Monday, March 3, 2014
In Tropical Mexico, Rumors Cause People to Fear for their
By Kent Paterson
Nestled off the
Acapulco-Zihuatanejo highway in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, shade blankets the village entrance to San Miguelito
like a soothing layer of relief from the incessant tropical sun. On a recent day, men snacked on freshly-shaken fruit under
a sentry post of tall trees, where a quiet parrot’s nest protruded from one sprawling specimen as pink bougainvillea
brightened the scene.
But not all was idyllic in San Miguelito. A floating group of 15 to 25 young men,
some with their faces covered and toting sticks, machetes, .22 rifles and pistols, staffed a checkpoint. They stopped strangers,
asked to see identification and inquired about the driver’s nature of business in the community.
isn’t violence here. What we are doing is prevention,” said Jose Luis Cardenas, spokesperson for San Miguelito’s
nascent community self-defense group.
Beginning on February 25, and without official authorization,
residents roped off the access road to San Miguelito and began a round-the-clock checkpoint after reports of strangers stalking
children circulated throughout the community.
In the latter half of February, unconfirmed accounts
of strangers photographing children outside schools, attempted abductions of students, and even the discovery of the bodies
of mutilated youngsters, their organs extracted, spread like wildfire in San Miguelito, Zihuatanejo and other nearby communities.
On February 26, a truck carrying Zihuatanejo Public Safety Director Leonardo Evangelista rolled up
to the checkpoint. Escorted by a phalanx of heavily armed municipal cops and other officials, Evangelista was not amused.
A mixture of surprise and anger detectable in his voice, Evangelista conducted a brief but intense dialogue with the much
younger Cardenas, who sported a stern look on his face.
LE: “We want to resolve this matter.
You are all out of line. What is the problem?”
JLC: “Missing children.”
“Have there been missing children?”
JLC: “No. There have been rumors."
“We haven’t had any cases of this happening. As an official, I am concerned about that but, I repeat, there hasn’t
been a single case.”
Zihuatanejo’s top cop continued: “The problem is that
the (checkpoint) sets off alarm bells, not only here but in the region.”
Pending a community-wide
meeting and approval, Cardenas agreed to Evangelista’s proposal to ramp up police patrols in San Miguelito and improve
communication with the residents.
Pausing to speak with reporters, Evangelista underscored that
neither the police department nor the local prosecutor's office had received formal complaints about children victimized
as reported in the local press, posted on social media outlets, and spread word-of-mouth on the streets. He attributed the
stories to the “bad will” of unknown persons who were utilizing social media to spread falsehoods. Nonetheless,
because of community concerns the municipal police had been in contact with principals and stepped up their presence at schools,
“We have increased security because of this situation,” he added.
While Cardenas described the checkpoint as a community response to a specific situation, it is impossible
to divorce the San Miguelito action, stories of endangered children, and the police department's response to the self-defense
group from other regional, state and national developments.
Located about 10 miles from the municipal
seat of Zihuatanejo, San Miguelito’s more than 1,000 residents are part and parcel of a globalized economy. Many locals
work for a big plywood plant that processes wood from Oaxaca for export abroad. Others migrate to the United States, work
in the tourism industry of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, and make do with small crop harvests and cattle herds.
life-long resident, 55-year-old Adan Gutierrez defined San Miguelito as populated by “good people” who are “very
The settlement is located a little more than an hour’s drive from the border
with Michoacan, where separate self-defense groups continue to advance while periodically vowing to enter the strategic Pacific
port of Lazaro Cardenas.
Many of Michoacan’s self-defense groups now act in concert
with state security forces, but the same is not necessarily true in Guerrero where a growing movement of such organizations
has a testy or confrontational relationship with the authorities.
Filling a state security vacuum,
civilian self-defense groups have proliferated across Guerrero and Michoacan during the last 14 months. Groups in both states
say their objective is to eradicate extortion, kidnapping, rape and other crimes committed by organized criminal bands. The
movement has even transcended borders, with members of the huge Michoacano diaspora in the United States recently
announcing a solidarity caravan in California.
"It's important that the public opinion of
our countrymen in the United States not abandon us," Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a Michoacan self-defense leader, was quoted
in an e-mailed message sent out by supporters last week. "They are the only ones at the moment who have given us support,
some moral and some economic, depending on their possibilities…."
Up the highway
from San Miguelito, Zihuatanejo's residents are also on edge. Two or three drug cartels are vying for domination of the
local plaza, and several deadly shootouts occurred last month between gunmen and Mexican marines in rural areas of the municipality,
according to press accounts and local residents.
On the evening of February 16, the bullet-riddled body
of a young man was found dumped outside a private school in Zihuatanejo. Police and military patrols make frequent rounds
in the tourist town, while a noisy Navy helicopter buzzes overhead.
What's more, Zihuatanejo's
taxi drivers say the “bad boys,” or the “ones from Michoacan,” popular euphemisms for the Knights
Templar cartel, have prohibited them from taking passengers north of the international resort of Ixtapa to the Michoacan border.
The no-go zone encompasses the Guerrero beachside town of Troncones, once a hot real estate market for North Americans seeking
their piece of paradise. According to several drivers, violations of the ban could result in confiscated vehicles and/or death.
In essence, little San Miguelito became another hot potato in a pressure cooker that keeps heating
up. Whether true or not, the stories of victimized children, which local media, officials and residents say has triggered
a “psychosis,” only deepen the popular anxiety.
Cardenas insisted that San Miguelito’s
self-defense group had no links with drug cartels, and the checkpoint was meant to protect children from possible harm. Although
San Miguelito had been spared the troubles encountered elsewhere in the region, security remains a top concern, the community
activist said. He judged the normal law enforcement presence as “not bad” but still “insufficient.”
In a follow-up meeting with municipal and state law enforcement officials, San Miguelito residents
agreed to participate in a new security committee and coordinate their efforts with the authorities.
the municipal government of Zihuatanejo has posted an official statement on the child abduction rumors. Until now, investigations
by numerous agencies have not found any truth at all to the stories, the statement said, urging residents to go about their
normal business with the “assurance that (authorities) will be on alert.”
threatened children stories are indeed untrue, the question begs: Who is responsible for stirring up the rumor mill and to
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted
with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.