Organized crime groups turn Tila, Chiapas into a “Ghost Town”

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Thousands of residents deserted the small Mexican town of Tila, fleeing an intensive three-day siege by heavily armed men and leaving it a ghost town, and are still too afraid to return despite government troops now patrolling the empty streets.

“All night we listened to bullets go by,” said Maria, a resident of the southern Mexican town of Tila, some 140 miles (230 km) from the Chiapas state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez.

On the night of June 4 dozens of heavily armed men arrived in Tila in trucks and began shooting at houses, businesses, and setting buildings on fire, witnesses told Reuters.

A man who did not identify himself for safety reasons said armed men returned in the next day with high-caliber weapons and military outfits.

The violence in Tila lasted three days until June 7, when the army arrived. State authorities have since said some 5,000 troops have been deployed to the area and six suspects detained.

All of Tila’s inhabitants, some 4,000 people, fled their homes, some taking government busses to nearby shelters, where many remain today, sleeping on mats on the ground.

“We are not going back,” said a 60-year-old merchant, who identified himself as Saul. “Until we know that when we leave our houses, they are not going to kill us.”

A dozen residents who fled the area told Reuters that the attackers, many who covered their faces and some of whom appeared to be underage, looted stores, set cars on fire, and tried to break into houses.

Footage from after the attack shows a still-deserted town, streets littered with charred vehicles, shattered windows, and bullet holes.

Many Mexican communities have become ghost towns as people seek safety from gang violence by applying for asylum in the United States.

While the government maintains the violence in Tila resulted from a local land dispute, its residents say organized crime groups had long been extorting them and would punish those who did not pay up.

“For months, anyone who did not pay was killed,” said Maria, speaking from a shelter in Yajalon, some 20 miles (30 km) away.

“They threatened to recruit young people, to rape women, and that’s why we left.”

Residents reported growing violence over recent years, as well as an increase in drug trafficking and extortion.

Mexico’s President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum, who will take power in October, has pledged to fight extortion in the country, the site of expanding battlegrounds between criminal cartels trafficking drugs largely to U.S. markets.

While the U.S. government has pushed Mexico to clamp down harder on drug crime, Mexico has been pressuring the U.S. to do more to prevent firearms from crossing its southern border.

Once relatively untouched by gang violence, Chiapas is now the site of a turf war between the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and Sinaloa Cartel and people are increasingly fleeing the violence and extortion.

“They burned both of my houses,” another Tila resident said. “We are waiting for the authorities to take serious measures.”