Note from the Frontera NorteSur editor: On his journey to Mexico last week, Pope Francis visited Chiapas, Mexico City, Mexico state, Morelia and Ciudad Juárez. During his stops the pope made general references to many burning issues confronting Mexico — drug violence, human trafficking, the breakdown of the social fabric, the marginalization of the nation’s original peoples, attacks on migrants, low-wage work, and more. He did not, however, meet with the parents of 43 disappeared students from the the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero, a case considered by Mexican human rights advocates as emblematic of the widespread crime of forced disappearance in the country. Francis also did not visit Guerrero, considered Mexico’s most violent state as well as one of the two most poverty-stricken.
If an allegory were to fit the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, the tale of Ankor the Bengal Tiger might well fit the bill. Escaping from a private tourism resort near Acapulco last October, Ankor apparently spent the next several weeks raiding ranches and killing cattle in the municipality of Coyuca de Benítez.
Since December, however, nobody has reported a trace of the predator, and speculation swirls about the Ankor’s fate. Was the fugitive feline wounded by a bull and did it crawl off to die? Did a giant crocodile rip the invasive specimen to pieces? Was Ankor really killed by frightened villagers, its body secretly disposed of to avoid the fines of environmental officials?
On the other hand, did Ankor flee deep into the Sierra Madres and tussle with native jaguars over territory? Or did the big cat and his smaller cousins reach an understanding, mingling and pacting? Nobody knows the truth.
Ankor’s rampage came as Guerrero achieved the ignominious distinction as the most violent state in Mexico for the fourth year running — based on murders per 100,000 people, according to statistics from the National Public Security System (SNSP).
And in the view of the new governor, Hector Astudillo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the United States has a big hand — or a big vein — in persistent violence he links to the increased production of illicit substances in his troubled state, which is widely considered the largest grower of opium poppies in Mexico.
“Without a doubt, (violence) is related to the increase in the consumption of heroin in the U.S.,” Astudillo said during remarks marking his 100th day in office. Citing the SNSP, the Guerrero daily El Sur reported that 2,016 people were murdered in the state last year, up 25 percent from 2014. With 902 murders, Acapulco accounted for a big share of the killings. Since 2011, more than 4,500 people have been murdered in Acapulco, a toll that is roughly equivalent in size to the student enrollment of two large U.S. high schools.
Other Guerrero municipalities experiencing high homicide rates last year included the state capital of Chilpancingo (212 victims), Iguala (105), Chilapa (82) and Zihuatanejo (43).
Iguala is the city where security was presumably tightened after the murders of six people and the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa college students by government security forces and cartel gunmen on Sept. 26, 2014.
Despite the world spotlight on a place that is a hub of much of Mexico’s opium and heroin trafficking, violence roared on as if nothing had happened.
Additionally, at least 850 people with reports of disappearance filed with the Office of the State Prosecutor (FGE) from October 2007 to October 2015 remain missing, according to Proceso newsweekly.
Nonetheless, the actual number of disappeared persons in Guerrero is far higher, since the FGE figure reported by Proceso does not take into account the hundreds of people who were forcibly disappeared by government security forces during the Dirty War (1969-81) or in subsequent years that included the first years of escalated narco violence in 2005 and 2006.
If 2015 was a bad year in Guerrero, 2016 could turn out to be an even worse one, as the 202 murders counted in January by El Sur imply a higher tally than last year’s if the pace of homicides stays steady.
In one especially bloody incident, a January quinceañera (a girl’s coming-of-age 15th birthday party) in the mountains of Coyuca de Catalan was apparently used as a cover by three rival drug trafficking gangs — the Knights Templar, La Familia Michoacana, and the Cartel of the Sierra — for a meeting held in an attempt to divvy up a lucrative opium poppy production zone.
But the narco conclave degenerated into a shootout provoked by “the heat of the mezcal,” said State Prosecutor Xavier Olea Pelaez. It left nine men dead and claimed the life of a passing female tourist.
Lourdes Escutia Viveros, a 25-year-old nurse from the state of Mexico, was traveling with her husband to the coastal resort of Zihuatanejo for the couple’s honeymoon when bullets flew on a mountain highway taken as a shortcut. Escutia’s new husband survived the fusillade with wounds, but the newlywed woman died.
Once Mexico’s premier resort, Acapulco is the scene of daily shootings that frequently happen in broad daylight. Perhaps the most daring killing occurred on Jan. 29 when a street vendor was gunned down at 2 p.m. in front of beach-goers. In an unprecedented getaway, the killer escaped into Acapulco Bay on a water jet that was piloted by a waiting accomplice.
