NOGALES, Mexico (Border Report) — Sitting inside a chapel atop a hill, Carmen Diaz recalls the events that shattered her life in the Mexican resort town of Acapulco.
“I made $35 to $40 a week selling clothes at the market … but then some men came and asked me for a $50 fee to ‘stay safe.’ I told them that wouldn’t leave me money to pay the rent. They said they knew where I lived and that I had three daughters; that they would harm them if I didn’t pay,” the small-business owner said.
Other merchants got similar threats and refused to pay. Earlier this month, one of them was shot to death, she said. Four days later, she grabbed her daughters — ages 15, 13 and 10 — a few possessions and headed for the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s too dangerous. It’s not just organized crime; the gangs watch the schools. A girl in my older daughter’s school is missing, and one of my younger daughter’s classmates was raped,” Diaz said.
Her family is among dozens from the interior of Mexico who arrived in recent weeks to a shelter in Nogales fleeing drug traffickers and other criminals, and who are intent on seeking asylum in the U.S. The same is happening in other border cities, like Ciudad Juarez.
“They are running away from violence and crime. We see many families, particularly from the state of Guerrero, coming to Sonora with young children, some less than a year old,” said Gilda Esquer Felix, co-founder of the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, across the border from Nogales, Arizona.
Esquer has run the shelter for 37 years and has seen many shifts in migration patterns. Like the rest of the border, Nogales late last year witnessed the arrival of Central and South Americans fleeing poverty and gangs. Now, it’s becoming host to a rising number of Mexican families fleeing organized criminal activity in cities and small towns in West-Central Mexico.
American security experts say a major drug trafficking organization — the Cartel Jalisco New Generation — is making a push to control towns along major highways in Zacatecas and Guanajuato and is fighting other groups in the mountains of Guerrero for control of the opium poppy trade, which is used to produce heroin and fentanyl.
“Opium poppies are another profitable criminal enterprise in Mexico, whose heroin now accounts for more than 90 percent of the U.S. market for the drug,” according to the mid-2019 “Tracking Mexico’s Drug Cartels” report from Austin, Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence Group.
‘They’re just criminals‘
Diaz said she did not go to the authorities after the extortion attempt because the merchants believe the police are on the criminals’ payroll.
In some towns in Guerrero state, the authorities themselves are the cartel, said Maribel G., another mother at the shelter waiting to apply for U.S. asylum.
“The community authorities threatened me. They wanted me to store their guns in my house whenever the soldiers came. I said no and they told me to think about it,” the mother of two said. “They came back and I still said no, so they yelled at me; they were very violent. They call themselves community government, but they’re just criminals.”
The comunitarios or Auto Defensas Comunitarias started as a loose coalition of volunteers who armed themselves to run off drug traffickers in rural parts of South-Central Mexico. However, according to analysts, they have become organized criminals themselves.
Maribel G. said about 90 families in the Atoyac region of Guerrero met last month and decided to leave their homes due to the drug activity. Most resettled in other towns in Guerrero. Some sold whatever they had and headed for the U.S. border.
Asked what she would do if she wasn’t approved for asylum, Maribel G. said: “I don’t know. We cannot go back … We cannot go back.”
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