Photography: José Luis de la Cruz
Translation by Ann Deslandes @Ann_dlandesfirstname.lastname@example.org
March 16th 2020
A teenager whose ribs are visible on his scrawny body, a plywood assault weapon on his chest, walks through the door of the auditorium of the municipal police station of Tlacotepec, the capital of Heliodoro Castillo municipality in the heart of the Sierra of Guerrero.
Inside, Salvador Alanís Trujillo, his boss and leader of the United Front of Community Police of the State of Guerrero (FUPCEG), awaits the closing of an assembly of leaders of the communities of this regional agrarian center, while federal government officials ask for the floor.
Mayor Serafín Hernández Landa is also present at this meeting. Some 12 municipal police, with long guns and several escorts in civilian clothes, are guarding the streets surrounding the police station and the town’s commission for communal property. Among the community policemen who guard Alanís and the municipal policemen who do the same with the mayor, there are about fifty armed agents in the center of this town. In addition, there are members of the National Guard who, during the assembly, tour the building.
The communal properties of Tlacotepec make up the second largest agricultural nucleus in the country. It has 240,000 hectares, according to the presidential resolution issued in July 1951, as per information from the Agrarian Prosecutor's Office.
They discuss the distribution of fertilizer, after two hours it ends without agreement. Because in Tlacotepec, as in so many other places, the list of planned recipients for the fertilizer does not match with the numbers of hectares that are planted.
When the federal government officials attached to the Secretary of Welfare finish the meeting, Alanís Trujillo asks for the microphone to give a message to some 800 people in the auditorium. These are the sheriffs and commissioners of some 240 communities in this municipality. The federal officials and the mayor retire. Alanís stays in front.
The influence that Alanís has in the region is well known. He asks the people not to withdraw, they stay in their places. He doesn't even have to introduce himself, people already know him. He goes straight to the point.
Two days before this meeting, five FUPCEG policemen were murdered in Filo de Caballos, municipality of Leonardo Bravo. The retinue of federal officials on their way to Tlacotepec passed over the lime that the villagers put on the street to cover up the blood of the executed police officers.
Alanís tells the audience how the events occurred.
"The police were surprised - they said they were from the Army, a guard opened the door, while the rest were still asleep," he told the audience.
"I've come to tell you that we are not safe, that they may come again to attack us," he emphasized.
Although some audience members have withdrawn by now, the rest are listening carefully. Alanís proposes to reinforce security. He tells them that if each one of the 240 communities sends 10 candidates for the community police they will be a force of more than two thousand police to defend themselves from new incursions:
“What do you say, Heliodoro Castillo is going to fight for its rights?”
The people say yes.
Just in case some people are indifferent, Alanís adds:
“If we have our community police, we don't need the Army here in the Sierra to take care of us . It is known that ninety percent of the people here dedicate themselves to planting opium poppies, which for many is their only form of subsistence. When the army goes up to fumigate their plants, they destroy everything - [the poppy plants] along with their tomato, chile, and pumpkin plants. With everything. We don't want the Army here, we have to go and tell them.”
These people, who have a reputation for recklessness, don't shout out. Just nod.
Mass exodus in November 2018
On November 11, 2018, around 12:00 noon, the residents of Filo de Caballos were finishing their monthly assembly in the town hall when messages and radio announcements arrived from people in the nearby communities that armed people were coming to town. The message indicated that many people were on foot, and others in cars. They were all armed.
It was Sunday, the day of the assembly, so there were a lot of people in the streets at that time. The messages that arrived made them run to their homes. They closed gates, doors and windows. They hid and waited for the worst. From their shelters they began to hear the shooting and the panicked screams of those who were hit by the bullets.
The residents of Filo de Caballos, those who still live there, remember that it was some six hours of bullets. When the detonations stopped, they began to come out of their hiding places.
The official report from the state government said that it was a confrontation between armed civilians and state police, although it was already public knowledge that an armed group had entered the town to dispute with the criminal group that controlled it. Seven men were killed in that confrontation.
The next day, some 1,500 - according to figures in the press - inhabitants fled from Filo de Caballos and several nearby communities. They took refuge in Chichihualco, the capital of Leonardo Bravo.
The result of that incursion is still visible in Filo de Caballos. On the main street of the town there are about 10 houses with holes in the concrete walls measuring several centimeters. These houses have open doors and windows, broken glass, and garbage mixed with faeces. They have been abandoned since November 11, 2018.
The group that took over the town was the United Front of Community Police of the State of Guerrero, formed in Apaxtla eight days before that raid, on November 3. At the head of the armed group that took Filo de Caballos was Salvador Alanís Trujillo.
Who is Salvador Alanís Trujillo?
