The forgotten conflict of Guerrero, Mexico

Photograph; Alfredo Bosco

Photographer and journalist Alfredo Bosco came to Guerrero on assignment to document southern Mexican villages emptied out by conflict. Over repeated visits, he documents the region’s story by Elisabeth Malkin in Mexico City. Photographic work by Alfredo Bosco.

Life in Guerrero seems to hover at the edge of violence. The threat is pervasive: in the armed men at roadblocks, the empty nighttime streets, the kindling of street protests. Then it erupts, in a brief convulsion. What endures is the wreckage left behind.

Mexico; Guerrero; Petlacala; 2018 Little altar for a young boy killed by the Tequileros. Many members of the self-defence group of Sierra of San Miguel have lost their sons, brothers, fathers and loved ones fighting against the Tequileros.
  • An altar for a young boy killed by the Tequileros. Many members of the self-defence group of Sierra of San Miguel have lost their sons, brothers, fathers and loved ones fighting against the Tequileros.

The aftermath is what originally drew Alfredo Bosco, an Italian photographer who had worked on the frontlines of the conflict in Ukraine, to Guerrero. He came to the state in southern Mexico, one of the country’s poorest, to document the ghost villages emptied out by fear.

“I immediately realized the story of Guerrero was so much more,” said Bosco. He made repeated trips back to Guerrero between 2018 and the beginning of this year to photograph armed groups battling over mountain villages, the inhabitants who resist, and those who flee.

Mexico; Guerrero; Acapulco; 2018 Federal police patrolling the once touristic city of Acapulco.
  • Federal police patrolling the once touristic city of Acapulco
Mexico; Guerrero; Acapulco; 2020 Crime scene in the suburbs of Acapulco. A man was shot three times and rescued by paramedics.
  • A man was shot three times and rescued by paramedics, in the suburbs of Acapulco

He also documented the decay of Acapulco, the Pacific coast resort that was once a haunt for Hollywood stars and the Kennedys’ honeymoon retreat. For years, Guerrero’s largest city has been under siege by extortion rackets. Nobody is exempt: teachers, restaurant owners, even the women who run market stalls in the city’s working-class hinterland must all pay up.

The easy narrative of Guerrero’s violence would be to explain it as the outcome of drug trafficking. Some of that is true. Marijuana and then opium poppies have been cultivated in the state since the 1960s. Guerrero is believed to supply more than half of all the heroin produced in Mexico and the state lies on a major transit route to the United States.

Mexico; Guerrero; Area of Chilpancingo; 2018 Starting the operation of eradication. For years the Mexican army has been committed in fighting against the poppy business. Numbers are impressive as around 84,000 m2 of crop have been eradicated in 2018.
  • The Mexican army eradicating a poppy crop in Chilpancingo

To stop the story there, though, would be to dismiss the overlapping injustices that stalk Mexico and find their sharpest expression in Guerrero. The state is mountainous and has poor communications, which marginalizes its rural population. The most discriminated of all are Guerrero’s indigenous communities, accounting for some 15% of the state’s 3.5 million people.

Mexico; Guerrero; Chilapa De Alvarez; 2018 Federal police inside the house of the former local commissioner in a town near Chilapa. He was one of the leaders of the Los Rojos cartel.
  • Federal police inside the house of the former local commissioner in a town near Chilapa. He was one of the leaders of the Los Rojos cartel

A small white elite and local bosses control economic and political power. When social movements have tried to challenge that dominance over the decades, the government has repressed them. With the hope of peaceful change dashed, small guerrilla groups have taken up arms, according to the Mexican historian Carlos Illades. The government conducted a dirty war in the 1970s against one of those groups, a peasant movement led by teachers, normalizing the tools of counterinsurgency, including disappearances, as standard procedure.

Displaced coming from the town of Los Morelos heading to the Chichihualco auditorium.
  • Displaced peope coming from the town of Los Morelos heading to the Chichihualco auditorium

In a region where the state’s presence is limited to shows of force, rule of law is an afterthought. Even old scores, over land, or water, or causes that nobody remembers, are settled by violence.

“When we talk about violence, we have to talk about many kinds of violence,” said Vania Pigeonutt, an editor and reporter for Amapola Periodismo, a Guerrero-based news site, who worked closely with Bosco.

Impunity allows this violence to flourish. For most of Mexico’s history, policing and justice have been simply a tool of political power. Homicides are barely investigated, almost never solved.

A man sniffs the blade of the machete he’s digging with hoping to smell victims’ corpses or body parts in Iguala. Around him are other volunteers led by Mario Vergara, who for years has helped families find their missing ones.
  • A man sniffs the blade of the machete he’s digging with hoping to smell victims’ corpses or body parts, as he searches for missing loved ones in Iguala
Mexico; Guerrero; Iguala; 2018 Mr Rogelio by his wife and his son’s graves. His son disappeared in 2012 and was found dead the year after. His girlfriend had connections with the local drug cartel and was probably the one who had him killed after he refused to pay a money extortion. Like many other people, Mr. Rogelio had to personally search for his son.
  • Mr Rogelio by his wife and his son’s graves, Iguala; 2018. His son disappeared in 2012 and was found dead the year after

Against this backdrop, the decision in 2006 by the then president, Felipe Calderón, to attack the drug trade head-on proved to be disastrous.