Beach killings returned the week of Feb. 15, with attacks occurring at three separate beaches by mid-week, including an incident in which a man was gunned down at 3 p.m. in front of foreign tourists at a popular patch of sand located in the heart of the tourist zone that is supposedly guarded by a phalanx of security forces.
The victims of this year’s violence in Acapulco include ex-policemen, tortilla vendors, teachers, and a large number of taxi drivers. Reportedly, failures to pay extortion demands and blood feuds over illegal drug markets — perhaps mixed in with a dose of “social cleansing” of deemed undesirables — explain most homicides.
The 119 gang-land style slayings counted by El Sur from Jan. 1 to Feb. 17 have the rhythm of murder in Acapulco equalling or besting last year’s number.
Numerous bodies dumped in public view have been accompanied by so-called “narco messages” that are purportedly written by particular gangs to serve as a warning to others. The uptick in narco messages is a statewide pattern, with specific police officers, military officials and politicians routinely named by the mysterious street messengers as having a deep and moving hand in violence and corruption.
What all this carnage adds up to is a vast river of pain and sorrow running through the blood of Guerrense society.
Ines Gallardo knows this all too well. Gallardo’s 18-year-old son, Daniel Solis Gallardo, was one of three Ayotzinapa college students killed outright in an attack against the young people by Iguala municipal police and other gunmen on the evening of Sept. 26, 2014. The killing of a son who was in his first semester at Ayotzinapa was a hard blow to a young family, Gallardo said in an interview with FNS.
When Daniel was murdered his little sister was six years old. Going on two years later, the girl now is “more or less realizing what the situation is,” Gallardo said. Daniel’s absence also left a big hole in the life of a now 15-year-old younger brother. “He misses his brother,” Gallardo added. “(Daniel) was teaching him guitar and they practiced a lot. He taught him soccer and how to defend himself.”
A woman with friendly eyes who speaks in the cadence of Costeno Spanish, Gallardo said she was surprised by the behavior of Mexican soldiers who were deployed in Iguala the night of the attack and who reportedly harassed surviving students at a medical clinic.
“People need to open their eyes. How can it be that soldiers and police participated in this?” she questioned. “They should protect the people and not act like delinquents.”
Along with other Ayotzinapa parents, Gallardo has attended two meetings with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The Guerrero resident said Peña Nieto was much colder at the second meeting held last September in Mexico City, where the PRI president pledged that the investigation into the killing and forced disappearance of the students would be relaunched but left many questions up in the air.
Gallardo supports the continued demand by Ayotizinapa parents and their supporters that the GIEI, a special commission appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to probe the night of Iguala, be allowed to interview soldiers who were present in the city the night of the atrocity.
So far, the Mexican government has not aceded to the demand. “Hopefully, they discover the truth and the real culprits behind this,” Gallardo said. “Somebody is covering up who participated in this. They aren’t doing the investigations like they should be done.”
More than 100 suspects in the Ayotzinapa atrocity have been rounded up by the federal government, but Gallardo is fearful detainees (some of whom allege torture), including municipal policemen and purported cartel gunslingers, will get off the hook because of legal challenges the suspects are filing.
Mexico’s federal attorney general, Arely Gomez, was expected to meet with Ayotzinapa parents last week.
For his part, Guerrero State Prosecutor Xavier Olea blames much of the ongoing violence on 50 or so competing criminal gangs (other analysts estimate far less organized crime groups) that emerged with the fracturing of the once-dominant Beltran-Leyva organization after the group’s leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a 2009 shootout with Mexican marines in Cuernavaca, Morelos.
The elimination of Beltran Leyva was part of the kingpin stragety devised by the Mexican government and its Washington partners to dismantle organized crime by cutting off its head. While Beltan Leyva and many other mafia leaders have since indeed been eliminated, organized crime has sprouted many heads like a hopped-up hydra; the deluge of drugs, dollars and death only thickened. If a soundtrack were to accompany the drama of contemporary life in Guerrero, it surely would have to be “Del Negociante,” which frequently serenades the streets.
Performed by the late Ariel Camacho, a 22-year-old singer from Sinaloa who was killed in a 2015 car accident and now has an aura as something of a neo-narco James Dean or Richie Valens, the song touts the ways of a successful if shadowy, gold-plated businessman.
Guerrero in 2016 is a far different state than what was envisioned by the political insurgents who began shaking up the status quo of the one-party PRI state, entrenched by the Dirty War, during the rebel presidential campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1988.
Silvestre Pacheco, a Guerrero environmentalist, political activist and writer who participated in the movement that led to the founding of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989 after Cardenas was denied a victory, said Guerrero at the time had been ruled by regional strongmen, or caciques, who acted as “intermediaries” between the government and population.