Alanis Trujillo is not from Tlacotepec. Nor is he from any of the communities in the Sierra, an extensive area that covers the upper parts of 13 municipalities, rich in timber resources, profits from the sale of opium gum, and also with gold, and in which some 150,000 people are estimated to live. The head of the self-defense groups in the mountainous zone is from El Ocotito, a town in the municipality of Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s state capital.
On November 11, 2018, when the town of Filo de Caballos was taken, with Alanís at its head, he literally reappeared, after two years of hiding.
Three years earlier, on January 31, 2015, Alanís Trujillo led some 600 men of the United Front for the Security and Development of Guerrero (FUSDEG) who entered Petaquillas, a community close to the capital, from El Ocotito, where they had managed to shake off the criminals.
El Ocotito is part of a central valley in an area that for many years was the stronghold of the criminal group Los Rojos, linked to the Beltrán Leyva Cartel. FUSDEG had been formed from a split of the Union of Peoples and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), headed by Bruno Placido Valerio.
On that occasion, Alanís and his armed men were received to applause by some 500 inhabitants of Petaquillas. They had been suffering from killings, kidnapping, and extortion and with the FUSDEG they saw the possibility of returning to peace. Petaquillas is a town on the route known as the Rio Azul, composed of the municipalities of Mochitlán and Quechultenango, home to another criminal group: Los Ardillos.
In the upper part of Mochitlán, in the water recharge zone, the Australian company Pacifico Minerals Ltd is developing the El Violín mining project, operations that have started with zero opposition from the inhabitants.
For 21 months, from January 2015 to October 2016, the FUSDEG self-defense groups kept Los Ardillos at bay. They confiscated drugs hidden in the luggage racks of the trucks that cover this route, as well as confronting them with bullets; encounters in which, several times, Los Ardillos retreated.
Amapola. Periodismo transgresor collected several testimonies that indicate that the correlation of forces changed on October 22, 2016, when members of Los Ardillos forced the inhabitants of Petaquillas to meet at the sports field, after FUSDEG advisors violently took them out of their homes, brought them to the fields and, with weapons on their heads, in front of everyone, forced them to sign their resignation from FUSDEG.
Alanís Trujillo was in El Ocotito. Before taking his family out and also fleeing, he accused Placido Valerio of allying himself with Los Ardillos, to expel him from Petaquillas, and also with the Cartel del Sur, the criminal organization that dominated, for its part, the corridor of communities in the Sierra, the area where opium gum is extracted. Now Alanís is the líder of another self-defense group.
Tlacotepec, the hidden municipality
To get to Tlacotepec, the capital of the municipality of Heliodoro Castillo, one must pass six checkpoints of the United Front of Community Police of the State of Guerrero (FUPCEG) and two of the Army. This is a corridor composed of communities in three municipalities: Eduardo Neri, Leonardo Bravo and Heliodoro Castillo.
Xochipala, municipality of Eduardo Neri, is the community through which this corridor is accessed. Here there is an Army checkpoint and the next one appears when one gets to Tlacotepec.
The residents of Xochipala paid extortion fees to the criminal group Cartel del Sur, headed by Isaac Navarrete Celis, nicknamed ‘El Señor de la I’. A part of the communal property of Xochipala is rented to the Canadian mining company Leagold Mining Corporation, for the extraction of gold in ‘Los Filos - El Bermejal’, one of the largest extractive operations in the country.
Before being the criminal boss of this group, Isaac was known throughout the region because he drove a carro trocero, trucks loaded with wood from the tall forests of the communal properties of Tlacotepec. Isaac Navarrete is originally from Tepozonalco, a community of Leonardo Bravo, with about 700 inhabitants.
Twenty kilometers from Xochipala appears El Mirabal and the first checkpoint of the self-defense group headed by Alanís Trujillo; another 10 kilometers more, Tres Cruces, with another checkpoint from FUPCEG. These are communities in the municipality of Eduardo Neri.
Next is Los Morros, a community that is already part of the municipality of Leonardo Bravo, also with a FUPCEG checkpoint. The mayor of Leonardo Bravo, Ismael Cástulo Guzmán, is a native of this community. The mayor no longer has any family in Los Morros. His family has been displaced since November 11, 2018. He was one of the approximately 1,500 inhabitants who left this corridor when FUPCEG took over Filo de Caballos, the center of operations of the Cartel del Sur. Before the raid, there were about 400 people in Los Morros. According to versions of this same population there are now less than fifty inhabitants. Filo de Caballos still shows the ravages of the dispute. The two-story police station is a building punctured by hundreds of bullets from the base to the roof. In front is a line of houses ruined by bullets and neglect.
