In Mexico’s Guerrero State, a Battle Is Underway between Indigenous Communities and Drug Cartels

An inside look at the conflict between Native Peoples and narcotraffickers in Mexico's most dangerous state

Mexico’s southwestern Guerrero state is home to the nation’s highest murder rate, and it’s where 43 student teachers went missing last fall. As is the case in many parts of Mexico, the violence is tied directly to the drug trade. In Guerrero, the dry, cool climate of the Sierra Madre del Sur – the mountain range the runs through the heart of the state – provides ideal conditions for poppy cultivation. At least 60 percent of all opium and heroin produced in the country comes from the remote region. The fallout from so much black-market activity is predictably deadly: More than a half-dozen cartels are currently engaged in vicious turf wars for control of valuable trade routes and production centers in Guerrero.

This article is part of our series examining the Indigenous movement of resistance and restoration.

Guerrero’s largest Indigenous group, the Nahuas, maintains a strained, love-hate relationship with the drug trade. Traditionally, the Nahuas have grown staples such as corn and avocados, but low market prices and poor transportation routes make illicit crops increasingly attractive. For many indigenous farmers, planting poppies and harvesting the sticky goma (gum) is the only means to escape desperate poverty. Meanwhile, other Native communities have banded together to fight narcotics production and trafficking at the source. They’ve armed themselves as best they can and have taken the law into their own hands in an attempt to establish a degree of security and human rights that the Mexican government either can’t – or won’t – provide for them.

I was recently invited to visit one such Indigenous-based security group: the United Front for Security for Security and Development of Guerrero (FUSDEG). The following photos provide a vivid look into the lives of Indigenous communities on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war.

photo of a man working poppiesAll photos by Jeremy Kryt. Click or tap this photo or any other to view larger.
A farmer extracts opium gum from his poppy plants, high in the Sierra Madre del Sur in Guerrero state. The goma, which is produced by the bulb at the center of the flower, can be harvested every three to four months. A single kilo of raw opium gum can sell for up to 15,000 pesos ($930) per kilo – making poppies far more lucrative than any other crop grown in these mountains.

photo of people with guns
Members of the Indigenous community police force known as FUSDEG while on patrol near the town of San Juan del Reparo. FUSDEG was formed last January to combat cartel forces that have invaded rural towns and villages. Since then, FUSDEG has seized several large shipments of opium and marijuana. Firefights with cartel sicarios (hitman) have cost at least 14 FUSDEG officers their lives in 2015.

photo of a blockade
Pickup trucks block the road during a standoff between FUSDEG and alleged cartel-affiliated foot soldiers (pictured). This incident was part of a two-day running battle that left eight FUSDEG fighters and two sicarios dead. The clash occurred along I95, part of the so-called “Heroin Highway,” which connects drug production centers in Guerrero’s highlands with the vital port city of Acapulco on the Pacific coast.

photo of a crime scene
FUSDEG troops inspect a community police truck that was struck by more than one hundred rounds during an ambush by alleged cartel forces – which killed the driver and two other passengers.

photo of people grieving over shawl-wrapped bodies
Grieving family members mourn FUSDEG members killed by sicario gunfire. “The government has abandoned us,” says FUSDEG commissioner Salvador Alanís. “We have to protect our own communities against the cartels, because if we don’t – nobody will. We’re the first – and last – line of defense.”

photo of women walking
Two Nahuas women leave a press conference for the families of kidnapping victims in the town of Chilapa de Álvarez. Killings and abductions by rival cartel factions have led to a murder rate of 54 per 100,000 – more than 4 times the average in Mexico – in Chilapa’s largely Indigenous community.

photo of a macabre shrine
A shrine to Santa Muerta, the Saint of Death, on the outskirts of Chilapa. Control of the town is of primary importance to local gangs because it sits at an important crossroads for opium shipments coming down from the mountains. Chilapa was the scene of cartel battle this past May, when 300 gunmen invaded the town to hunt down their competition. At least 30 innocent bystanders – many of them Indigenous – were killed during five days of gang rule.

photo of people in masks spray-painting graffiti
Members of the Ayotzinapa Normal School – which specializes in training teachers for work with Guerrero’s Indigenous communities – during a march in the state capital of Chilpancingo, to protest the abduction of 43 of their classmates by an alliance of state police and cartel forces last September.

photo of a woman cooking
A Nahuas woman cooks on a homemade range near the poppy-producing village of Filos de Caballos. Poppy production is seen by many Native farmers as the only way to escape poverty, but the illicit plants come with their own risks. The cartel buyers are armed and dangerous, and sometimes demand the goma without paying for it. Aerial spraying campaigns by the government pose another threat – the toxins designed to eradicate poppies often poison watersheds, destroy legal crops, and induce erosion by decimating forest cover.

photo of a man working on a makeshift chaingun
A FUSDEG gunsmith checks the firing mechanism on a weapon in his workshop.

photo of a hand-drawn sign
A sign outside the FUSDEG headquarters in Petaquillas reads: “Get out, Narco-government, from the communities of Guerrero!”

photo of armed men, some wearing bulletproof vests, sitting on the back of a pickup truck
A FUSDEG unit prepares to leave the Petaquillas base to provide backup for an outpost under attack by alleged cartel forces in the town of Ocotito. “The Rojos, Ardillos, Guerreros Unidos and the Familia Michoacana are all active in our territories,” FUSDEG Commissioner Salvador Alanis says, referring to the various cartels. “The cartels have the money to buy off the politicians, to purchase the best, high-powered weapons, and the newest trucks and cars. But we have the will of [our] communities behind us. And that’s something that can’t be bought – it can only be earned.”

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