“The left provoked a break with the cacique control over regions,” and a long-suppressed population began to “feel like citizens equal to the caciques who were like gods before,” Pacheco told FNS. Parallel to the political upheavels of the late 1980s and 1990s, economic changes that included a retreat of the state from productive life swept the southern state, the author of several books about the politics and culture Guerrero said.
Illicit drug production, which had long been present in Guerrero, boomed and filled a void, while the state/cacique system was “overwhelmed by other ways of organization imposed by the narco-trafficking groups,” who in essence became the new caciques, according to Pacheco.
“I can’t say where in the entire state any municipality is free, where there is no control or domination by organized crime…” Pacheco mused. “It can be assumed that we haven’t yet seen the worst of the problem.”
While narco-violence certainly commands the headlines and is graphically depicted in the photographs published by the daily newspapers, a subtler yet even more far-reaching matter is interacting with the public safety and political crisis to carve out the future of Guerrero. And it is not an alluring one.
The bills are coming due from the economic development in the 20th and 21st centuries that generated environmental degradation due to deforestation (sometimes related to opium poppy production), the widespread use of chemical fertilizers in export crops, the fouling of rivers and coastal waters by untreated sewage and the over-exploitation of natural resources. For instance, Pacheco recalled how heavily armed fishermen eventually appeared off the coast of Zihuatanejo, threatening away approaching counterparts as the former jealously guarded their little patch of water amid a dwindling fishery.
The environmental question is acute in Zihuatanejo, which has grown from a fishing village of a few thousand souls to more than 100,000 residents since the introduction of a mass tourism industry in 1972. Mangroves were stripped away, crocodiles killed, hillsides settled and condominiums and big hotels constructed.
Despite nearly 20 years of protests and polemics over the dumping of untreated sewage in Zihuatanejo Bay, seven of the municipality’s 12 treatment plants are not functioning, the local Despertar de la Costa newspaper recently reported.
Popular Playa de la Ropa, playground of foreign tourists, reveals another face of the environmental crisis. At one end of the beach a cyclone fence encloses what is left of the mangrove and stands as a barrier to keep the surviving crocodiles from crawling out and devouring tourists.
A nearby restaurant flys multiple flags, with the Mexican flag in the middle and the Canadian, U.S., Texas Lone Star and California Bear Republic flags flanking opposite sides of the Aztec Eagle and Snake. Below the busy diner flutters a Buccaneer flag. The deep meaning of the flags’ hierarchical ordering is left open to the reader’s interpretation.
A resident of Zihuatanejo since 1968 when the coastal highway was still a trail of “dust,” Obdulia Balderas has long waved a green banner. Now in her 81st year on the planet, Balderas connects the dots of disaster with rapacious capitalism. “All of this is against the people,” she told FNS. “The deterioration of the environment, the lack of employment and opportunities for those who have less.”
The longtime leader of the Zihuatanejo Network of Environmental Organizations, Balderas said she once felt the chill that greets dissidents, suffering three threats of forced disappearance because of her role in a community movement to defend Zihuatanejo Bay against a concession granted to the federal government’s National Tourism Development Fund and proposals for a big cruise ship terminal.
For Balderas, social violence thrives thanks to the unanimous permisseveness of politicians. “Business, natural resources and mining, all of this is mixed together,” Balderas said. “Violence and dead victims are talked about a lot, but nobody does anything.”
The former teacher is a critic of the mining boom driven by Canadian and other foreign investors that’s taken root in Guerrero in recent years. Interestingly, much of the mining for gold and other minerals is occurring in the same zones where opium poppy growing is intensive, such as in the mountains of San Miguel Totolapan, where a war between the private armies of drug trafficking organizations has displaced residents of ten communities since 2013.
“It would be good if the owners were Mexicans, but they are all foreigners and enslave the workers,” Balderas contended. “They are selling Mexico, but Peña Nieto wants to sell Mexico without the Mexicans.”
Yet as bad as current affronts to the environment appear, the scarred hillsides and despoiled waterways could be mere rashes of things to come. Climate scientists regard Mexico as among the nations most vulnerable to the effects of human-wrought changes, with a vast swath of the north subject to prolonged drought and the south exposed to more powerful hurricanes and pounding rains.
If the surface contortions of Mother Earth weren’t enough of a concern, Guerrero is a quite active earthquake zone — one where this writer has experienced at least three earth tremors.
Glimpses of the future are already evident in Guerrero. Take, for example, mosquito-borne illnesses. The problem of dengue was compounded last year by a chikungunya epidemic that sickened thousands and strained the resources of state health facilities. This year Zika is the new threat, though it has not reached epidemic proportions yet.
