Latin America & Caribbean

The Mexican town 'governed by gangs' goes to the polls

A federal police officer on patrol in Chilapa
Image caption There has been a heavy police presence in Chilapa after more than a dozen residents disappeared

The journey from Mexico City to Guerrero state in south-western Mexico is particularly stunning at this time of year.

For several hours, you cut through mountains that look greener than usual because of the rainy season.

But the beauty of these hillsides belies the pain in this region.

Guerrero's foothills are home to much of Mexico's illegal poppy and marijuana production, the source of a large part of the violence seen in the state today.

Wanted alive

Chilapa is nestled in the heart of these mountains.

A town of about 100,000 people, the town's Zocalo, or main square, is bustling.

Image caption Chilapa's main square is now patrolled by state and federal forces

Birds are singing in the trees and twice an hour the bells ring out from the cathedral.

Chilapa's residents relax on the square's benches while children head to market-stalls laden with sweets and chocolates.

This peaceful scene is disturbed by a heavy police presence.

Two police vans and an army vehicle are parked outside the town hall with more than a dozen armed soldiers standing by. More constantly patrol around the town.

In a restaurant by the Zocalo, a small group is gathering. Each person is carrying a picture of a loved one.

Slowly, they start to walk down the street in silence carrying a banner which reads: "We do not want narco-elections, we want our children alive."

Missing

On 9 May, hundreds of armed men entered Chilapa.

For several days, they effectively took control of the town. According to residents, the police and military did little to stop them.

Video footage I saw shows residents heckling the army as they drove off.

What took place was a stand-off between two drugs gangs: Los Rojos, who have traditionally controlled Chilapa, and a newer group known as Los Ardillos.

When the gangs left several days later, at least 16 people had disappeared.

Image caption Sixteen people have been officially reported missing

Locals say the number could be far higher with many families not reporting their loved ones missing for fear of possible repercussions.

Turf war

One of the men who disappeared was 21-year-old Alejandro Nava Reyes.

His father Virgilio had warned his son not to go out when he first heard about the arrival of the armed gangs.

Image caption Virgilio Nava says the turf war between the gangs has made Chilapa a dangerous place to live

But the next day, Alejandro went out to meet his girlfriend.

He never arrived.

His father says Chilapa was safer when it was run by just the one gang and that it is the turf war between Los Rojos and Los Ardillos which has ratcheted up the violence.

"These people were just rounding up young men," he said.

'In the know'

The families march to the National Electoral Institute. They say the politicians are not listening because they are involved in organized crime. They want somebody - anybody - to hear what they have to say.

The representative of the electoral commission, Luz Fabiola Matildes Gama, listens but says she can not do anything.

Her role is to make sure elections go smoothly. Her job is not political.

She even tries to reason with the families, saying she has suffered disappearances of loved ones too.

Image caption Luz Fabiola Matildes Gama says there is little she can do to help the families

Nobody in this part of Mexico is untouched by the violence.

As Mexico gets ready for mid-term elections on Sunday, many here see little point in casting a vote.

They say it will not change anything.

Victoria Salmeron Hernandez is one of the family members who stands up to give a short speech.

Her brother Jorge Luis is one of those who went missing in May. He was studying business development and together, they brought up their younger brother and Victoria's baby.

Image caption Victoria Salmeron Hernandez is searching for her brother Jorge Luis

"Move heaven and earth, whatever you have to do - just give them back - and give them back alive," she pleads with Luz Fabiola Matildes Gama between tears.

"We don't want elections. What's the point in electing new governors? More mayors? They keep doing the same thing."

Part and parcel

The incident in May shocked people here but Chilapa is no stranger to disappearances.

Mario Jose Navarro is also in the crowd. Two of his brothers went missing in November. He is sure the Ardillos were behind it.

"Politicians are part of this crime, they know what's going on but nobody wants to address it," he says.

Locals believe that the two big parties here - the PRI and the PRD - work closely with the gangs.

People I spoke to said they had to vote for the political party connected with the gangs who ran their community.

If not, they were in danger of reprisals.

"They [the gangs] might try and intimidate voters from going to the polls," explains security analyst Alejandro Hope.

"What will be interesting to see is how many polling booths actually open and how many people actually show up to vote," he adds.

Deeper problem

During the gang stand-off in May, Chilapa Mayor Francisco Javier Garcia Gonzalez was nowhere to be seen.

Image caption Chilapa Mayor Francisco Javier Garcia Gonzalez denies having been tipped off

Some locals say he knew what was coming and left town for the duration.

Mr Garcia denies this: "I know the truth, so it doesn't worry me," he tells me.

He says government alone cannot be held responsible for the escalating violence and disappearances.

"Society is also partly to blame for letting it get inside the social fabric," he says.

Fragmented

Chilapa is not an isolated case either.

The town is not far from Ayotzinapa, which has become a byword for unsolved disappearances since 43 young men who studied in the town's teacher training college went missing in September.

Bone fragments from one of the 43 have been found and identified.

The government has declared the other 42 dead, but their relatives are refusing to accept this without more evidence.

Many towns across Guerrero are plagued by the same violence.

Dwight Dyer of global risk consultancy Control Risk says there is a general lack of authority in the area and this makes it hard to find out what happened.

"If political authority is fragmented, like it is in Guerrero, and the lines of command within organised crime are also fragmented, then it's very hard for anybody in the state to actually negotiate or talk to any authority."

"The problem is that you do not know who is involved with which group," he explains.

Silenced

As I leave Chilapa, I drive under the arches that mark the city's perimeter.

High above them hangs a campaign poster for mayoral candidate Ulises Fabian.

Image caption Ulises Fabian was running for mayor of Chilapa

His big smile accompanies the words "A Chilapa with order and peace".

He did not live to see that. He was shot dead little over a month ago and locals suspect it was the Ardillos once again.

Fifteen bullets silenced the politician but his face is a reminder of the violence here.

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