Twenty-two Nahuas communities of the Montaña Baja region – in the state of Guerrero – rebelled against the power of drug trafficking. They chose to expel the cartels from their territories and are currently resisting the armed onslaught. Los Ardillos – a former faction of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, renowned for their violent acts – surround the region and fight with the communities over paths, dirt roads, and motorways. From the trench, where there is no presence of the National Guard or any other police or military force, the Nahuas inform Contralínea that there is no way back.
Montaña Baja, Guerrero. Some of them are just over 18 years old; some others are turning 60. In the roofless trenches, men employ plastic bags to protect themselves from the rain. They stay alert, hiding behind sandbags or small stone fences. These people defend key positions to avoid that the killers hired by drug traffickers retake possession of the indigenous territory.
They hold their AK47 and R15 assault fusils, some Uzis, or mainly, sawed-off shotguns and 22 caliber rifles. Compared to them, their opponents have more powerful guns. Los Ardillos and Los Rojos, former factions of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, rely on pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, armored cars, and 50 caliber Barrett fusils. No hired killer would ever use shotguns.
“However, they do have what matters and, instead, we do: the mandate of the communities and their assemblies,» points out Juan Hernández, who is over 50 years old and leader of the group defending this trench. The name has been changed, as all those written in cursive, for safety reasons.
So far this year, in this region of Montaña Baja in the Guerrero state, almost 30 people have died following violent events. Amid the municipalities of Chilapa de Álvarez and José Joaquín Herrera, three massive confrontations have occurred between the Nahuas and the hired killers. In each of them, Los Ardillos tried to seize a population or enter some areas of the already freed community territory. They could not achieve it.
Only in one incursion, on January 27 this year, 12 members of the cartel died. Hence, Los Ardillos have intensified their assaults against the populations and started hunting the indigenous leaders one by one, or two by two. Furthermore, they keep the people in a state of anxiety.
Since January, drug traffickers have murdered at least 12 people and kidnapped one, whose whereabouts are unknown yet. Ten of the victims are indigenous people belonging to the twenty-two communities that are members of the Indigenous and Popular Council of Guerrero-Emiliano Zapata (Spanish: Concejo Indígena y Popular de Guerrero Emiliano Zapata, Cipog-EZ). Most of them are also members of the Regional Coordination of Community Authorities-Community Police of the Founding Populations (Spanish: Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias-Policía Comunitaria de los Pueblos Fundadores, CRAC-PC-PF). The remaining two belong to the political parties of the region.
Among the communities, there is peace and security. Nonetheless, the inhabitants cannot freely go out. They stopped selling their products in the municipal capitals. Nor can they travel there to manage works, social support, or request a round table with the local government. Teachers and doctors cannot travel to any other community, and the electric service continually interrupts.
Los Ardillos’ checkpoints are located in Atzacualoya, El Jagüey, Hueycantenango, and Tlanipatla. It is mandatory to pass by these locations to get to the municipal seats of Chilapa or José Joaquín Herrera. At the checkpoint of El Jagüey, drug traffickers have built temporary homes, and 150 members of their troops are permanently there. Such a place works as an operational center of the cartel’s armed wing. The militaries of the National Guard stopped patrolling the area.
Communities have to defend themselves. According to the federal government, officially, there is no proof of the existence of Los Ardillos, and in the region, there are no confrontations nor armed groups. The National Guard does not enter the area. Nor do soldiers nor police officers.
Throughout its tour, Contralínea has found just one checkpoint of the National Guard at the entrance to the village of Tlapa, at around 110 kilometers from the region. Such an area lives in a state of emergency without support from any of the three levels of government. Approximately 50 thousand people live in the twenty-two towns.
Los Ardillos do not exist, affirms the federal government.
Since the past June 28, Cipog-EZ, through the Centre of Human Rights Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Frayba, for its Spanish acronym), has requested cautery measures to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in favor of the twenty-two Nahuas communities and the members of the organization.
However, on August 19, the Mexican State asked the IACHR –during the current government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador – «to decline the request for cautery measures for the region,» according to Jesús Plácido Galindo, state leader of Cipog-EZ.
According to the indigenous activist aware of the process, firstly, the federal government does not recognize Cipog-EZ as a representative community group in discussion panels. Therefore, it denies the existence of narco-paramilitary groups and armed-civilian groups.
Moreover, López Obrador’s administration affirms that a Mixed Operating Base (integrated by militaries and federal and state police officers) has settled in the region. What is more, they assure that the forces of the State Secretariat of Public Security patrol the area.
Although the government of the“fourth transformation” asserts that Los Ardillos do not exist, within the region, every citizen of all ages knows who they are and feel anxious when someone speaks of them.
The obscenities that Los Ardillos and Los Rojos have committed – quartered corpses, rampant violations, tortures with instruments, indiscriminate attacks – have been documented by the local and national press.
