Jul 18, 2012

Displaced: The ordeal of losing everything

El Universal: Americas Program Original Translation by Anna Moses
See Spanish Original.Ignacio Alvarado. One night in May 2011, several trucks stealthily arrived in La Noria, the historic village to the northeast of Mazatlán which for centuries was used by carts laden with gold and silver extracted from the mines of Sinaloa and Durango. They drove through the deserted roads while dogs barked frantically. Finally they stopped in front of a house and a group of twenty armed men approached. The dogs' barking was silenced by the sound of the gunshots. From a distance, through the only window in the house, on the top of a small hill, Ricardo observed what he called, "hell on earth."

"Although I was 100 meters away, I felt the bullets. Everything echoed. But what scared me the most was to see the fire, the fire coming out of the rifles. It lasted forever. It was never-ending. It was like 10 minutes in which God was not present."

From then, effectively, La Noria became no-man's land. Communities belonging to the area, such as New San Marcos and Juantillos, for example, were left empty after the mass exodus of inhabitants. Violent gangs entered the town again and again to kill or abduct men and women, whether for their affiliation with a criminal group or simply to ensure they could not cooperate with one.

And so that night Ricardo, who until then had resisted the idea of leaving, woke his wife and their three children to gather some belongings and abandon their land at dawn, something he had not thought of in his nearly 70 years.

"It wasn't easy. It isn't easy to leave your life behind. And even less for those who don't realize bad things and just go about life happily. You go to work and from work you go home and go to sleep. Above all, people return home to go to sleep, but they can't do this because of the bullets they hear in all the neighborhoods when night falls. It's hell, I say."

Ricardo is a musician. Years ago he formed a band called "La Nueva Estrella" (The New Star). They played a repertoire of ranchero and norteño in bars and restaurants in Mazatlán, about 35 kilometers away. Every day, until he fled, he left his house mid morning to take one of the four routes that used to go out to and from the port. He returned each night.

"I was never afraid. Everything was calm. But we're in a country that cannot be understood. We're not having a revolution or anything, and because of this we don't understand the violence. In addition, we pay for what is happening. We pay for others, for the controversies of other people. They say the mafia of the hit-men... But it is not understood who is who, and we're not interested in learning," Ricardo says, dejected on the patio of his wooden and cardboard house at the foot of another small hill on the outskirts of Mazatlán, in a place eloquently called Invasión San Antonio, a sort of camp for refugees of the violence where there are no water supplies, sewage facilities, power lines, nor future.

The succession of the shacks is extensive. Before last summer, however, this was just a muddy field where an opportunist backed by a political party decided to deal with a few needy people. Today is another story, as the drama unfolds. On Ricardo's street, he knows at least 30 families from his hometown and most arrived in the period of hell that he witnessed. They are not alone. In Mazatlán there may well be 8000 people in the same condition, according to Arturo Lizarraga, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa (UAS), who studies migration. The exact figure, he says, is impossible to know.

"There is no specific number of displaced persons," he says. "What is certain is that in the mountains there is indiscriminate persecution, like in a war zone. And the worst thing is that they are living between two fires, on one side the government armed forces and on the other, the gangs. So while many towns are not completely abandoned, they have a high percentage of homes that are completely empty. I believe, therefore, that more than 20, 000 people in the mountains have fled without anyone, no authority, knowing exactly where they are or how they survive."

High migration
The Sinaloa Mountains records one of the most intense migratory movements of the last 60 years. The lack of opportunities has led to two predominant destinies: people leave for the United States or they begin farming poppies and marijuana.

But nothing like the exodus of the past five years has ever been seen, Lizarraga says, because it has also changed the migration patterns. It turns almost completely to urban zones such as Culiacán and Mazatlán, unleashing other social phenomena.

Since 2007, the municipal authorities have halted the displaced people of the mountains. The then mayor, Alejandro Higuera Osuna, told local media that his administration was unable to absorb the demand of people fleeing the violence.

"We surpassed capacity to give these people an alternative to their displacement. We are not prepared for the consequences of violence, we have no plan, none," he said then.

The mayor spoke of 2,500 families in these conditions, far more than the 700 mentioned by Governor Mario López Valdez last May.

What this situation currently entails, the Secretary of City Hall, Loar Lopez Delgado, refused to discuss. The researcher from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa says that it is a fact that these hordes have led to record crime rates in Mazatlan. "Upon finding no work in the USA, and no work here, they turn to illegal economic activity or violence."

Lizarraga found that the highest percentage of migration of young people is between the ages of 17 and 29 years (6 in 10), and the exponential growth of homicides recorded in 2010 in Mazatlan, coincides with this displacement. "It has made crime rise. The worst year in the history of Sinaloa was 2010. We're talking about Mazatlan as one of the most violent cities not only in Mexico-- the third in the nation--but in the world, with a murder rate of 57.93 assassinated for every 100,000 inhabitants. This is data from INEGI (the National Institute for Statistics and Geography)."

Ricardo, the musician displaced from La Noria fits at least one of the realities described by the researcher: that of unemployment.

Since he fled, La Nueva Estrella, his band, has disappeared. Ricardo tried to find a job as a soloist, but the wave of violence led to the closure of many of the Mazatlan establishments where he used to work and has also scared away the tourists.

Economic Losses
In the book "Scenarios of Violence and Insecurity in Tourist Destinations", Mazatlan is a case study investigated by Arturo Santamaria and Silvestre Flores, researchers from UAS. They find that the restaurant industry reported losses of 70% in 2011, a similar proportion to that of commercial enterprises that have also had to close due to the lack of tourists.

An example of the collapse caused by the homicides in 2010 is the diminished arrival of cruise ships, which are the backbone of an economy dominated by bars, restaurants, craft markets, and jewelry. 103 arrived in 2008, compared to 27 in 2011.

It is the environment in which the displaced arrive in search of work, housing and food, without obtaining it, he says in an interview. "The pressure that it generates is something that we still have not measured exactly, although we can infer what is going on."

Difficult Situation
In a one-room house, about 200 meters north of where Ricardo the musician lives, misery is in every corner. Here lives Olga, her two teenage daughters and a small two-year old toddler. They settled there after fleeing Santa Maria, a small community in the hills of El Rosario, south of Sinaloa.

An armed group came to shoot three of her husband's brothers. "There," Olga says, "he worked in the fields. Now in Mazatlan he leaves every day looking for a temporary job as a garden trimmer. Sometimes there is enough money to eat and other days he returns empty handed. It's a very tough situation then," says Olga. "What little light we have comes scarcely from one fan and the heat in intolerable. Later, when it rains, we are flooded and we lose the little we have. We left the house and clothes and furniture. All of our things, but we cannot return. Here we are more or less protected, but we cannot be sure. God will tell."

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