When one large criminal organization controlled trafficking in Guerrero, the violence was constrained – often aided by an agreement with authorities who only simulated efforts at interdiction. Calderón ordered Mexico’s military to take down the leaders of the main drug groups and generated an upheaval that his successors have failed to subdue.

Mexico; Guerrero; Acapulco; 2020 National Guard, a new security force created in 2019. The National Guard, the new security force that the Mexican goverment wants to deal with the serious problem of lack of security, formally began its operations on June 30. In Guerrero, 3,400 Guard officers will be deployed at first and they have already started being transferred to the cities of Chilpancingo, Tlapa, Ciudad Altamirano and Ayutla.
  • The national guard, the new security force that the Mexican government wants to deal with the serious problem of lack of security, formally began its operations on 30 June

In Guerrero, the larger groups splintered into local gangs, which branched out into kidnapping and extortion. They also found additional profits in illegal mining and clandestine logging.

Instead of moving drugs, these gangs needed control over territory and they subjected villages to waves of terror when their armed men descended to lay claim to power.

Unlike the kind of mafia control that Bosco saw in eastern Ukraine or in southern Italy, where he is from, Mexico’s criminals are indiscriminate. “Everyone can be a target,” he said. “The school must close: we attack the teacher coming back home.”

Children training in Ayahualtempa village 2020
  • Children training in Ayahualtempa village. After being attacked several times in 2019 by the cartel of Los Ardillos, the village community police has decided to involve children in armed defense training
Mexico; Guerrero; Ayahualtempa; 2020 35 displaced in the village of Ayahualtempa. They are all relatives and have been hosted for some time under the protection of the CRAC-PF. Many of them are women and children.
  • Displaced people in the village of Ayahualtempa. They are all relatives and have been hosted for some time under the protection of the CRAC-PF indigenous community police. Many of them are women and children

The criminals easily corrupted poorly trained and poorly paid local police forces, bribing them to look the other way, or even turning them into an arm of their operation.

All of those moving parts came together in the kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in September 2014. They are believed to have been handed over by local police to a local gang, Guerreros Unidos, which killed them. Federal officials have also been implicated in covering up the investigation. The remains of only two of the young men have been identified and the motive for their disappearance is still unclear.

Mexico; Guerrero; Rincon De Chautla; 2020 Local indigenous community police CRC-PF. In 2019 they have been targeted by the criminal group of Los Ardillos.
  • Local indigenous community police CRAC-PF, Rincón de Chautla
Mexico; Guerrero; Rincon De Chautla; 2020 Local indigenous community police CRC-PF. In 2019 they have been targeted by the criminal group of Los Ardillos.

The attention on that case lifted the silence over other disappearances and families banded together to search for mass graves that pockmarked the mountains in the hope of finding their relatives.

In response to gangs like Guerreros Unidos, militias known as self-defense groups have formed in many regions of Guerrero.

These groups are not always what they seem. While some truly are community police, concerned with protecting their families and property, other groups look for a way to coexist with criminal gangs or evolve into a shadow authority. They may even be units of gangs masquerading behind the credibility of self-defense groups.

Portrait of a volunteer of the police community of CRAC-PF in her house, in Rincon De Chautla. Women and children have taken up arms after the several attacks by the criminal group of Los Ardillos.
  • A CRAC-PF volunteer in her house, in Rincón de Chautla.
Forgotten GuerreroMexico; Guerrero; Rincon De Chautla; 12/01/20 Portrait of a mother from Rincon De Chautla with her children. Like other women she decided to became part the police community to protect her family.
  • A mother from Rincón de Chautla with her children

Much of Bosco’s work focuses on these groups. He turns his gaze on the women of Rincón de Chautla, a village in the central region of the state, who have joined the community police. They look straight ahead, calm and defiant.

He also saw children receive military training and a few weeks later, when photos of children on parade with guns appeared in the Mexican press, the country was outraged.

Mexico; Guerrero; Los Timontos; 2018 Members of the self-defence group of Policia Ciudadana de Leonardo Bravo holding their positions. In the municipality of Leonardo Bravo 6 villages out of 18 are under the command of Policia Ciudadana de Leonardo Bravo, which also aims at controlling the route that takes to Chilpancingo as it is a crucial point for the local, illegal, economy.
  • Members of the self-defence group of Policia Ciudadana de Leonardo Bravo holding their positions in Los Timontos
Forgotten GuerreroMexico; Guerrero; Petlacala; 23/11/18 Members of a self defense group in a poppy field. The self-defence group of Sierra of San Miguel claim to protect the local population from the criminal group of the Tequileros, which are specialized in kidnapping and extortion, and at the same time take part in the heroin business.
Mexico; Guerrero; Ayahualtempa; 2020 Member of the indigenous community police CRC-PF, with a child who’s joining the self-defence group in response to criminal group violence.
  • Members of a self defense group in a poppy field. Member of the indigenous community police CRAC-PF, with a child who’s joining the self-defence group

In contrast, the men of the self-defence forces are masked. Bosco shows them in action, guarding positions, clustered around a fire at night, always wary. But their concealed faces hint at hidden motives.

The balance of forces could change at any moment, creating a new alliance, prompting a new exodus.

by Elisabeth Malkin in Mexico City. Photographic work by Alfredo Bosco.