Currently, the confrontations are mainly with Los Ardillos. After the detention – in the Morelos state – of Santiago Mazari, el Carrete, leader of Los Rojos, this cartel withdrew from the area. On the other hand, Los Ardillos, without any opponents, got more powerful and acquired more control over this area.
The community representatives, in assembly, feel first astonished and then angry when Jesús Plácido informs them that for the federal government Los Ardillos do not exist. Their faces of incredulity would convert into a loud laugh if only their lives and their families’ were not in permanent danger.
The Celso’s brothers, Jorge Iván and José Antonio Ortega Jiménez, are the leaders of Los Ardillos. They are Celso Ortega Rosas’s sons, the so-called Ardilla, murdered in 2015. They have another brother, Bernardo Ortega Jiménez, who is the current deputy coordinator of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD, Spanish: Partido de la Revolución Democratica) in the Congress of the state.
Those Nahuas, members of Cipog-EZ in Montaña Baja – Guerrero – for who cautery measures had been requested, live in the Nauhuas communites of Xicotlán, Tula Guerrero, Terrero 1, Ahuehuitic, Papaxtla, Acahuehuetlán, Rincón de Chautla, Zacapexco, Buena Vista, Xolotepec, Xulchuchuio, El Paraíso de Tepila, San Jerónimo Palantla, Ahuixtla, El Jagüey, El Paraíso, Tepozonalco, Santa Rosa y Mexcaltepec 1, located in the municipality of Chilapa de Álvarez; and Xochitempa, Ayahualtempa and Hueycantenango, in the municipality of José Joaquín Herrera.
In these communities, two organizations embody the crucial principles of the National Indigenous Congress: CRAC-PC-PF and Cipog-EZ. The former focuses on security and justice matters. The latter, on the political processes, to achieve indigenous peoples’ auto-determination. They work in synergy.
Cipog-EZ was established on April 10, 2008, following the dissolution of other indigenous and peasant movements in Guerrero. It employs the entity’s previous organizational experiences, but also including the principles of the National Indigenous Congress.
The clouds approach the slopes. The dew makes cardboard roofs drip. Trees, animals, and people are all wet. It is past 9 pm, and the assembly of representatives holds the meeting outdoors. They decide whether it is possible to move to another village, in the heart of the Montaña region. They need to gather a conspicuous number of forces to avoid a potential attack by drug traffickers.
The village is in the proximity of the Tlapa-Chilpancingo state highway, at around 8 kilometers from the city of Chilapa. The nearby communities said that each one of them would send a sufficient number of Community Police officers to move to Acahuehuetlán. There they are celebrating an assembly with the representants of the twenty-two communities to install a radio communication system. The latter is vital to coordinate the defense before the attacks of narco-traffickers.
Regino Santos, the municipal delegate and leader of the town of Papaxtla, gives directions to integrate a guard at the entrance of the village for security reasons. The assembly ends, and they wait for the arrival of further Community Police officers to start the move.
Representants go to the police station, a concrete building surrounded by cornfields. Some of them are tired. At least inside of it, it is dry and warm. They sit back in the plastic chairs and close their eyes, but their right hand never stops touching the weapon placed under the chair or between their legs. Others entertain themselves by talking in small groups.
In this region, corn stalks already show young corn. The rainy season is about to end, and corn is on the point of ripening. A soft wind gently moves across the cornfield. The rustling of stems and leaves attract people’s attention and warns some others.
With 25 years old, he already represents the authority of the community of Papaxtla. Thin mustaches, black eyes, a tanned and slim face, Regino Santos explains that since the population established their Community Police, the insecurity within the town has ended. They were living with the fear of being attacked by criminals in their own houses.
They have never received support from any organization. On the contrary, the police entered the community only on one occasion and caused problems and scared children. In 2015, by mistake, the state police carried out an operation in the town. They entered to find Los Ardillos’ hired killers who had seized the capital of Chilapa some previous days. They mistreated the population and destroyed the community warehouse.
It was a breaking point for the community that had asked for security for a long time. However, when the police arrived, it was to attack the village. For this reason, the people decided to create their Community Police, and they incorporated to CRAC-PC-PF and afterward to Cipog-EZ.
He remarks that the mere function of the Community Police consists of protecting the people. He denies that they set up checkpoints or patrol outside the communities. In this village, no confrontation with hired killers occurred. People see them pass by the highway, but they have never fought.
“As long as they do not attack the town, the [Community] Police is not confronting someone they do not know […]. If they do not mess with us, we do not mess with anybody.”
He smiles while saying that the radio communication system – that the communities of Cipog-EZ will install will allow them to «rely on coordination for any issue that may arise within a community. This way, we will avoid losses. For instance, if they attacked, we would be coordinated”.
