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At Least 13 Missing As Another Mass Disappearance Develops in Guerrero, Mexico

With the case of the 43 missing students still looming over the state, Guerrero officials now say another probably mass disappearance took place after unknown men entered a town to 'free' it from a drug gang.

by Melissa del Pozo
May 20 2015, 6:45pm

Imagen por Arturo de Dios Palma/VICE News

The masked men arrived on the morning of Saturday, May 9, armed with AK-47s and heavy firearms, and calling themselves a community police force intent on rescuing the Mexican city of Chilapa, Guerrero.

No one in Chilapa recognized the men, and it took just one phone call from Chilapa's mayor to the established community force in the state to confirm that the men who arrived in town did not belong to a legitimate self-defense group.

The masked strangers, reportedly around 300 of them, disarmed the local police department and took over the entrances to the city.

They said they were taking charge of security in Chilapa to rid it from the grips of a Guerrero drug gang called Los Rojos — raising the possibility for some that the masked men belonged to a criminal gang themselves.

By the time the men left, on May 14, word began trickling among locals that over several days some Chilapa residents had been "picked up," the term used to describe the narco-style disappearances that are plaguing the state of Guerrero.

Sergio Derramona Abarca, a 25-year-old fruit vendor, father, and part-time stripper, was picked up from his mango stall, reported the daily Milenio. Jose Luis Salmeron, 22, is in college and disappeared on Sunday night after visiting his girlfriend. Jorge Jaimes Abarca is an 18-year-old pizza deliveryman and has been missing since the day the "community police" arrived.

Other victims were reportedly farmers, cattle ranchers, and cab drivers.

A masked member of the self-identified community police force that occupied Chilapa earlier this month. (Photo by Arturo de Dios Palma/VICE News)

By Tuesday, the Guerrero state prosecutor's office said it had received 11 kidnapping complaints from Chilapa, in cases said to have occurred between May 12 and 15.

The state human rights commission said it was investigating 13 complaints, while Chilapa mayor Francisco Javier Garcia told VICE News that as many as 30 people might be missing in the aftermath of the armed group's occupation.

"The persons who arrived on the 9th called themselves comunitarios, but some were individuals with high-caliber weapons and those are the ones [residents] say picked up these people from civil society in Chilapa," Garcia said.

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

The possible mass kidnappings in Chilapa echoed the September 2014 disappearances of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, which sparked international condemnation and led United Nations officials to rebuke Mexico's record on forced disappearances. Ayotzinapa is located just 24 miles from Chilapa.

At the root of the disappearances may be an ongoing conflict between Los Rojos and a rival Guerrero gang called Los Ardillos.

The two groups are among a handful of criminal organizations that splintered into competing cells since the 2009 killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva, a powerful regional drug lord. Chilapa and the northern-central region of the state have been suffering from increasing drug-related violence ever since.

Earlier this month, on May 1, a candidate for mayor of Chilapa in the upcoming June 7 elections was assassinated in a nearby village. Ulises Fabian Quiroz was shot 15 times by unknown gunmen. Another mayoral candidate in a neighboring municipality was also killed, by beheading, in March.

Dozens of bodies were unearthed in Chilapa during the statewide search operations for the missing Ayotzinapa students since last year.

"I am totally worried about my physical well-being, but I am also worried about the situation of the people, of the municipality," mayor Garcia told VICE News.

Related: Parents of the Missing 43 Students Ask a Local Drug Lord for Help in Finding Their Missing

The armed group negotiated its withdrawal from Chilapa last Thursday, after meetings with the Gendarmerie federal police. The occupiers said they would leave, but would return in seven days — tomorrow — to make sure that federal agents had rid the town of Los Rojos.

Garcia told news outlets that some locals suspected the group that occupied Chilapa belonged to Los Ardillos, although that claim was not confirmed by other authorities.

The Guerrero Unidos, a separate gang that is accused of carrying out the Ayotzinapa student attacks, was targeting suspected Rojos members on the night the gang attacked buses carrying Ayotzinapa students, according to a VICE News investigation.

In addition to the Guerreros Unidos, the Rojos and Ardillos gangs are battling over control of key distribution routes for the poppy trade that is booming in Guerrero's sierras.

This week in Chilapa, residents said that those who were kidnapped were taken in ruteros, the local term for short-distance mini-buses that serve the municipality of 120,000. Similar vehicles were fired upon on the night of September 26, 2014, when the Ayotzinapa students were taken.

"We cannot rule out that in the coming days that the figure [of missing in Chilapa] could rise," Ramon Navarrete, president of the Guerrero human rights commission, said in an interview.

So far, federal officials have not commented on the Chilapa disappearances.

But on Wednesday, interior ministry spokesman Gonzalo Ponce told VICE News that the federal police commissioner Enrique Galindo was traveling to Chilapa to directly examine the claims.

Related: The Executioners: What Mexico's Government Hasn't Revealed About the Mexico Student Massacre

Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report. Follow @VICENews on Twitter for updates on this story.