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

Scores of families have fled their homes in Guerrero, becoming "internally displaced" in the violent conflict over the state's poppy trade. But officials say the midterm summer elections will still go on.
May 6, 2015, 10:25pm
Imagen por Alejandrino Gonzalez/AP

Georgina Villa belongs to a family of campesinos who left her community after armed men kidnapped one of her sons in the rugged mountains of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.

She received threats by "men with strange voices that tried to bribe me in exchange for my son's life," Villa told VICE News.

That was in 2012. A 52-year-old mother of two, Villa left her home in the town of Tlacotepec and has never returned.

Now she lives with relatives and sells beauty products in the state capital of Chilpancingo, a relatively urban place compared to Guerrero's remote sierras. She is one of countless people who belong to a social group in Mexico that is largely unseen and difficult to measure — the drug war's internally displaced.

Guerrero has the highest known figures of internally displaced people in Mexico due to the country's ongoing drug-related violence, reports say.

Complete figures are difficult to come by, but according to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, a non-profit organization, at least 281,418 people were displaced internally in Mexico between 2011 and February of this year.

Around 20 percent of those displaced inside Mexico are in Guerrero alone, giving it the highest share of internally displaced, the group said. An international report released on Wednesday reinforced those figures.

'I ask you again: how are we going to have elections? Who would we vote for and why?'

In such a scenario, enthusiasm — or simply support — for Mexico's upcoming midterm elections is low. Violence has already been felt in the campaign. Two mayoral candidates in Guerrero have been killed since campaigning started, including Friday's shooting of an Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate in Chilapa.

Voting is scheduled a month from Thursday, but it's almost out of the question for internal refugees who spoke to VICE News.

"I don't have any other option, and believe me, voting is in the bottom of my priorities list," Villa told me in Chilpancingo. "All I want is to have enough money for my son, and to find my other boy, who must look quite different since the last time I saw him."

Related: 'It Was the Feds': How Mexico's Federal Police Slaugthered 16 Civilians in Michoacan.

Laura Rubio, a member of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which released Wednesday's report, said the numbers on the displaced in Mexico are just approximations.

A national victimization survey conducted by Mexico's federal statistics institute in 2014 suggested there could be more than 1 million internal refugees in the country, by tallying individuals who said they left their homes due to threats or violence.

"It could be up to 1,000,600 people displaced if you take into account the victimization survey, which counts when one family member [in a household] had fled due to violence," Rubio said.

In Guerrero, the situation is critical. After major flooding hit the state with twin tropical storms in 2013, Rubio said, shelters that were set up for people displaced by the weather were instead used by those fleeing a different menace.

"They ended up receiving people that had been displaced by organized crime," Rubio said.

Compounding the problem are the displaced who move from one stricken town to another. In 2013, Tlacotepec, which Villa had fled, itself received more than a thousand refugees from smaller neighboring villages who were escaping violence.

"As the families move, so do the criminal groups," Rubio said.

A bullet-hole pierces a window at a cultural center in the village of Filo de Caballo, Guerrero, near Tlacotepec. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo/VICE News)

Ester Reynoso, 34, moved to Tlacotepec with her father and her three children when men in her hometown of Atoyac de Alvarez called to let her know that they wanted her house. Atoyac was also severely hit by Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid.

"They killed my husband. Those who started to messing with us saying they wanted our house. ... Not sure what they wanted it for, since everything was already ruined," Reynoso told me. "But my husband told them no and then they killed him."

Despite the precarious situation for many of the state's 3.3 million residents, electoral authorities say the June 7 midterm elections will be held in Guerrero as planned. Preparations are underway despite the constant violent attacks, political assassinations, and threats of debilitating protests from the state teachers union. In addition, supporters of the 43 missing teachers colleges students of Ayotzinapa are still holding regular demonstrations.

Voters will choose the next governor, its federal and local congressional representatives, and 81 mayors. Fifty-seven "special polling places" will be installed so that people residing away from their registered residence will still be able to vote, officials said. It's not yet clear if anyone will show up.

Related: Mexican Workers at Canadian Mines are Under Constant Threat of Violence, Kidnapping.

Protesters burned vehicles in demonstrations in Chilpancingo marking the six-month mark since the September disappearances of the Ayotzinapa students. (Photo by Alejandrino Gonzalez/AP)

Booming poppy industry

Tlacotepec sits just 25 miles in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range from Yextla, another small town in Guerrero that has emptied of many of its residents.

Both these towns sit right in the middle of the state's booming poppy-producing region, which has sparked a battle for control between multiple organized-crime groups. Guerrero had the highest homicide rate of any state in Mexico in 2014, government figures show.

Yextla and Tlacotepec also sit on a list of 75 voting districts tagged by the National Electoral Institute, or INE, for having less than 100 people on current voter rolls.

INE said it will not be setting up polling stations in those districts, forcing residents who still wants to vote to locate and reach one of the special polling places on June 7.

Enrique Hernandez is Yextla's superintendent and also a farmer. He said he sees no way to safely vote this year — and says so with unusual anger and candor for a government official.

"Elections can't take place here, the politicians better stay away with their stupid propaganda," Hernandez said near the town square, as a patrol of Mexican soldiers passed.

"First, they should solve this mess, because they have left us to our luck," he said.

Related: Parents of Mexico's Missing 43 Are Asking A Drug Lord for Help Finding Their Sons.

On March 20, gunfire erupted in the town of about 3,000 residents. Five people were killed.

When the military arrived later that day, dead bodies were still lying on the street. Shots "were heard for more than twenty minutes," witnesses in Yextla recalled. "This type of situation happens everyday. We are fed up," Hernandez said.

After that incident, an unknown number of families in Yextla did what many people in Mexico's violent regions do, he said. They packed up their things and left.

On April 6, once campaigning had officially started in Guerrero, Hernandez called VICE News to report that two dismembered bodies had just been found at the community's entrance, along the highway that connects Yextla with Chilpancingo.

The superintendent sounded desperate. "I ask you again: how are we going to have elections? Who would we vote for and why? There's no point in doing so," Hernandez said.

Alejandro Delgado Arroyo, the INE's delegate in Guerrero, said he was hopeful people will still find a way to vote, "with a lot of effort and faith."

"In Guerrero's case, we have the option of 57 special polling booths, that will allow displaced people to vote, without having to be registered in a specific district," Delgado said. "However, that doesn't guarantee that they will vote."

Related: Mayoral Candidate Is Beheaded in Guerrero Ahead of Mexico's Midterm Elections.

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