Outside the police station, there are dozens of members of the FUPCEG. The population goes about its daily activities, although two days ago, members of the group that had been kicked out in November 2018 raided in the early morning, arrived at the base of operations and took six policemen with them.
The people woke up that Sunday, March 3, to the noise of the detonations, only a hundred meters from where they were taken. Five died at the scene of the execution and one was injured. Only one of these policemen was from the Sierra region. Of the other four, two were from El Ocotito and two from Tierra Colorada, Alanís revealed in an interview.
In the street there are traces of lime that the inhabitants used to cover the blood, which the cars scattered for several meters. That day, three hours later, between Corralitos and Filo de Caballos, the same group attacked a van carrying civilians, injuring an elderly man, and at six in the afternoon, they shot at a public transportation unit covering the route from Tlacotepec to Zumpango. The attack cost the life of Sinai Castillo Gutiérrez, 28, a teacher and director of the high school, originally from Tlacotepec, who died several days after the attack in a hospital in Chilpancingo. She was buried on March 14.
After Filo de Caballos is Corralitos, also with houses that have been shot at and abandoned since 2018.
Finally there is Tlacotepec, the largest population of this corridor, with about 49,000 inhabitants. This is the place where Onésimo Marquina Chapa, El Necho, operates, and he is referred to as the new chief of the sierra. Throughout this corridor, El Necho is known as El patrón. The state's attorney general's office has identified 14 criminal groups operating in the state's seven regions. This criminal map does not include the organization that El Necho heads. The FUPCEG, according to the same source, is one of the 19 armed civilian groups operating in the entity.
Unofficial reports state that El Necho, in dispute with Navarrete Celis, has the support of the community police commanded by Alanís Trujillo.
The head of the community police was questioned about this:
“The community police of Tlacotepec are accused of being the armed wing of Onésimo Marquina Chapa, what do you say to this?”
“Onésimo Marquina does not have the economic capacity to pay three thousand community policemen, not that I am asking for support. You witnessed that all the commissioners were invited to come and support - if it was otherwise, they would have been ordered to do so. Nor is it true that the territory in which the community police front [FUPCEG] operates is the same as that in which Onésimo Marquina operates. The Front has people in Eduardo Neri, Leonardo Bravo, San Miguel Totolapan, Apaxtla and Juan R. Escudero”
“Do you know Onésimo Marquina?”
“All of Tlacotepec knows Onésimo.”
In Chichihualco, the displaced are resisting
In Chichihualco, the capital of Leonardo Bravo, 135 people have been displaced from the Sierra since November 2018 and are being represented by the José María Morelos y Pavón Human Rights Centre.
Teodomira Rosales Sierra, a member of the Center, is in charge of this representation. Rosales maintains that among the families she assists there are no people linked to any criminal group. She assures that all the families left Filo de Caballos and other communities because of the violence, because they were afraid of being killed.
At the beginning of 2019, acknowledges Rosales, the Center served more displaced people, but they spoke to all of them openly and asked them to be honest, to say if their departure from Filo de Caballos had to do with their belonging to any criminal group and if that was related to them leaving.
At that time, says Teodomira Rosales, no one said anything about it, but over the next few days some people began to leave gradually until only this group of 135 people remained.
Once this group was cleared, the people who remained said freely that many of these displaced persons were indeed related to the criminal group that had been expelled, so that if they remained it was dangerous for everyone.
Estimates by civil society organizations working in the mountain region indicate that in recent years about 30 percent of the population living in this corridor, which includes the municipalities of Eduardo Neri, Leonardo Bravo and Heliodoro Castillo, some 20,000 of a total of 70,000, have been displaced from their communities.
Treasures in the Sierra
The upper parts of the 13 municipalities that make up the region called Sierra have gold. They also hundreds of dead and people displaced by the violence generated by different criminal groups. The Sierra is made up of communities in the municipalities of Chilpancingo, Eduardo Neri, Leonardo Bravo, Heliodoro Castillo, San Miguel Totolapan, Apaxtla, Coyuca de Catalán, Arcelia, Atoyac, Tecpan, Petatlán, Zihuatanejo and La Unión.
The communities of these municipalities, apart from the gold, have in common that they are being left alone. They also have groups of armed civilians who emerged, as they justify it, to defend the population.
In Heliodoro Castillo, the heart of the Sierra, after the recent incursion of elements of the Cartel del Sur in Filo de Caballos, of Leonardo Bravo municipality, the communities are getting ready to reinforce the FUPCEG to go after those responsible for the murders of the five policemen and the civilians who were attacked.
"The new policemen are arriving gradually. The people are sending reinforcements and we are going to start now," Alanís said.