El Limoncito, a mute witness to Mexico’s drug wars in the heart of Michoacan

A bullet-riddled sign welcomes visitors to a Michoacán town that found itself on the frontline of Mexico’s drug wars. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

By Tom Phillips

According to The Guardian, the Mexican army has reclaimed the village school that became a battlefield but few believe gangs’ bloody reign has ended.

Those who knew El Limoncito remember a welcoming and industrious community of lime farmers who poured their sweat into the soils of Mexico’s sun-baked backlands in search of a better life. Then the drug conflict exploded and everything changed.

The village’s primary school found itself on the frontline of a six-hour Monday morning gunfight that sparked a ferocious two-year struggle for control of the area.

As gunmen from two rival cartels – armed with .50-calibre sniper rifles and improvised tanks – fought pitched battles for El Limoncito’s dusty streets, locals fled, leaving behind everything they had. “It was all-out war,” remembered one former resident, who asked not to be named for fear of being killed.

El Limoncito’s deserted schoolhouse became a base for fighters from one of the warring factions – then a blood-spattered graveyard after their enemies stormed its classrooms in an attempt to retake the village. Family homes became makeshift forts used to spray invaders with gunfire. The pale yellow chapel was peppered with bullets and robbed of its flock.

“It’s appalling – we’re in the middle of a war we never asked for,” said Father Gilberto Vergara, a Catholic priest from Aguililla, the surrounding municipality in the western state of Michoacán.

Vergara said it was impossible to know how many were killed in the battle for El Limoncito since the gunmen carried their fallen comrades back into the hills. But the carnage left crystal clear the intensity of the conflict raging in Mexico’s hinterlands after decades of state abandonment and cartel control.

Sun-light pours through dozens of bullet holes in El Limoncito’s small Catholic church.

Sun-light pours through dozens of bullet holes in El Limoncito’s small Catholic church. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

“The bullets are real – and they kill,” the priest lamented. “The war between them is a war in every sense of the word – and this is a battlefield.

“The toll goes far beyond the bullets you see on the ground,” Vergara reflected. “You look around and see the abandoned crops. The people have gone. Areas, where people lived happily, have become regions of fear.”

El Limoncito, three and a half hours south-west of Morelia, has been turned into a ghost town by the two-year turf war between a coalition of crime groups called the Carteles Unidos and the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG) whose leader, El Mencho, was born nearby.

Every single one of the bungalows on the village’s rocky main drag is vacant, each empty room filled with reminders of heartache and horror. An abandoned game of Monopoly, a class photo from a school now in ruins, a copy of the Burt Reynolds family comedy Cop and a Half, a toothbrush, and moldy jalapeño pepper on a Styrofoam tray.

The derelict residence of a watermelon farmer – one of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans uprooted by violence in recent years – is guarded by a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But the Virgin’s face and hands appear to have been shattered by gunfire and the wooden door lies open. Inside, gangsters have scrawled their groups’ names onto a bookshelf in red ink and what looks like blood. Spent .50-calibre cartridges litter the undergrowth outside, the markings suggesting they came from an ammunition plant in Missouri.

An abandoned primary school in El Limoncito that found itself on the frontline of Mexico’s narco war in 2019.

An abandoned primary school in El Limoncito found itself on the frontline of Mexico’s narco war in 2019. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

El Limoncito’s chapel resembles a planetarium: its sanctuary dotted with constellation-like specks of light as the sun pours in through dozens of bullet holes in the walls and roof. In the creche, an intruder has scribbled a tribute to one of Mexico’s most wanted men. “100% behind The Lord of the Roosters,” it says, in reference to El Mencho’s nickname.

Dusty copies of Grimms’ Fairy Tales share school classrooms with bullet-pocked whiteboards and walls. Green and red smiley faces remember the children in the teacher’s good or bad books when class last sat. José, Juan, and Miguel had been naughty. Itzamara and Byron had been nice.

Mexican soldiers who had occupied the area the previous week urged reporters not to venture into the fields beyond the village’s last home, where a machete lay beneath orange and purple graffiti exalting the Jalisco cartel. Three days earlier an elderly farmer had died in the next village after stepping on an improvised landmine. The region’s untended groves were rumored to be strewn with such devices.

Six days after those troops arrived there was an edgy calm, as soldiers set up camp in the school.

Click here to read the complete original article by Tom Phillips on The Guardian

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