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Nahua Communities Under Cartel Siege

Sixto Mendoza Limpia has not left his hometown in 10 years. He fears being killed if he steps outside of the area he  polices as a member of the CRAC-PC - an armed group that defends indigenous communities. Many Nahua residents of the Montaña Baja of Guerrero like Mendoza seldom leave their communities out of fear. Los Ardillos - a cartel that rules through extortion - has killed dozens of Mendoza's colleagues since 2010. Residents have liberated  several communities from the Ardillos. However, they risk their lives if they step outside the boundaries of the small zone the community police patrol.

 Roadblock in Alcozacán, Gro. amid protest

Antonieta Santos is a widow from the community of Xochitempa. Her husband, Salvador Reyes was the community's secretary but was killed on April 28 when he left thetown.


"He was going to Atzacoaloya to sell firewood. But he was caught and killed on the road to Tlapa... They burned him along with his truck - they left his body," Santos said. 

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Antonieta Santos, daugther, mother at a checkpoint in Alcozacan

On August 13, two Nahua men from Xochitempa were shot to death at a gas station in Chilapa. On August 18, three returning migrants workers went missing. The next day Popular Indigenous Council of Guerrero-Emiliano Zapata (CIPOG-EZ), the CRAC-PC police force, and members of over 15 communities blocked the road in Alcozacan demanding the governor of Guerrero to act.

A community police member from Alcozacán receiving the Guerrero State Police as they collect a report about missing Nahua migrant workers

Most residents of Alcozacán- population 1,100 - and its ten surrounding communities practice subsistence agriculture since it is often too dangerous to sell their produce. Teachers come to Alcozacán no more than three times a week, there is no clinic, and the roads are in disrepair. The town attracted international attention in 2021 for arming some of its youth against organized crime. It has its own police force, part of the CRAC-PC. The objective is to keep the Cartel de los Ardillos away.

 
Sixto Mendoza Limpia, a delegate to the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), is a single father to a 12-year-old boy in Alcozacán. He used to bartend in Ixtapa, but now has not left his community in over ten years. He said the community police were created out of the need to defend families.


"We were being invaded by organized crime. They were trying to extort us... Therefore, the people got angry and decided to take up arms so as not to be part of those slaves of organized crime," Mendoza said.


Mendoza said the underlying problem his town faces is insecurity. It is risky for residents to bring their crops to market in Chilapa, the municipal seat. Likewise, it is often dangerous to transport resources into the community. Some goods arrive at night to avoid detection from the Cartel de los Ardillos.

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The weapons of the CRAC-PC - Chilapa-José Joaquín de Herrera Road

The community police work for no pay and are mostly armed with only shotguns. On the other hand, their enemies Los Ardillos use tactical gear and automatic weapons. Officers serve around the clock for a year, then take a four-year break. They change out every year, but spring into action if there is a gunbattle.


The community police in Alcozacán have been fighting Los Ardillos since 2010. "We've had a lot of armed confrontations with organized crime – they want to enter our communities or subdue us into working with them," Mendoza, the CNI delegate, said. 

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The last armed confrontation took place in June 2022 and lasted 15 days. When Los Ardillos attacked the community of Tula - home to 30 families, Alcozacán and other communities rallied to repel the criminals' advance into the valley.


Los Ardillos began attacking Tula in 2019. Each time the criminals would open fire from hilltops, the community police would repel the attack until government forces arrived, and Los Ardillos would retreat. However, the National Guard did not establish a post in Tula until last year - after community police combatted the cartel for 15 days.

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An 18-year-old community police member stands guard in Tula. At 15 years old, he provided cover fire in battles against Los Ardillos.

A father from Tula, who fears reprisal, said he was behind his water tank when a bullet hit his house. He said he has lost three sons to the violence and that authorities in the region cooperate with organized crime. 

"In 2019, I lost the first one. The second one - in 2022. He was stopped by the police chief of Atlixtac (municipality). The attorney general's office didn't want to take responsibility. [Los Ardillos] have bought them out... Now in November 2022, another one was killed in Chilapa," he said. He also said the municipal police stop drivers at roadblocks and check their IDs against a list of names given to them by the cartel.

The father said his remaining children have left the area to work in other cities. 
"Why would I leave? I live here. My grandchildren, nephews and nieces are here. We're getting by however we can. If we don't support one another, [Los Ardillos] will like it," he said.
 

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A combat position in Tula and bullet holes in the father's roof

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An owl hung at a CRAC-PC roadblock on the Chilapa-José Joaquín de Herrera Road

Now in Tula, Alcozacán and surrounding communities, it is safe enough for children to play outside. Although, some girls, like a 14-year-old orphan whose father was shot last November in Chilapa, must look after their younger siblings.  The fragile peace is only made possible by a network of community police guarding the area.


Sixto Mendoza said he has taught his son how to defend himself. He also said he wants for students to be able to study and access to higher-level learning in Alcozacán. "We can't leave our community to go to [Chilapa] because organized crime has ambushed us or is waiting for us in the city," said Mendoza, explaining why it will be impossible for his son to pursue an education in the city. 


The primary school recently acquired internet and a desktop computer from the muncipal government. When not being used, Mendoza re-wraps its keyboard in the plastic bag it came in.

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A primary school classroom in Alcozacán. Mendoza wants to start a radio station for Nahua communities transmitting from the school.

Mendoza said he would like agronomists to come to Alcozacán to help residents produce fertilizer. He also said Alcozacán is in desperate need of a clinic to attend to the sick and help mothers give birth.


Mendoza said that above all, he would like the community police to receive a salary. "Public safety should not be our responsibility, but we see that the government cannot deal with so many criminal groups. Therefore, the people decided to take up arms to prevent violence in our community," Mendoza said. 

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