Suddenly dogs incorporate. They bark and get courageous. Their minute bodies do not allow them to appear aggressive. Although malnourished, they hear the sound of approaching cars before any person. Around thirty members of the Community Police arrive by three stake bed trucks to check that the transfer advanced smoothly. At the front, there is Pedro Ramírez, a tanned man, 54 years old, commander, leader, and organizer of the Community Police of Acahuehuetlán. His communities and all the other members of Cipog-EZ and CRAC-PC-PF respect Mr. Ramírez.
Everyone arriving shakes the hands of the people receiving them. The Nahua protocol is rigorous, and fellowship is crucial. They only speak broken Spanish when they need to communicate with journalists or with Na’saavi or Me’phaa indigenous communities with whom they collaborate as well.
It is almost midnight, but they need to gather in an assembly again to evaluate whether the security conditions are adequate. They discuss keeping their lanterns on their heads, as they were miners, and with the weapons in their hands. Most of them wear ski masks but not to hide their identity. They have AK47, R15 and Uzi assault fusils, guns, 22 caliber rifles, and pellet guns. “However, they shoot too,» firmly say the people holding them.
The transfer begins toward the heart of the Montaña region. It is almost a two-hour trip, and it is tense, especially along the dirt roads and narrow paths in dispute. In these areas, it is likely to bump into Los Ardillos’ patrols. The youngest and best-armed people are upfront with their cars.
The drizzle turns into a downpour, and at times, the vehicles skid on the paths. They keep going on the mountainside full of mud and through the darkness. The Nahuas communities adopted a security frame in some areas to ensure the transit of the caravan. The convoy passes by the checkpoints installed by the communities. In each of them, it is mandatory to stop and shake the carers’ hands.
In another part of the trip, it is impossible to foresee what the passage hides. The caravan can only hope not to meet the hired killers, but if so, they should desire to outnumber drug traffickers to avoid a confrontation. The fear of an ambush disappears as soon as entering the community of Acahuehuetlán. It is 3 am, and the organization of the villages organized in Cipog-EZ and CRAC-PC-PF works smoothly.
The sun rises, and the Community Police officers focus on the center of the town. Groups of clouds approach this area and slowly disappear throughout the morning. Delegates of dozen communities arrive, each of them escorted by 7 to 12 Community Police officers. They cannot walk through this area with no protection. They are all threatened by drug traffickers.
They gather to implement a project which is currently crucial to them. In other words, they will install, with the support of the Indigenous Governing Council and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a radio communication system to coordinate defense before drug smuggling and to support each other in the daily agricultural tasks.
The drizzle is persistent. The slopes drip. Despite the Montaña Alta region, Montaña Baja is vigorous. The cornfields in this community have already ripened. The pixca (harvesting) is beginning in a week — a countless variety of quelites (edible herbs in the Nahuatl language) springs throughout this season. Guava trees are already full of fruit even though it is not ripe yet. Red beans hang by Guaje trees. Chickens walk upfront their chicks.
Pedro Ramírez points out that the Community Police did not intend to fight directly against drug trafficking. It occurred to defend the communities. If drug traffickers do not mess with the populations, the Community Police officers do not mess with them either. He argues that the confrontations of the communities of Cipog-EZ have always been in response to the hitmen’s attacks.
Before they organized and reestablished their assemblies, the communities suffered extortion at the hands of drug smugglers. Criminals entered the towns inviting commissioners to join the cartel.
«They offered me two cars and eight AK-47 assault rifles (the so-called Goat’s Horns in Mexican Spanish) […]. I did not accept […]. As a population, as authorities, we have implemented this strategy not to fall in the criminals’ hands.»
Pedro is aware that if communities had not organized in Cipog-EZ and CRAC-PC-PF, drug traffickers «would have already murdered some of them.» He explains that in some towns, they do not allow teachers, nurses, or doctors to pass by.
“They only say: ‘You cannot cross here. Come back. And if you desist, the next time we see you, we will kidnap you’. So, yes, criminals are threatening them.»
These unfortunate events commonly occur in the town of Tula Guerrero. Carlos López explains that no one can go out but through lanes, trying to avoid the drug traffickers’ checkpoints. The village is at the borders with the freed territory. Los Ardillos’ primary objective is to seize the community, as they tried to on the past July 20.
«The people who attacked us were roughly 500 meters from the town. They stay there, on the mountain opposite to the community. They have their trenches, and they are still there […]. The government should intervene.
He adds that due to their presence, it is impossible to go out. They are subject to criminals.
«We suffer as we cannot go to Chilapa to shop. The citizens’ needs cannot be [satisfied]. At the crossroads, they have their trenches on the mountainside and have already sequestered many people. Our towns have lost many people who [drug traffickers] kidnap, torture, and kill. They bring them along and abandon their bodies along the motorway.»