Higher humidity in the aftermath of tropical storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid in 2013 is blamed for the spread of a fungal disease, the roya, threatening the state’s important but struggling coffee harvest. An article in El Sur estimated the 2015 harvest of coffee will consist of 19,218 quintales, a mere fraction of the 380,000 quintales produced during the epic statewide harvest of 1993. A processed quintal is equivalent to 46 kilos.
Yet even prior to the roya outbreak, the Guerrero coffee industry was in extra hot water scalded by falling international prices and the reliance of many producers on middle-men distributors, all in spite of the explosion of world coffee culture and the unrelenting march of Starbucks. Accordingly, the Guerrero State Coffee Council calculated emigration from Guerrero’s coffee growing zones as 50 percent higher than the national average.
“Coffee has not been a business for a long time,”said El Sur columnist and analyst Silvestre Pacheco. “The majority plant coffee almost as a custom, for the love of coffee.” Hailing from a campesino background, Pacheco understands the psyche and spirit of coffee growers, recalling a conversation he had with his small farmer father back in the day.
After figuring out that income from their crops of basic grains and vegetables wasn’t adequately compensating the family’s labor, a young Pacheco asked his father, “Why do you want to continue planting?” His father’s reply? “What other thing am I going to do?”
Nowadays, with Guerrero coffee fetching about one-third of the price that it commanded during good years, many coffee producers grow other crops or depend on remittances sent from relatives working in the United States, according to Pacheco. In this economic scenario, migration or growing dope, are attractive alternatives in the countryside. “What options do the young people have?” Pacheco asked.
Simultaneous to the roya crisis, coconut growers in the coastal stretches below the Sierra Madres confront an insect infestation affecting about 90,000 acres of trees.
In a very important but undercovered address at Acapulco’s American University last month, Clemente Rueda Abad, National Autonomous University of Mexico climate reseacher, provided an overview of the local factors inter-connecting the environment, politics and economy. Rueda warned that climate models have temperatures in Guerrero increasing to averages ranging from 95 to 118 Fahrenheit by 2040. Although Ingrid and Manuel caused ecological devastation and the displacement of thousands, the two events were light in measurement based on the Saffer-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, Rueda said. Despite Guerrero’s vulnerabilities, the state government has not sent national reports on the state climate program since 2009, he said.
“The risk of climate change is that when it happens the risk of poverty increases,” Rueda was quoted in El Sur. “From what I understand, Acapulco continues feeling the impacts of two years ago which have not been resolved and if we don’t have response mechanisms, that’s to say if there is no design of public policies, what we will have is an accumulation of poverty and its impacts.”
Pacheco, who’s witnessed first-hand the deforestation of the Sierra Madres and the decline of agriculture, also had words of warning.
“People have a hard time evaluating all these (environmental) factors that will effect them. There is no (central) organization or government agency that does an evaulation of what could happen in the future. The government only reacts in a palliative way,” he said. “But they don’t say what is the relationship between deforestation, unusual rains or atypical diseases. People are immersed in daily problems.”
Meanwhile, in a virtually unprecedented government publicity campaign, Gov. Astudillo’s new administration and its counterparts at the municipal level publish daily reports and statements in the newspapers pledging a big uplift in everything from public safety to infrastructure.
Locals attribute big freezes up north and the falling value of the peso at home to an upturn in foreign tourism in Zihuatanejo this year, even as they nervously view the devaluation of their national currency and the collapse of the income stream from Mexico’s once-powerful oil export industry.
In assorted corners of the state, the ghostly voice of Ariel Camacho blares in the streets, bodies and narco-banners pop up here and there, and the relatives of hundreds — or thousands — of disappeared people wonder where their loved ones are located. A much bigger celebration than February’s Constitution Day, Valentine’s Day came and went.
Concluding a hectic and polemical visit, Pope Francis departed Mexico without kissing the soil of a beautiful but haunted piece of the land. And as a volatile year lurches forward, nobody seems to know what the hell happened to Ankor the Bengal Tiger.
Additional sources: Diario ABC de Zihuatanejo. February 8, 2016. Proceso, February 8, 2016. Article by Ezequiel Flores Contreras. Despertar de la Costa, January 27, 2016; February 2, 3 and 5, 2016. Articles by Pedro Patricio Antolino, Jaime Ojendiz and editorial staff. El Sur, January 22, 28, 29, and 30, 2016; February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 17, 2016. Articles by Karla Galarce Sosa, Aurora Harrison, Daniel Velazquez, Bolivar Rojas, Francisco Magana, Abel Salgado, Hugo Pacheco Leon, Anarsis Pacheco Leon, Luis Blancas, Carlos Navarette, Rosalba Ramirez Garcia, Carlos Morena A., and editorial staff. Bajopalabra.com.mx, December 7, 2015. Article by Ossiel Pacheco. Cultura.elpais.com, February 26, 2015.