Mexico … the displaced of Zihuatanejo do not feature in the sun-drenched landscapes peddled by the travel agencies, but they do exist. They exist, despite the silence of state governor Héctor Astudillo Flores and mayor Jorge Sánchez Allec, for whom tourism is the be-all and end-all.
In fact, for Guerrero’s governor Astudillo Flores, the tourism innovations – such as the renovation of the piers and docks in Acapulco and Zihuatanejo – represent a great success.
In a video filmed on La Madera beach, Astudillo Flores, decked out in a guayabera, declared, “at the beginning of this administration, we set out several priorities; various works have been completed to encourage tourism, just like this one – the Paseo Pescador. We’ve invested in Acapulco to encourage the cruise ships to return and the airlines to put on more flights. Tourism is the heart of our state. I am sure that Guerrero has improved in the last six years as far as tourism is concerned.”
But the reality is different.
Over the last two years, violence has spiralled in the mountain villages of Zihuatanejo, showing how far removed the governor’s campaign slogan of “peace and order” is from reality.
In 2019, an armed group stormed the community of Vallecitos de Zaragoza, in the mountains of Zihuatanejo de Azueta, causing an exodus of 1,500 people. To date, only 100 families have returned to the village; at its lowest point there were only 10 inhabitants.
In February 2020, Pedro Quiroz, farmer and leader, stated that the state government already knew about the exodus from this community.
“The government and the authorities were aware. If anyone knew what was happening, of what was going to happen, it was them: the state government headed by Héctor Astudillo [Flores] and the municipal governments, because there are various municipalities in the mountains”, he says.
Vallecitos de Zaragoza is located in the municipality of Zihuatanejo de Azueta, one hour from the municipal capital. Here, farming and agriculture are the main livelihoods.
For a time, the principal agricultural products were maize, beans, agave, chilli, sugar cane, and above all, the sale of cattle. But the boom years were short lived, particularly due to the increase in violence.
On 9 July 2021, the front cover of the daily newspaper La Jornada Guerrero featured those displaced from the highlands of Zihuatanejo de Azueta. “After two years besieged by criminals, 70 families flee the Zihuatanejo mountains,” the headline read.
The daily newspaper El Sur also published the victims’ claims. “At least 300 people from 10 villages have become victims of forced displacement in the Zihuatanejo mountain area, following the impact of the criminal gang Los Cuernudos,” the article began.
El Mamey, Arroyo Seco, La Vainilla, La Soledad, Puertecito, Pie de la Cuesta, El Zapotillo, El Abrajal, Piedras Rodadas, and Paso del Burro, all belonging to the communal lands of Arroyo Seco and San Ignacio, in Zihuatanejo, are affected.
The community land holders reported that Los Cuernudos arrived two years earlier (at the time of the exodus from Vallecitos) and the ordeal began: illegal logging and a monthly quota of 15,000 pesos to be paid by each family.
They claim that neither the state nor the federal governments paid any attention, despite being aware of the violence infiltrating the highlands above the port.
In May, the farmers took up arms in self-defence, but their shotguns were no match for Los Cuernudos’ arsenal.
In the end, they abandoned their homes, lands and animals; their houses – left bullet-riddled and ransacked by organized criminals – now stand empty.
Gerardo, who was displaced from El Abrajal, says that on his last trip to the Costa Chica, he wrote to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, denouncing the terror they were experiencing and reporting that Astudillo Flores’ government had done nothing.
On 11 July, Gerardo reported via telephone that the governor had asked if they were okay, but that Astudillo Flores’ attitude had not been cautious enough and he had put them at risk. “He communicated with me early on, after the story broke. He asked me if everything was okay, if there had been any deaths or if anyone was injured. I said no, that for the moment there hadn’t, but then he gave a statement to the media saying everything was okay. And he gave my name when I had asked him not to.”
“The truth is, I’m scared they’ll kill me or retaliate against my family and the people. But the governor says everything is okay and that’s not the case. A 26-year-old man has disappeared; Los Cuernudos took him by force. We left because they were going to kidnap a young girl, they pursued her, so we left for fear that something would happen to our wives and children,” Gerardo recounts.
He adds that Astudillo Flores claimed an operation would be set up, but the army only went up into the mountains to take a photo.
Gerardo explains that the soldiers did not even inspect the area, despite the villagers pleading with them to take photos of their abandoned houses in Vainilla and El Abrajal.
“The people begged them to go up and see their abandoned houses. Most of the houses in the villages have been abandoned, but they didn’t want to go and see, they just took the photo and left.”
That same Sunday, at around 8pm, Gerardo reported that three Ministry of Defence (Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional, Sedena) trucks were en route to set up in San Ignacio, although they did not know how long they would be staying. While Astudillo Flores and mayor Jorge Sánchez are discussing how they have boosted tourism and claiming that Zihuatanejo is the most visited tourist destination by national and international visitors, the displaced have a different story to tell.
“The government is treacherous, you can’t trust them,” says Gerardo.