Laguna Seca is one of Mexico’s forsaken places. Deep in the scrub and tree covered hills of Guerrero, it lies at the end of a rutted, dirt track. The village was once home to eighty families. They lived peacefully, albeit in poverty and rural isolation. Then early this year members of a violent drug gang came to town. Soon, the killing started.
We arrived in Laguna Seca on a bright Monday morning, after a long drive from the nearest paved highway. An elderly woman who runs the village store is one of few people who remain there. She agreed to talk to us, on condition we did not use her name or publish her picture.
“On January 15th, a group arrived and they threatened us,” she said. “They told us to go to a meeting or we would be killed. Everyone went to the meeting, and they threatened us. They killed a young man right then and there. Then they killed someone that was just passing by. Next, they asked someone to provide food, and when he refused, they killed him, too.”
The gangsters enjoyed complete freedom. No police or army patrols ever came. In May, after more killings, the terrified townsfolk fled for their lives.
“People left everything behind, they just went with whatever they had with them,” the woman said. She recalled how painful it was to leave the village. “We lost the few things we had - our chickens, pigs, and cattle. Small children were carrying their backpacks, running along the road. Another man was carrying his dying father, on a chair on his back, and he was sweating, running.”
The woman left with the other townsfolk, but soon returned because she had no place else to go. Now there are only a few people here, most of them elderly.
The deserted town, with its empty houses, rusting padlocks on their doors, is a symbol of the utter lack of law and order in so many parts of Mexico, both rural and urban.
In many areas of the country, the government and its security forces are no where to be seen.
In another town not far away, it was the people themselves, without help from the state, who rose up to break the grip of a violent drug gang.
The seven thousand residents of Apaxtla suffered for four years under the control of the La Familia cartel. We met with several community leaders, who also requested anonymity. They recalled the reign of terror: “They kidnapped, killed, extorted farmers and businessmen, kidnapped teachers”, one man said.
“We had five policemen in town, but they were scared too. Once they kidnapped someone right in front of them, and the police didn’t do anything.”
[Laguna Seca lies deep in the scrub and tree covered hills of Guerrero (Rob Reynolds/Al Jazeera)]
He said that occasionally, a Mexican Army patrol would visit Apaxtla, but failed to challenge the gang’s power. “They (the gang) recruited many of the residents here. So, some acted as look outs, and they would tell them when the army was coming.”
Another community leader told how townsfolk met in secret, collected weapons, and planned their move. “We had no choice but to find courage, although we were scared”, he said.
They formed a community militia made up of armed volunteers. They told nothing to the local police, who had been thoroughly corrupted by La Familia.
“Last November we decided to tell the world that Apaxtla was fed up with these criminals and their deeds.”
When confronted by the citizens’ self-defence force, community leaders said, the gang members fled Apaxtla without a fight. They said there hasn’t been any major trouble since then.
“To be honest,” said one older man, “the tranquility and peace that Apatxla has enjoyed for a year has been sustained by us, by our movement. We made it possible, although we don’t have the resources that the federal government has. We have managed to survive with the help of our own people.”
Despite some success stories, there are many lawless towns in Mexico. Ahuehuepan is a wide spot on the highway running west from Iguala, one of Guerrero’s main towns. The road is lined with shops and restaurants, and was once a popular stopping place for travellers. Those days are over.
A restaurant owner, who also requested anonymity, said her business was nearly ruined because few people dared to use the road. “In the last 4 years or so, it hasn’t been safe around here,” she said.
“Many people have been kidnapped. Now, we can´t go out and the roads are empty and we are always scared that something may happen. Customers dont come here anymore, they think it is too dangerous.” She added.
Ahuehuepan is yet another place where Mexico’s government has proved incapable of protecting its people. The restaurant owner sighed, wiping her hand on her apron, and said, “The government has abandoned us.”