Refugee Crisis Deepens in Mexico

By  |  6 / June / 2011

Mexican human rights activists have issued an emergency appeal to apply international humanitarian standards in providing relief to more than 150 refugees- including at least 77 children-who have been camped out in the mountains of southern Mexico for more than a month.

The plea was made on behalf of residents of the small community of La Laguna, Guerrero, who have reportedly fled mounting violence by illegal timber harvesters and drug traffickers. Emergency relief, the groups demanded, should be “planned according to the protocols” of the World Health Organization, International Red Cross and state and federal civil protection agencies.

“It is undeniable that Mexico is going through a situation of violence in which groups of armed civilians (organized crime) sow terror and death, provoking the displacement of entire families so they are not murdered,” read a statement from three human rights groups.

The organizations issuing the call for La Laguna include the Guerrero Network of Human Rights Organizations, the Collective against Torture and Impunity and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain

In April of this year, La Laguna community leader Ruben Santana became the latest member of his family to be murdered.

“They killed my two sons, my husband, a brother-in-law, a friend and two friends of my sons,” Santana’s widow, Jueventina Villa Mojica, told La Jornada.

Yet the recent bout of killings and subsequent forced displacement of La Laguna residents are only the latest manifestations of violence stemming from decades of illegal logging and drug trafficking in the Guerrero municipalities of Coyuca de Catalan and Petatlan.

Although scores of people have been reported killed and many others displaced in long-running conflicts, the remoteness of the zone has contributed to scanty press coverage of the violence.

In 2007, an early leader of the Campesino Environmentalist Organization of the Sierra of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan,  Rodolfo Montiel Flores, was granted political asylum in the United States after enduring what supporters contended was torture and an unjust imprisonment from 1999 to 2001 on drug and weapons charges trumped up by Mexican soldiers. Montiel was recognized by the Goldman Foundation and Sierra Club for his environmental activism.

Late last year, Montiel and fellow environmentalist Teodoro Cabrera won a judgment in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the Mexican government for their treatment.

Since 2007, a long-simmering, violent atmosphere has heated up and claimed even more lives. Besides pinning violence on criminal groups, residents of some mountain communities have accused Mexican soldiers and police of committing new human rights abuses during periodic incursions into troubled zones.

Additionally, the leftist Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) is known to have a presence in the area, and has claimed responsibility for clashes with paramilitary groups and the Mexican army.

In November 2009, ERPI regional commander Omar Guerrero Solis, Comandante Ramiro, was reported killed in an ambush. High profile killings this spring have included Adrian Perez, a purported forest defender and resident of La Morena, and Javier Torres Cruz also of La Morena in April.

Torres was well-known for filing a 2007 complaint with the Mexico City district attorney’s office that accused gunmen working for a Guerrero strongman, Rogaciano Alba, of killing human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa in the Mexican capital in October, 2001.

Alba was never prosecuted for Ochoa’s still-mysterious death, but was later arrested by federal police on drug charges. A former mayor of Petatlan for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Alba was long-reputed to be at the helm of drug trafficking in the Sierra and Costa Grande regions of Guerrero.

After his arrest early last year, Alba confessed to his association with other top drug traffickers in a video broadcast on national television. In an unusual statement made in an equally unusual forum, he also denied having anything to do with Digna Ochoa’s death, though he was not formally charged in the case by the federal authorities who held him in custody at the time of the video shoot.

In response to the violence riveting Petatlan and Coyuca de Catalan, Guerrero State Secretary for Pubic Safety Ramon Almonte Borja  announced that the bodies of 15 people murdered during the last five years would be exhumed.

“Some say this conflict is over the planting of drugs, others connect it to illegal logging in the mountains,” Almonte was quoted. “On the other hand, at least five of the dead people have been identified as forest defenders; things have worsened during the last five years and now there are displaced people.”

Mass displacement extends to communities in other regions of Guerrero. Requesting anonymity, a woman with family roots in a small coastal town described  how a one-time rural community of small farmers and ranchers now appears “very abandoned” following  years of  killings and kidnappings.  A cousin was recently killed, and the surviving family members forced to flee, she said. “We have no idea where they’ve moved,” she added. “They’re totally underground.”

According to the source, violence is now directed not only against people directly involved in the drug business,  but against relatives, employees or anyone with any  kind of association with a targeted individual, whether the relationship is of an illicit character or not.

The murder of her cousin, she contended, was carried out to “get at” the victim’s brother in-law. In another instance, the employee of a suspected target was chopped up and left castrated in an orchard, she added. Consequently, hundreds of people have abandoned the town while the remaining population follows a self-imposed curfew.

“What is a hometown when nobody is around?” she asked. “The exodus has been tremendous.”