—How can you survive if you cannot exit the community – Pedro is asked.
—We find the way, gathering all the food we can among the towns. We plan how to find food and the products employed at home.
—Do teachers and doctors get to the town?
—Due to the insecurity that they encounter along the path, they no longer come. The past week the teachers in El Jagüey crossing told us [that] drug traffickers had stopped them for over an hour. The situation did not get out of control, but still, they no longer come. As a result, currently, children do not have class.
In this season of the year, the community of Acahuehuetlán does not suffer undernourishment. Families’ daily diet consists of eating eggs (from chickens and turkeys) soaked in green pepper sauce, corn tortillas, black beans, and quelites (edible herbs in the Nahuatl language). What is inappropriate in this diet are the large quantities of Coke ingested daily: on average, 1 liter per person per day. However, people who hold a (political or religious) position drink even more Coke: every time they close a deal, they celebrate with this beverage — the cases of diabetes multiply.
The assembly convenes. They inform that, according to technical assessments, the radiocommunication tower must be installed on a mountainside in another village: Xolotepec. Since the representatives of this village did not arrive in Acahuehuetlán, everyone moves to the appointed town.
The Community Police officers’ caravan is wandering around dirt tracks. They look out, but they seem more relaxed. In this area, the communities control the majority of the paths.
One can observe stone or sandbag trenches on the banks of the roads, in the crossings, and at the entrance to towns. Young people, almost adolescents, defend the trenches, but adults give order to them. They greet the convoy and report that there is no news; today, drug traffickers did not attack the area. They cover from the rain with some plastic bags. The caravan moves on with more confidence.
Women walk faster and barefoot. They have braided hair and wear colorful, pleated dresses. They carry wood and prepare the tlecuil (brazier in the Nahuatl language). Visitors arrived suddenly, and they need to make some food.
Francisco Álvarez, the commissioner of this community, points out that there are no cases of violence among the people. He explains that they are organized in the Cipog-EZ and CRAC-PC-PF to avoid that violent acts may occur in their area. Their most compelling problems are of another nature.
“There is no school, nor clinic. The local government offers no support. We have never received any aid.”
The commissioner adds that the cooperation of the whole population was determinant to establish the office for the delegation, police station, and the command headquarters of the Community Police. They did not receive public resources.
The representative of San Jerónimo Palantla, Luisa Vázquez, arrived secretly in Xolotepec. Her community is divided into those who support the indigenous resistance, and those who flank drug traffickers.
In this dispute, Luisa lost her parents, uncles, and a sister. Indeed, criminals keep the town under control, whereas the indigenous resistance militates secretly.
Fernando Pérez, of the community Terrero 1, says that they face many issues. Yet, they have found a way to defend themselves and improve the situation for the Nahuas in the region.
«We understood that only together, we can do and achieve something. It is what I observed so far. We could set up our organization thanks to the support of the National Indigenous Congress. We are thriving and participating along with the other fellows. We believe that it is vital to give one’s life for this project”.
The assembly decides the place of the antenna installation and discusses other projects. With their fusils on their shoulders, they informally discuss topics well beyond security. As if their lives were not at stake, the following themes deal with production processes and the establishment of an autonomous government.
Commissioners and representants of the twenty-two communities organized in the Cipog-EZ do not hide their enthusiasm in seeing their project, the community communication system materialized. They agree on the tower and the collocation of solar cells and the repeater station. Each commissioner receives a portable radio so that they can react more efficiently to emergency cases.
The cost of the project reaches 283 thousand pesos. The supporters of the indigenous movement and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), on request of the CNI, financed the project.
The Nahua communities of Montaña Baja in Guerrero requested a meeting with the federal government. They have only met Misael Rojas Mejía, the personal secretary of Alejandro Encinas, deputy-secretary of the Human Rights Department of the Ministry of the Interior (Segob for its Mexican acronym). The reunion occurred on May 30. The representative of López Obrador’s government only listened to and said that he would communicate the information to his superiors. He promised that he would contact them. The official has never contacted them, nor has he answered the locals’ calls.
On July 12, the spokesperson of the Indigenous Governing Council, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, the so-called Marichuy, stopped the human caravan that wanted to enter the towns in Montaña Baja-Guerrero. She then pointed out the lack of guarantees from the Mexican State and the wave of violence that has spread across the country.
The sun begins to set, and visitors must leave the area secretly. Only a small group of community members, those in charge of taking them out, knows the right time and direction.
Children under ten years old run barefoot. They laugh and hide among the cornfields. The clouds never disappeared entirely and already tend again. At times they reveal the golden slopes: the corn stalks have sprouted throughout this area. “Timoitase [goodbye]; ma qualli ohtli [good way],» the last exchange between those who stay and those who leave.
By Zósimo Camacho, text, and José Luis Santillán, photos/correspondents
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)