Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mexican Villages dig moats to repel bandits

CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico — Little town, big hell.

That proverb about turmoil in small communities has never seemed truer than in this gangster-besieged village and a neighboring one in the bean fields and desert scrub a long day’s drive south of the Rio Grande.

That proverb about turmoil in small communities has never seemed truer than in this gangster-besieged village and a neighboring one in the bean fields and desert scrub a long day’s drive south of the Rio Grande.

Since right before Christmas, armed raiders repeatedly have swept into both villages to carry away local men. Government help arrived too late, or not at all.

Terrified villagers — at the urging of army officers who couldn’t be there around the clock — have clawed moats across every access road but one into their communities, hoping to repel the raids.

“This was a means of preservation,” said Ruben Solis, 47, a farmers’ leader in Cuauhtemoc, a collection of adobe and concrete houses called home by 3,700 people. “It’s better to struggle this way than to face the consequences.”

But shortly after midnight last Sunday, villagers said, as many as 15 SUVs loaded with pistoleros attacked nearby San Angel, population 250, and kidnapped five people. Four victims were returned unharmed a few days later. The fifth hostage, a teenage boy, was held to exchange for the intended target the raiders missed, villagers said.

“We have support of the federal forces,” said an official of the dirt-street village. “Security is what we’re lacking.”

After the earthworks were dug in both villages, volunteers manned checkpoints at the remaining open entrances. Those sentinels, however, were removed when it was decided they couldn’t stop a serious attack, anyhow .

“We aren’t able to confront this sort of thing,” Solis said. “We have a few shotguns, some .22 rifles, a few pistols — nothing compared to what they have.”

President Felipe Calderon’s war on Mexico’s drug gangsters has met with mixed success since he began deploying about 45,000 soldiers and federal police after assuming office in December 2006. The federal forces have been able to defeat the gunmen in open combat but unable, so far, to extinguish the bloodshed or the crime.

Narcotics-related violence killed at least 6,000 people last year and looks likely to match that toll again by Christmas. Kidnappings, extortions and bank robberies are on the rise in many cities and even in rural flyspecks like Cuauhtemoc and San Angel.

Though still far less serious, the troubles faintly echo those of a century ago when Cuencame township, which includes Cuauhtemoc and San Angel, suffered massacres and guerrilla attacks in the lead-up to the Mexican Revolution.

Most of Mexico’s violence these days isn’t politically inspired, but the gangsters’ hit-and-run tactics often mirror those of an insurgency. Government forces frequently find themselves without adequate manpower to be everywhere at once.

“This is really the job of the federal government,” Solis said of his town’s efforts at self-defense. “But they don’t have enough men to keep up. There is delinquency wherever you go.”

Fear of the Zetas
Like others across central and western Mexico, many in and around these villages assume their tormentors are the Zetas, gunmen aligned with the Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros and other cities bordering South Texas.

Government officials blame much of Mexico’s violence on wars between gangs like the Zetas, whose founders were army deserters, for control of smuggling corridors, local drug sales and other rackets.

Solis said he and other townspeople suspect those who raided Cuauhtémoc in early February, kidnapping the 23-year-old son of a bean-and-grain trader, are simply “bad characters from the area who have just taken the Zeta name.”

Fear of the Zetas borders on hysteria in this corner of Durango state, residents and officials agreed. Village boys playing with toy trucks have taken to shouting “here come the Zetas” when staging chases, Solis said.

When a rumor started March 10 in a town nearby that scores of Zetas were planning to attack, stores in the area closed, classes were canceled and people fled.

“A psychosis prevails across the whole region,” said Isidro Aguilar, the police chief of Guadalupe Victoria, a market town 25 miles from Cuauhtemoc, who otherwise denied that the area faces a crime plague. “There are people who are taking advantage of it.”

Still, people’s paranoia doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get them.

Gangsters have staged platoon-strength raids on towns in Chihuahua and other nearby states. Kidnappings have increased, as well as cold-call extortion attempts to even poor residents of the area.

A number of merchants, as well as two members of the city council, have been kidnapped in Guadalupe Victoria since late December, residents said. Ransoms, they said, have reached several hundred thousand dollars.

“No one knows who took them. No one knows anything,” said Gilberto Cabello, the head of the town’s merchants association. “Everyone is left wondering who is next.”

Defense left to the town
Not surprisingly, villagers in Cuauhtemoc and San Angel remain on edge, sharply eyeing strangers, careful not to say too much to outsiders.

“The less said about this, the better,” said a city hall official in Cuencame, the township seat. “It can be dangerous to say too much.”

Soldiers and federal police took up the defense of Cuauhtemoc and San Angel last week after the towns’ plight played on the front page of a Mexico City newspaper. But the patrols evaporated after a few days, leaving nothing but the ditches in the villagers’ defense.

“That’s the way it is,” said a sun-weathered Roberto Fuentes, who was helping build a sidewalk a block from one of Cuauhtemoc’s earthworks. “If the government doesn’t do it, we have to.

“Here, the people are defending the town.”

7 Comments:

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