While drug-linked violence has stained Guerrero for years, it has noticeably escalated since Angel Aguirre was sworn in as the new governor last April. Indeed, Aguirre’s name has been mentioned in cryptic “narco-messages” left in Acapulco.

An interim governor of Guerrero for the PRI during 1996-99, Aguirre is now governing as a member of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Aguirre’s nomination as the PRD candidate for this year’s election raised many eyebrows on the left, considering the repression that was directed against the PRD and social movements during his last governorship.

Aguirre has dissociated himself from the police and army crackdowns of the late 1990s, a time when Mexican soldiers shot and killed 11 small farmers and ERPI members meeting in El Charco and an era when the army pursued anti-logging activists, among many other incidents.

If what Aguirre says is true, then important questions arise: Who was in control of Guerrero back in the 1990s? And who is in control now?

Guerrero’s state attorney general, former Acapulco mayor and PRD leader Alberto Lopez Rosas, recently acknowledged that the state justice system was in a “precarious state.”  Lopez further told the Mexican press that his office had asked some people to leave their homes around La Laguna while officials worked to “establish clear control” of the zone.

According to Gov. Aguirre, state authorities are now busy getting medical and other relief to the displaced inhabitants of the mountain community, who have found refuge in the village of Puerto Las Ollas.

The crisis of violence and displacement is not unique to Guerrero. In neighboring Michoacan, allegations of illegal timber harvesting linked to drug trafficking likewise underpin a stand-off in the indigenous Purepecha town of Cheran, where residents have barricaded the municipality for weeks and threatened stronger actions if illicit activities, environmental assaults and attacks by gunmen are not curbed by the government.

In another section of Michoacan, Tierra Caliente, at least 700 people were temporarily displaced when fighting erupted reportedly between two factions of the old La Familia crime syndicate in May.  Like Guerrero, the uptick in violence occurs during a political transition period as Michoacan prepares for crucial state elections in November.

Altogether, there may have been as many as 235,000 people internally displaced or externally exiled from various conflicts in Mexico at the end of last year, according to a December 2010 report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and Norwegian Refugee Council.

Still, the figure is a guesstimate, based in part on research done in Ciudad Juarez into the large numbers of people who’ve fled the violence-torn border city. To come up with a number, local researchers tallied up the amount of vacant dwellings and multiplied them with an estimate of the average human occupancy of a typical residential unit.

“In 2010, federal authorities did not acknowledge, assess or document the needs of the people displaced, instead focusing their efforts on fighting the drug cartels,” the IDMC report noted.

“International agencies present in the country with protection mandates, including the UNCHR and the ICRC, followed events but, in the absence of government acquiescence, they did not establish programmes to provide protection or promote durable solutions for those forcibly displaced.”

In many if not most cases, today’s displacement happens under the radar screen as people  quietly slip away to avoid reprisals or cross over into U.S. border towns in as unnoticed as a manner as possible.

Internal refugees are not a new phenomenon in Mexico. Tens of thousands of indigenous residents of the state of Chiapas were displaced by pro-government paramilitary groups in the 1990s, according to the IDMC report. The nature of the current displacement, however, is somewhat different than the politically-motivated dislocations of previous years.

In certain parts of Mexico, neo-feudal crime organizations now “cleanse” populations as they attempt to consolidate territorial control over not only drug trafficking and other illicit activities but entire economies as well.

In Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, for instance, organized criminal bands now dominate the vast informal economy of pirate products and street sales tax agriculture and ranching and, if the allegations raised in a recent lawsuit against 11 companies by the state oil company PEMEX are true, even collude with US businessmen to steal and market natural gas liquids from the Burgos Basin valued in hundreds of millions of dollars.

In Guerrero, meanwhile, the Guerrero Network of Human Rights Organizations and other human rights organizations demand that authorities assure the safe return of people to their communities, investigate paramilitary groups and get to the bottom of the murders of Ruben Santana and numerous other victims. And they demand that the rural isolation and poverty which is a backdrop to the violence be finally addressed in a way that is compatible with the socio-economic needs and aspirations of the local people.

In terms of the broader refugee question, a historic convergence of Mexican and US non-governmental organizations is expected to demand in El Paso next week that Washington grant asylum and protection to Mexican refugees and apply international humanitarian law to people from south of the border seeking refuge in this country.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org.

Sources: Bloomberg.com, June 1, 2011. El Sur, February 18, 2011; May 14 and 30, 2011. Articles by Ismael Flores, Aurora Harrison  and editorial staff. Notimex, May 27, 2011. La Jornada, May 14, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 2011. Articles by Sergio Ocampo Arista, Citlal Giles Sanchez, Margena de la O, Francisca Meza Carranza and editorial staff.

Resources: Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain  http://www.tlachinollan.org/

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