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 bougainvilleas brightened the scene.
But not all was idyllic in San Miguelito. A floating group of 15-25 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.
“There 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.”
LE: “Have there been missing children?”
JLC: “No. There have been rumors.”
LE: “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, Evangelista said.
“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.
A life-long resident, 55-year-old Adan Gutierrez defined San Miguelito as populated by “good people” who are “very united.”
The settlement is located a little more than an hour’s drive from the border with Michoacan, where separate self-defense groups continue advancing 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 vaccum, 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 announcing a solidarity caravan in California last week.
“It’s important that the public opinion of our countrymen in the United States not abandon us,” Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, Michocan 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 have occurred this 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 remained 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.
Meanwhile, 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.”
If the threatned children stories are indeed untrue, the question begs: Who is responsible for stirring up the rumor mill and to what ends?