EL CAJÓN, Mexico —Two years ago, more than 100 people lived in this small village in Mexico’s western state of Michoacán.
Now, there are only eight.
A local feast celebrating Saint Michael the Archangel, patron saint of the town, used to run for two days, with heaps of food and celebratory banda, regional Mexican music. There is no feast this year — only three men dressing up a statue of the saint between cleaning a church.
El Cajón is one of the hundreds of villages transformed into ghost towns by crime and violence that force people to flee, either to other parts of the country or to the United States. The village has around 60 abandoned houses riddled with bullet holes, surrounded by grass and forgotten belongings. People left everything behind after brutal attacks by Mexican drug cartels.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center in Mexico, there were 9,700 new displacements due to conflict in 2020, bringing the total count of people displaced within Mexico to 357,000 people as of last December. About 24,000 displaced migrants, most from Michoacán, are expected to go to Tijuana to pursue asylum in the United States, according to recent coverage from the news organization Border Report.
“Over the past two decades, the ways criminal groups exercise violence, and against whom, have changed profoundly in Mexico," said Falko Ernst, a senior security analyst for the International Crisis Group responsible for conducting research on the country’s lethal conflict. "Criminal groups have moved toward deep territorial penetration. They're seeking to control not only the land but also populations."
Strategically speaking, Ernst said, criminal groups clearly recognize how essential it is to get local civilians on their side.
Sometimes, they try to entice people with displays of benevolence like handouts.
But more often, they threaten people with coercion and violence.
In September, Mexico-based journalists traveled for The Courier Journal to the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) region of Michoacán to document the forced displacement in one of the most hazardous and forgotten places in the country.
In this area, the ongoing conflict between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), Los Viagras drug cartel, and armed self-defense groups has led to countless deaths, thousands of internally displaced people, and growing numbers of people seeking to flee across the U.S. border.
CJNG is the bloodiest and most powerful drug cartel in Mexico. The U.S. State Department has issued a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of its leader, Ruben Oseguera Cervantes, also known as "El Mencho."
After being granted access to the CJNG area, the journalists saw men who identified themselves as a self-defense group, armed civilians protecting themselves from drug cartels, but who locals said were cartel members. After driving 40 minutes on rough roads, journalists noticed a Mexican military barracks in the middle of the road, with .50-caliber weapons pointing toward the next city, El Mencho's lawless birthplace of Aguililla.
There, the isolation was palpable, with empty roads and abandoned houses. Armed men stood near blockades in the road, deciding who to allow into the area, which is considered CJNG territory.
While in El Aguaje, a tall man stepped out of a pickup truck stamped with the letters CJNG and approached the journalists. Three other men remained inside the vehicle.
"Who are you?" asked the tall man, who was holding a long weapon.
“We're journalists,” photographer Cristopher Rogel Blanquet answered. “Your group granted us permission to be here."
The man asked what they were doing there, and Blanquet told him they were pursuing a story about forced displacement due to violence. The man answered: "Got it. Just keep in mind that this is a war between cartels…”
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Journalists learned that some of the former inhabitants of this area and other parts of Michoacán had to flee to a neighboring Mexican state. Many hope to someday return.
"They're hoping the situation in their home communities stabilizes and the violence diminishes," said Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Mexico. "If they're fleeing violence and seeking safety, it's also a very stressful and undesirable situation for these individuals to be in.”
Other residents seek asylum in the United States, many of them without success.
Over 900,000 migrants trying to cross the border have been expelled under COVID-related rules that went into effect in March 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures show.
A 40-year-old-man from El Cajón, who would not give his name because he feared for his safety, said he hasn't left the village because his sister and his uncle are among the eight people remaining. Because there’s no place to work, he said he survives on money sent by family members now living in the United States.
"It was hard to live over a year without power and running water,” the man told journalists. “I didn't want to leave because I still have to take care of my sister and my uncle, and not to leave them all. There are sick people here, elderly, I don't need to live (like) this, but I do it for them. We're a family now.”
Migration and deep scars
Experts said it’s impossible to know the true scale of displacement in a country where conflict continues to increase and the government hasn’t done enough to address the root causes.
“It's difficult to assess whether the phenomenon is becoming more common or simply whether displacement is becoming more visible," said Alvaro Sardiza, monitoring expert for the Americas at the International Displacement Monitoring Center.
Graber Ladek said Mexico is a “very unique country in terms of migration dynamics” because of its geography and where it is located.
"It's also a major country of transit, so there are many individuals who are passing through Mexico, the majority of those who have the U.S. as their destination,” she said. “And of course, it's a country of return. Those people who are just deported, expelled, or choose to return to Mexico."
While there are other reasons for forced displacement in Mexico, the presence of heavily armed and powerful crime organizations is a big one.
Throughout the years, Michoacán has been a strategic place for criminal organizations to boost their illegal businesses. It’s home to the Lázaro Cárdenas port, a gateway for shipments of precursor chemicals from Asia used in the production of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.
Battles for territory have left deep scars on innocent Mexicans who are not involved in the drug trade.
"We're civilians; we're not involved in any of the conflicts,” said the 40-year-old El Cajón resident. “It's tough because you can't go out, or they would think that you're supporting a side or the other. We spent over two months hiding because of shootings.”
As drug cartels grow more powerful and gain territory, more Mexicans are forced to either live this way or leave their homes.
Experts say the state and federal governments are not doing enough to help restore law and order.
"Mexico's federal and state forces have acted, in the best of cases, as passive bystanders, and in the worst of cases as active conflict participants, taking sides by collaborating with one or the other criminal band," said Ernst, the security analyst.
"For now, the name of the game is passiveness and complicity, and this means that these new, more aggressive ways of making war – such as the deliberate targeting of civilian populations – are afforded with impunity."
If criminal organizations face no consequences, Ernst said, “the escalation of violent practices will continue” and “humanitarian costs, including displacements too, will continue to mount."
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Experts said federal government officials are drafting legislation that aims to prevent internal displacement. But for now, they expect the problem to fester.
Back in El Cajón, the 40-year-old resident tries to remain optimistic.
"Right now, we feel free because shootings have stopped," he said. “Maybe next year, things would get better. Probably with fewer people, but the patronal feast could happen again."
Karol Suárez is a Venezuela-born journalist based out of Mexico City. Cristopher Rogel Blanquet and Armando Solis contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Mexican drug cartel violence forces people out of their homes