Sierra Madre town sees slaying of 24 as 2 families fight


February 14, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

TLACOTEPEC, Mexico -- This remote town perched high in the Sierra Madre sits between the modern skyscrapers of Mexico City and the posh hotels and restaurants of Acapulco. But time has brought few advances to the people here.

Their world is reminiscent of the Wild West. Illegal trade is the most profitable industry, and guns are the preferred tool of justice.

Last week, the violence in Tlacotepec peaked. Some 23 men and one teen-ager, riding in a covered truck, were ambushed and killed in a two-hour gun battle as they left a family funeral. The attackers wore blue uniforms and wielded AK-47 assault rifles and 9 mm pistols.

Almost all of the victims were members of the Pena family, which has lived for decades in the villages that surround Tlacotepec. Their bodies were found scattered around the truck and in a nearby river. Each body had at least 15 bullet wounds, and some had a shot to the head.

"I have seen a lot of violence here, but never anything like that," said Simon Wences Martinez, the area's assistant police director.

"It was very scary for my kids to see their father, their uncles and all their cousins lying dead on the ground," said Cirila Rojas, 27, a mother of five who is four months pregnant with her sixth child.

No one had been arrested for the attack. And two survivors of the Pena family had also fled from police.

Initial reports by investigators from the state of Guerrero indicated that the massacre was the result of a drug dispute between the Pena family and another Tlacotepec family, the Garcias. Police say that each family is involved in growing marijuana and may have been fighting over land.

But officials from Tlacotepec suspect the mass murder was the result of petty personal grudges that have been harbored by the families since a fight at a wedding last May.

"People here will kill each other over anything," says Pedro Moreno Chapa, mayor of Tlacotepec for three years. "Usually, they kill out of pure ignorance. They get drunk. They start fighting, and somebody grabs a gun."

"To be an official here is hell," he told a newspaper.

Government documents show that over the past 10 years, there have been at least 50 people killed around Tlacotepec each year. Last year, a desperate Mayor Moreno was quoted by a Mexican newspaper as saying that there was a slaying almost every day in Tlacotepec and that law enforcement agencies refused to help. So the majority of the assailants had escaped punishment.

State police had abandoned Tlacotepec in September 1991 after four of their colleagues were killed in a gunfight. Mayor Moreno said residents hated the police because the officers constantly harassed residents and took their money or belongings.

"Finally, the people had enough, and they killed four officers," said Mayor Moreno. "Whenever we called the police after that, they refused to come."

Violence was rampant, he said, recalling a fight between families last year in which 12 people were killed.

That gunfight erupted between the families of two young lovers who had run away without permission from the girl's father. One of the gunmen, says Mayor Moreno, was a 10-year-old boy who picked up a pistol after he saw his mother and father shot to death.

"Murder for these people is a daily thing," said Noa Mondragon, a reporter who covers the area for El Sol de Chilpancingo in the state capital. "Problems here are solved by bullets."

Many of the people who live around Tlacotepec have no electricity, no schools, no health clinics and no method of communication with outside areas.

They are farmers who say they make their living growing beans and corn. But government officials say most also grow plots of marijuana and poppies.

With their money, said Mayor Moreno, the farmers buy high-powered weapons. The guns are usually sold by corrupt law enforcement officials and narcotics traffickers, who enlist the farmers to grow marijuana.

Last June, the military responded to Mayor Moreno's call for help and set up a post of 50 officers in Tlacotepec. Since then, the violence had subsided somewhat, said Mayor Moreno. People stopped openly carrying their weapons to the market on Sundays.

But the enmity was not erased. The Garcias remained angry with the Penas over a fight at a wedding last May in which a member of the Garcia family was shot in the foot and left partially paralyzed during a fight with a member of the Pena family.

On Feb. 6, those tensions flared again when three members of the Pena family were ambushed and shot to death as they walked home. The Penas blamed the killings on the Garcia family.

Last Tuesday, as a truckload of Pena men left the funeral for their three dead relatives, they were ambushed and shot. The dead men's widows, mothers and children were all in a house 300 meters away. The women said the assailants wore blue uniforms like those worn by police officials. But the women said they recognized the faces of the gunmen as members of the Garcia family.

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