Children are staying in overcrowded shelters in Mexico and more than half are without their parents, rights group says.
A dirt road nestled in the mountains is the only way to get to Aguililla, a Mexican town caught in the middle of a turf war between two drug cartels.
Located in the southwestern state of Michoacan, checkpoints surround the entrances to the town, guarded by armed men.
For weeks, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, Mexican officials say, have been battling for control with the rival United Cartels. And during the past several weeks, they have closed off the main roads and laid siege to the town.
“It’s affected us a lot,” Maria Guadalupe Contreras who works at a local restaurant told Al Jazeera. “Everything has gotten more expensive, it’s really hard to bring in supplies.”
Al Jazeera’s John Holman, who recently visited the town, said the main road to the nearest city, Apatzingan, has been blocked by the cartels, making necessities like food, petrol and medicine scarce. It has also made it difficult for the residents to access critical medical care.
Daniela Carbajal’s grandfather had a burst stomach ulcer recently, but they could not get him to the hospital on the other side of the blockade in time, and he died.
“My sister and my mom were going to take him but they were told that the highway was blocked, they couldn’t get through,” Carbajal told Al Jazeera.
“I felt so helpless because we could not do anything, it was out of our hands. And angry, too, it’s not right that we’re living like this,” she said.
On April 1, the Michoacan attorney general said eight decapitated bodies had been found in Aguililla. Local media reported that at least 900 residents have fled the violence in recent weeks.
On April 13, the governor of Michoacan, Silvano Aureoles, made a visit to Aguililla, flanked by armed soldiers. He met residents carrying signs demanding protection from the state.
A video on social media showed Aureoles shoving a man backwards. The man was later identified as local teacher Fernando Padilla.
“I thought he was going to dialogue with me, but he attacked me instead,” Padilla told Al Jazeera. “And when he pushed me, he said, ‘Shut up, bastard,'” Padilla said. “It was a barbaric, shameful act, an abuse of power.”
Aureoles responded by saying that “cartel lookouts” had insulted him, as well as security officers, and he had “confronted them”. He also pledged to do more for Aguililla.
“Everyone knows what is happening in Aguililla: violence, a near-war situation and roadblocks that do not allow the passage of basic necessities, even seriously ill people who cannot be transferred to a hospital,” he said on Twitter.
“I am not going to remain silent or with my arms crossed in front of those who want to continue sowing violence and chaos, making fun of authority and the law,” he wrote. “I am going to recover Aguililla from the hands of the criminals.”
Todo el mundo sabe lo que está pasando en Aguililla: violencia, una situación casi de guerra y bloqueos de carreteras que no permiten el paso de productos de primera necesidad, incluso de enfermos de gravedad que no pueden ser trasladados a un hospital.
— Silvano Aureoles (@Silvano_A) April 13, 2021
Translation: Everyone knows what is happening in Aguililla: violence, an almost war situation and roadblocks that do not allow the passage of basic necessities, even for seriously ill patients who cannot be transferred to a hospital.
Meanwhile, the town remains under siege. On Wednesday, local media reported that Aguililla’s municipal board put out a petition to state and federal authorities asking that they be guaranteed safe transit in and out of the town.
“It is a game of cat and mouse,” Gilberto Vergara, the parish priest of Aguililla who also serves on the municipal board, reportedly said during the meeting. “The most ironic thing is that we no longer know who is who, because we no longer know who is stalking whom.”