Pubdate: Sun, 03 Mar 2013
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR)
Copyright: 2013 Los Angeles Times
Note: Accepts letters to the editor from Arkansas residents only
Author: Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
Page: 3A


OUTSIDE SAN LUIS DE LA LOMA, Mexico - Don Polo's heavily armed convoy 
wound its way through the hills above the lush coastal plain of 
Guerrero state, its groves of slender palm trees now far below him.

The two-lane country road twisted eastward, and upward, for miles. 
But around each bend, there were no campesinos, no burros, no dogs, 
no cars barreling toward the Pacific. Fields of yellow grass, taller 
than a man and animated by the wind, covered the landscape.

This, though, was no vision of tranquility. This was the road to the 
pueblos fantasmas, the ghost pueblos.

"There used to be hundreds of heads of cattle here," Don Polo said. 
"But now there are no cattle to eat the grass, because the farmers 
can't live here anymore.

"All of this is due to organized crime."

Leopoldo "Polo" Soberanis, a 54-year-old fruit-packing impresario 
whom most people respectfully address as Don Polo, said he wanted the 
world to see what had happened in this 160-mile swath of Guerrero 
state between the famous beach resorts of Acapulco and Ixtapa.

Thanks to police bodyguards provided by the Mexican government, which 
has declared him to be in "imminent danger," Don Polo was able to 
give a rare tour of the no-man's land the drug war has created.

It consists of more than 20 pueblos, Don Polo said, which have 
steadily emptied of residents. Those who have fled tell of 
mistreatment by the Mexican army, and of persistent threats and 
violence carried out by a small group of armed men, perhaps no more 
than 100, who claim to be members of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

The people say that masked men drive down from the mountains where 
clandestine fields of poppies grow. They wear paramilitary uniforms 
and carry AK-47s, and they demand loyalty, as well as a "tax" for the 
privilege of staying in one's home or running a business.

Sometimes, they force residents to leave without time to gather their 
belongings. Sometimes, they burn down the houses of those who 
decline. Sometimes they simply kill.

A few miles up the road, the convoy of pickups rolled to a stop at La 
Palapa, once a settlement of about 60 people, now a clutch of 
abandoned homes that hugs the road. A quartet of burly bodyguards 
jumped out ahead of Don Polo, assault rifles drawn.

Come and get a picture of this, Don Polo said, pointing to a green 
house that had belonged to his cousin. He walked past the chained 
door of the community store and through the open one to La Palapa's 
single-room school, where no one had bothered to pack up the 
textbooks. He sifted through heaps of them strewn on the floor. Come 
and take a picture, he said.

The next town, El Huamilito, was bigger, and just as empty. Don Polo 
stopped at an attractive lime-colored ranch house. He pointed to an 
iron gate painted with flowers and pocked with bullet holes.

"Cuerno de chivo" - "goat's horn" - he said, using the Mexican 
nickname for an AK-47.

Farther on, he pointed to a dusty corral. This, he said, was where 
they had killed his nephew, a cattleman named Jose Luis Garcia.

They came for him on the morning of July 14, 2011, while he was 
milking cows. He ran up the hill, Don Polo said, but they caught him, 
and they slit his throat.

In recent weeks, residents of other towns in Guerrero have generated 
headlines by forming vigilante groups to protect their communities. 
But in this long, sad and bloody chapter of Mexican history, it has 
been more common, and perhaps more sensible, to flee.

More than 1.6 million Mexicans left their homes because of drug 
violence from 2006 to 2011, according to the Mexico City polling firm 
Parametria. They might be considered fortunate if only because they 
are not among the 70,000 Mexicans slain in the drug war.

But the reward for survival is often financial hardship and 
heartbreak. Don Polo estimated that 1,500 people had fled to his 
hometown, San Luis de la Loma, and others had settled in a slightly 
larger city farther down the coast. Neither city has the jobs or the 
social services to support them.

"These people have lived in the countryside forever," Don Polo said. 
"They've lost their way of living."

Don Polo showed so much intellectual promise as a boy that his family 
decided to send him to Mexico City for schooling. He became a 
petrochemical engineer, living in the cosmopolitan capital and 
traveling the world before he moved back to Guerrero two years ago. 
He wanted to shift gears, he said, and live a slower, less stressful life.

So he reinvented himself as the owner-operator of a mango-and 
coconut-packing company. Today he seems comfortable in his role of 
tropical country squire, his raspy voice quick to issue a command, 
his ruddy face typically shielded by the floppy brim of a simple straw hat.

