BORDERLAND BEAT — Note: BB readers will recall those people displaced, shot at and homes destroyed by helicopter fire during the hunt for Chapo…these are those people. BB has long reported about Sinaloa forcing these people into organized crime activities. In 2014 BB reported a story of 5 killed for refusing to work for Sinaloa. Read that story at this link
This is the first story in a three-part series on the impact Mexico’s drug wars is having on indigenous people — a project by Dromómanos, VICE News, and Periodísmo CIDE with the support of the W.K. Kelloggs Foundation.
Sinaloa cartel hitmen killed 18-year-old Benjamín Sánchez on February 26 2015, after he refused to work for them.
A month later Cruz Sánchez, Benjamín’s father, was on his way back from visiting the authorities in the nearest big city to their village in the mountains. As he made his way home he received a call from a friend, warning him that the same men who had killed his son were waiting for him on the road.
Cruz left his pickup and continued his journey by foot in order to avoid the gunmen. It took him eight hours walking along mountain trails to get to his community of El Manzano.
Three days later, the gunmen were back. This time two of Sanchez’s children heard a voice screaming “finish them off” as they walked to a local shop in the village to buy food. They ran to the house of a relative and grabbed the rifles most families keep in order to scare away the coyotes that roam the area.
The shootout lasted for seven hours. A cartel hitman died and one of Sánchez’s sons received three bullets. The military arrived after nightfall. The family decided it was time to leave.
El Manzano lies in the southern part of the Tarahumara mountain range in the northern state of Chihuahua. It is a vast area of enormous natural beauty famed for its ravines deeper than the Grand Canyon, the vibrant culture of the indigenous Rarámuri communities that pepper the mountainsides, as well as a long tradition of cultivating marijuana and opium poppy.
There used to be 34 families living in El Manzano, almost all of them Rarámuri. According to two former residents, the drug business didn’t used to interfere with the community. They said that the cartels pretty much left them to work in their fields and tend to their animals in peace. There was nothing to stop them gathering together in their ceremonial centers and performing rituals during fiestas they believe help heal, restore order, and keep chaos at bay.
But these locals say things changed abruptly two years ago when some community leaders were recruited by organized crime. Corn made way for poppies, and residents stopped their communal gatherings, opting instead to keep a low profile hidden away in their farms.
“They wanted the locals to work for them and join their group,” said Sánchez, who claimed the gunmen came from the neighboring state of Sinaloa. “Almost everyone is put to work [growing poppy] on their own land. That group controls several municipalities.”
After the Sánchez family left El Manzano fearful for their lives, others soon followed until there was almost nobody left.