JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – It wasn’t too long ago that Eladio Mena lived in peace and prosperity in his native Michoacan, Mexico.
He owned a ranch where he looked after his 50 head of cattle and planted a variety of crops in a 200-acre spread. His wife contributed by making and selling cheese. His son was becoming financially independent through a small but successful seafood restaurant.
But then the Jalisco New Generation Cartel came a-calling, recruiting muscle for a turf war with the Viagras regional drug gang and “raising” funds through extortion and outright thievery.
“They make work for them. But we had no need, and we don’t think like they do,” Mena said, explaining why he refused to let the drug traffickers use his property to plant illegal crops or pick up a weapon and join the slaughter. “They gave us only so much time to leave, and we had to leave at night to avoid their roadblocks.”
Today, Mena, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons sit in a Juarez migrant shelter, waiting to file an asylum claim in the United States. They’re part of a rising wave of families leaving a Mexican countryside contested by drug cartels.
According to the latest stats from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of encounters with Mexican citizens shot up by more than 10,000 in February, to 71,210, compared to the previous month. The combined number of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – only went up by 7,500, to 39,178.
Overall unauthorized migration rose 7 percent in February, totaling 164,973.
The U.S. government is not fielding asylum claims at ports of entry, and Mena doesn’t want to lead his family through an unauthorized and perhaps dangerous run across the border. His resolve holds firm as days go by at the Juarez shelter.
“I have a brother in Sacramento (California). I also have a brother-in-law there. He’s a legal resident, he works, he will be responsible for us,” Mena said. “We do not want to return to Michoacan. We cannot return because we have been threatened.”
A divided countryside
Because he fears the cartels so, Mena would rather not say what town he’s from or have them know at which of the 20 or so migrant shelters in Juarez he’s staying.
The Western state of Michoacan has become a graveyard in the past four years as the Jalisco cartel fights a multitude of local gangs including Familia Michoacana, Guerreros Unidos, Los Viagras, and vigilante groups now also out for profits. Mayors and journalists have been killed, attacks with drones carrying explosives reported, and cartels are “taxing” avocado growers. The Mexican army was recently dispatched to remove land mines planted by criminals along roads near the town of Aguililla.
He does emphasize his utter lack of trust in his country’s authorities.
“The authorities are in collusion with the criminals. The mayors protect the criminals, they share information. We cannot file a complaint. If one dares do that, they tell (the cartels),” he said.
When asked what could drive a successful farmer and rancher – and his restaurant-owner son – to leave behind everything he spent a lifetime building, Mena explains how the cartels aren’t some distant, figurative threat but a brutal, co-opting force that turns neighbors and friends against each other.
“People from the community went over to the cartels. It was people from the same (community) that threatened us. It’s five or six brothers who are in charge” of enforcing the cartel’s orders, he said. “They pay them a certain amount to keep everyone under control. We’ve seen people from (city government) run around with them.”
Mena said the first contact was to co-opt him, to have him work for the cartel the same as his neighbors. After that came the extortion.
“They came to collect la cuota (a “tax”) and we didn’t like that,” he said.
Then came the threats. He said other people in his community had been attacked and that the enforcers were targeting his son next. Fearing for his life and the life of his son, and having been told there was no place for him in the community anymore, Mena said he had no choice but to leave.
“They took away everything we had. Our 50 head of cattle, our 80 hectares of land. […] A relative had to give us a ride in the middle of the night. We left everything behind,” he said, as he waits for the U.S. border to reopen to asylum seekers.