Photo: Sin Embargo

By JESSICA GUERRERO

MORELIA, Michoacán — For decades, Mexico’s northern border has been a magnet for immigrants, both national and international, seeking economic refuge in the United States.

But in recent months, the U.S.-Mexico border has also become a destination for thousands of displaced Mexicans who have fled their homes trying to escape the growing violence generated by organized crime across the country.

One of the states most affected by the surging violent crime wave in Michoacán, which is located in west central Mexico.

For the last few years, Michoacán has been Ground Zero for an ongoing power struggle between Mexico’s drug cartels, particularly the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the so-called United Cartels, composed of paramilitary fighters from the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the locally-based Knight Templar Cartel that joined forces to try to keep the CJNG’s territorial ambitions in check.

But while the turf war may be between battling organized crime groups, it is the citizenry of the region that, as victims of collateral damage, are paying the price.

As the cartels take over towns and rural areas in the state, local residents are being forced to flee their hometowns to escape from a growing wave of threats, kidnappings and murders.

Almost inevitably, these displaced people head north, where many have found a temporary safe haven in the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez while they await (sometimes for months) a favorable response to their asylum applications to migrate to the United States.

Approximately 2,800 kilometers separate Michoacán from these two border cities.

Here they set up tent cities or fine shelter in makeshift shacks, along with the throngs of other would-be migrants to the United States from places like Honduras, Haiti and El Salvador.

Often supported by local (former clerical) humanitarian groups, the displaced citizens of Michoacán usually arrive at the border empty-handed, have left most of their belongings, dreams and
hopes behind in towns to which they will most likely never return.

Some of the families bare the scars of lost members, mostly adolescents, killed by cartel violence,

Younger children are haunted by terrifying memories of the violence they have witnesses.

Essentially all show signs of post-traumatic shock.

It has been more than a year since the mass exodus from Michoacán began, first observed as an “unusual phenomenon” when the state’s  local Human Rights Commission raised an alarm to the local  government in late 2020, warning that immediate attention was required in the region of Aguililla, in southern Michoacán.

According the the commission’s records, in the last 12 months at least 100 families have fled their homes simultaneously.

The reason for this mass exodus, the commission said, was clear: the crossfire between the cartels that are warring to control the area.

The endless shootouts and random acts of violence has taken a severe toll on the population of the state.

The local residents’ appeals for government protection have gone unheeded by state and federal authorities alike.

Faced with certain death and mayhem, their only alternative was to leave.

As a result of this mass exodus, numerous communities along Michoacán Tierra Caliente, in central and southern part of the state, have become ghost towns, almost overnight.

The few inhabitants who still reside in these abandoned towns now face shortages of basic supplies, from food to medications.

And they face restricted access to basic services, from electricity and water to telephone connections., making them all the more vulnerable and defenseless against the cartels.

According to figures recorded by a group of humanitarian workers supporting the fleeing Michoacanos, approximately 50 people on  average leave the state each day in search of protection in the United States.

There are currently about 1,500 Michoacán citizens waiting to be granted asylum in the United States, while another 2,000 have already managed to get across the border with asylum status.

The 2020 census carried out by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) showed a striking decrease in the populations of numerous towns located in the Tierra Caliente region of the state compared to 2010.

The rural town of Aguililla — one of the worst-hit municipalities — the overall population had dwindled by more than 9 percent in just 10 years, representing a total loss of 1,460 residents.

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