But he could not shield himself from the troubling stories that flow 
out of the mountains. Members of his extended family and other 
refugees told him not only of cartel terrorism but also of wanton 
crime by Mexican soldiers who were supposed to be keeping the peace. 
Some, they said, were stealing furniture and appliances from 
abandoned homes, or worse.

In early September, soldiers killed six young men in the 
still-populated town of El Tule. Government authorities said the 
young men had fired on the troops. Don Polo didn't believe it. One of 
the dead had been in a wheelchair.

On Sept. 10, Don Polo organized a protest on the coastal road, with 
banners blaming the army for unjustified executions. A month later, 
soldiers raided his packing plant, according to a complaint he filed 
with the state attorney general's office. The soldiers lined up his 
employees, said they were waiting on an order to kill them, and 
searched the place for marijuana bales. They came up empty-handed, 
Don Polo said.

On Nov. 7, more soldiers raided his home, overturning boxes of 
business papers in a hunt for evidence that linked him to organized 
crime, according to a complaint he filed with the national 
humanrights commission. Again, he said, they found nothing.

Don Polo says he has nothing to do with the drug gangs. He interprets 
the raids as a warning to keep out of the army's business.

The narcos, he said, have threatened him, too, since he founded the 
area's first human-rights group a few months ago. In San Luis, he 
showed the bullet holes in the group's modest offices. The place had 
been shot up one evening while it was empty.

He assumed, from the descriptions neighbors gave, that the shooters 
were cartel members.

"We think they were trying to scare us away from opening this place," he said.

Such is the fog of modern Mexico: A self-appointed human-rights 
advocate is suspected by the army of being a drug dealer. The army, 
sent into the streets to protect the people, is accused of robbing 
them and of killing the innocent. The federal government pays the 
salaries both of the soldiers and of the federal police who must be 
sent in to protect against the soldiers' alleged threats.

Meanwhile, the Knights Templar cartel declared, between extortion 
attempts and violence, that it is protecting the common folk from a 
corrupt federal government.

Perhaps the sole unassailable fact is that most people who once lived 
in the pueblos are gone.

Farther along the road, in the town of El Cuaulotal, Don Polo stopped 
in front of an empty orange house adorned with a hand-painted mural 
of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Inside, he pointed to a shrine that 
someone had left behind on a living room wall. It memorialized his 
nephew, Luis Soberanis, and the nephew's brother-in-law, Federico 
Fernandez. Their names were painted on a pair of wooden crosses.

They were also killed here, Don Polo said.

On this day, at least, El Cuaulotal was not totally abandoned. Two 
men stood in a yard, with a burro and a rifle: Gumersindo Soberanis, 
68, a campesino married to Don Polo's cousin, and his friend, Cosme 
Acosta, a weatherbeaten 73-year-old rancher in a cowboy hat.

Acosta said his house was up the road but he doesn't live there 
anymore. He was just there to check on his land, he said. But he 
couldn't stay long.

He pulled a small pistol from a pouch. It isn't safe here anymore, he 
said. The army treated him like he was in with the cartel. The men 
from the cartel had come a few months earlier and set fire to his 
house. Why? "We don't know," he said.

The convoy motored farther into the mountains to El Banco, where it 
came across Acosta's charred home, tall grass outside and blackened 
bed frames within. Don Polo pointed out the details as if he were a 
dejected real-estate agent: Spacious kitchen. Stunning countryside 
view. Light fixtures like one might find in a U.S. suburb.

"This place was almost a paradise," he said. "People had their 
cattle. They weren't rich, but they lived well."

In a town called Ojo de Agua, Don Polo's uncle Hernandez showed the 
ruins of a ranch house and told how two men he knew had been hanged 
from its exposed rafters.

Nearby, in La Cienega, there was a closed-up church, and little red 
tomatoes on the ends of unruly vines, and another burned-out house on 
a hill. The men were pretty sure it had belonged to the sheriff, now long gone.

They traipsed through an empty home where unpacked luggage lay open 
on unmade beds, and a home with drinking glasses lined up neatly in a 
cupboard, as if someone would be returning that night. Did you get a 
picture of that? Don Polo asked.

There was one more charred house that Don Polo was eager to show. But 
one of the bodyguards rushed over, a pistol in his right hand.

"Engineer," he said, sounding worried. "There's a little truck up 
there." He thought maybe they were being watched. "We need to hurry up."

In the yard of the smokescarred house was a gua-nabana tree, and a 
sweet lime tree fat with fruit. Nearby, blazing ripe oranges had 
fallen in piles in the grass and dirt.

Don Polo stooped, gathering what he could.

Who else would?

Information for this report was contributed by Cecilia Sanchez of the 
Los Angeles Times Mexico City Bureau.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom