortion and violence against townspeople who don’t support the cartels. In the surrounding area, the criminal groups have destroyed roads and cut off electricity and water supplies.
As the situation spiraled out of control, news of the government’s inability to provide security in the region, along with the number of deaths and displaced people, reached the Vatican. Pope Francis sent a letter to the inhabitants of Aguililla in July with a message: He'd heard of "the great suffering caused by the violent confrontations between rival drug gangs" and wrote, "You are not alone."
That prompted the Catholic Church in Michoacan to coordinate to help people both escape the region and find shelter with the Church in Tijuana. There, the Church adapted spaces to expand its shelters as thousands of refugees began arriving from the Tierra Caliente this year.
Lorena and her family found themselves in Tijuana's Agape Misión Mundial shelter, run by Father Albert Rivera. Working with a legal group called Al Otro Lado, Rivera helped more than 80 people process their asylum requests and enter the U.S. through July, including Lorena and her two children. Last month, the family crossed into the United States, legally, to stay with relatives. Others haven’t been so lucky.
Tijuana continually ranks as one of the deadliest cities in Mexico. The CJNG also has a large presence there and is fighting over control of the border against both the Sinaloa Cartel and the remnants of the Arellano Felix Cartel. The area surrounding Tijuana is one of the most important points for smuggling drugs into the U.S.
“Mistakes have been made that put migrants in a vulnerable situation,” said Rivera. “The people who are still in [Tijuana] do not plan to return to their town in Michoacan.”
“But they do not want to be here either because they know that the same cartel that threatened them also operates on this border, and they fear that they will come looking for them.” A few weeks earlier, he said, armed men had turned up at the shelter asking for people by their nicknames.
Some of those who fled the Tierra Caliente say that the threats continue from the CJNG's enforcers on the border. One woman who asked that her name not be used said that after she made a complaint to the Baja California State Attorney General's Office (FGE), she received videos showing bodies with their throats slit, alongside this message: “I know where you are, we are a very powerful cartel and this is going to happen to you too.”
In Aguililla, the federal government’s failure to protect residents boiled over on July 2, when they protested to demand that the military take on the cartels and threw rocks and firecrackers at the local army garrison.
In response, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the town’s residents at his morning news conference a few days later, declaring, “No to violence, yes to peace, to dialogue, and do not allow yourself to be manipulated by criminal groups that have other purposes.”
The government sent military reinforcements that restored water and electricity but were instructed “not to fall into provocation,” according to the president. The kidnappings, killings, and extortion continued, and many residents believe that local authorities are accomplices of the criminal groups.
Ernesto, an avocado producer and exporter who arrived in Tijuana at the beginning of July with more than 20 members of his family, said he believes that the authorities are in collusion with organized crime in Aguililla and across the region.
The problems in Aguililla are like a “tumor that grows larger every day and there is no remedy,” said Ernesto, whose name has been changed to protect his safety.
“Those who make up or are the generating part of that conflict acquired an almost diabolical behavior that… threatens life not only by murdering [people] but also by dismembering them and causing terror,” he said. “And the worst thing is that we cannot file a complaint, because [the authorities] work hand in hand with crime.”
Four of Ernesto’s relatives were murdered and two were kidnapped in the space of less than three years, he told VICE World News. Local criminal groups threatened him repeatedly until he decided to leave.
“What is happening in my town is sad,” he said. “For the moment, the future does not look very bright, because where there are no people or entrepreneurs who create jobs, poor people cannot sustain themselves. And if these people cannot support themselves, it becomes a den of thieves.”
“When that happens, instead of flourishing, the area withers,” said Ernesto. “And my town [Aguililla] is withering.”