"You live in fear": Trapped by violence in Guerrero, Mexico

Mexico 2019 © Juan Carlos Tomasi

Brutal conflict between myriad criminal organizations, self-defense groups, and police and military authorities have made Guerrero one of Mexico’s most violent states. Civilians often bear the brunt: many rural communities have been isolated by the violence, cutting their residents off from medical care and other essential services. In the Sierra Madre mountains, for example, many people have been trapped in their villages for months as a result of an ongoing rivalry between armed groups. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mobile clinics visit these besieged communities to provide much-needed medical and mental health care. Here, women from the region describe the situation in their own words.

“I was in the car with my husband, his cousins, and one of their wives,” says Gabriela, who lives in a village visited by the MSF mobile clinic. “We were driving down the mountain, on our way to a nearby city, when armed men in vans forced us to stop. They made the four men get out of the car and took them away. A man passing by later on a motorcycle helped us—the women—by taking us to the city, where we went to the police. The men were missing for five days. They found them later, by the side of the road, dead and buried.” 

Gabriela is 20 years old and has two children. She was pregnant with her second when her husband was killed. Now, holding her weeks-old baby in her arms, she prefers not to give her real name and to keep her face hidden. She fears reprisals from the criminal group responsible for her husband’s death, as tensions are still high in the area. 

“I thought our husbands were going to come back, that it had all been a mistake and that they would return them,” she says. “They were men who kept to themselves, working in the fields. When I found out my husband was dead, I went to live with my parents. I gave birth away from here with their help. I want to get out of here, to get away from this place where there is so much violence. I’ve thought of setting up a business, I’ve even thought of becoming a missionary, but I have small children. All my memories are here: of my childhood, my family, my husband.”

Gabriela says her eldest child, who is two years old, has stopped eating and walking since his father’s death. “Whenever a blue van drives by, he goes towards it, thinking it is his dad’s van,” she says. “We’ve spent six months without electricity after the armed group cut off the supply, unable to move, without access to medicines, unable to send our children to school. There are many innocent families living here.”

Sixty-year-old Ana has seen many of her neighbors flee, unable to keep living amid the violence. “We feel desolate, unable to work in peace because of fear,” she says. “We cannot go to the fields like we did before to see how the cows are doing and to help them give birth. Yesterday, a family left. They will sell their cows at any price and say goodbye; who knows if they will return? The teachers have not come back yet; we had kindergarten, primary, and secondary school. Now, there’s nothing. How long are we going to be like this? We don’t know. Until one of the two rival groups loses, I guess. We want a future for our children, for our grandchildren.” 


In another community, higher in the Sierra Madre mountains, the eldest people in the area remember when the town was founded in the 1920s. “When I arrived as a child, there were four houses,” says Ana María, now in her seventies. The Sierra Madre provided them with fertile land to grow corn, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, and more. But eventually, people began switching to more profitable crops like marijuana and poppies, which first brought wealth—then violence. 

Ana María was the village midwife, “I have delivered 35 children,” she says. “But I haven’t helped with a birth for four years now. And as we don’t have a doctor, now we use traditional cures.” She explains remedies to cure sinusitis, scorpion stings, and heart murmurs. Any complications mean a perilous trip outside the community. “Pregnant women that are about to give birth or that have a problem go down to the city,” says Ana María. “But they’re very scared.”

“When a group of armed men attacked the town, we stayed at home, we didn’t go out,” says Elvira, who has lived in the town for 20 years. “We survived on what we had, on the food we’d grown. Many people have left out of fear or because they’ve been involved in the violence. It's scary, especially for the children, because they can get hurt.” Like other women, Elvira has taken to accompanying her husband when he goes to the fields to work. “You feel that going with them protects them somehow.”

Unpredictable violence

The attacks came at dawn and then again in the morning when the children were in school, where they hid. “It's scary for the children, who are just starting their lives, to have to live [this way],” says Carmen, another resident of the town, who spoke at a gathering of local women in the kitchen of one of their homes. “You ask yourself why your children have to live this life—why you have to live this life. We haven’t killed anyone, we haven’t stolen anything, we haven’t taken anything from anyone, but we live with that question and with fear for our children.”

The villagers have no choice but to wait to be escorted by the Mexican army down to the city when they need provisions or cash; no merchants are willing to visit the town to sell their products, nor will day laborers come for work. They are trapped, unable to sell their avocados unless they risk their lives taking them to the market.

An uncertain future

“We are trying to recover some normality,” says Melania, who sits across the table from Carmen. “Thanks to solar panels, we now have enough electricity to access the internet, some small stores have reopened, and we’re starting to leave the house. But I remember that at the beginning, when MSF arrived for the first time, I felt that they were coming to rescue us. The MSF psychologists and doctors made us feel very supported; we felt some relief.”

The women have made a list of their hopes for the future: schools reopened, roads repaired, support for job creation, and for Guerrero to stop being a place people have to leave to find work in other parts of Mexico or the United States. 

“Our roots are here and we don’t want to leave our land,” says Carmen. “We have hopes and we know how to work the fields; we love the fields. That is why we want to fight for peace, so that our young people do not leave for other countries because there aren’t any jobs here. Above all, [we want] peace. We need to know that they will not come to attack the town again.”