The Drug War And Cartels Lead To An Exodus In Northern Mexico
July 11, 2011

In northern Mexico's smallest towns, cartel violence has led to a diaspora as people flee to larger cities. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, villages in the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas are emptying out, leaving lawless ghost towns.

In some of those towns in Sonora, residents say the government can no longer protect them.

The long ribbon of highway outside of town stretches for miles. Desert scrub grows out onto the cheaply paved road in the mountains of Northern Sonora. Locals warn don't go too far up into the hills. Even the Sinaloa Cartel stays out. So does the Mexican Army. They circle them instead.

In the hills, their target is a narco-trafficker who has successfully fought both the Army and the cartels off for the past year. He goes by the name “El Gilo”. Mexican federal law enforcement sources identify him as Arnoldo del Cid Buelna; he's a holdover of the Beltrán Leyva cartel and has been in the mountains south of Arizona for years.

Photos From A Disappearing Mexican Town

A slideshow from Tubutama, Sonora, Mexico. They include the Sinaloa Cartel’s failed ambush against El Gilo in 2010 (Courtesy Mexican Police) and by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk in June.

In 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful cartel in the Western Hemisphere, moved against him, trying to roust him from the hills. He ambushed their convoy. Officially, he murdered 21 cartel gunmen. Unofficially, local reporters say there were so many dead that police used bread trucks to haul the bodies down. Since then, both the government and the cartel stay at a respectful distance.

The largest of the towns in these hills is Tubutama. A 300 year old mission town. Father Anastasio Franco Gómez gives the Mass on this day.

"The last census counted 1,750 people; right now, I doubt there are 500 left,” Gomez said in Spanish.

The town's last local cop was shot dead in mid June. The police station, closed down. Companies stopped delivering goods to the local stores. School teachers have left; businesses locked up.

Empty roads, empty houses sit in the middle of town, their windows shattered out. Maria Luisa Galvach has been the mission's keeper for 18 years.

“There are no medics. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” Galvach said. “The health clinic that served the region is closed down.”

Travel further into the hills and closer to the U.S. border in Arizona. The last Army checkpoint is miles behind now. Pull into the pueblo of Cerro Prieto. This is Gilo's territory. The town is nearly deserted.

Leonardo, 11, is helping his dad work on a house. He grew up in Phoenix where they lived illegally before returning to Mexico. He hoses the sweat off on this hot day and goes to stand shyly behind his father.

"They come with guns here. Like … people. Scary," he said, quietly.

Like the other towns here, there is no gas station or large grocery store. For those, one must drive down into the cities. But people have been killed by the cartel for trying to bring fuel or food back up. The assumption is it will go to Gilo. The Mexican Army? It stands back and watches.

It leaves Leonardo's father angry, frustrated.

"They don’t allow us to bring provisions, fresh vegetables, nor gasoline," he said in Spanish.

The boy Leonardo has clear instructions for when the gunmen come.

"Just go to … like inside the house and stay there," the boy said.

And then, Gilo comes.

“Who are you looking for? Gilo? I'm Gilo,” the man says as he approaches.

He's a large man; huge. Blonde hair clipped short, wearing a black button-down and strings of bright yellow and orange plastic beads. He's driving a beat-up maroon pickup truck with five men inside. Six men sit in the bed, staring like cats. Their hands grasp the rails of the truck as if they're ready to leap out. His eyes are blue and he's angry. At the government, he says.

“The government brought in mercenaries,” Gilo said in Spanish. “They're arming a war.”

He’s prepared, he says.

Back down the lawless road into the main town, the few children left are warming up for San Pablo Day: A historic festival that's always drawn a crowd from both sides of the border. The crowd is supposed to spill out from the mission and onto the church square for the celebration.

This year, it barely filled the pews.

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