, TAMAZULA, Oct 19 – Bullet holes on roofs, charred cars and deserted villages were left in the wake of a failed military operation to catch fugitive drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in northwest Mexico.
Remote hamlets around the municipality of Tamazula, Durango state, are like ghost towns as hundreds of terrified residents fled to the nearest city, Cosala in neighboring Sinaloa state, following the intense marine manhunt more than a week ago.
But one place still has the attention of the marines. In El Limon, troops blocked access to a mysterious ranch, with spikes on the road to prevent cars from approaching.
According to displaced villagers, it was here that marines started to shoot at homes from helicopters in an operation that extended to other parts of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range — the bastion of Guzman’s Sinaloa drug cartel.
When AFP journalists approached the ranch, three marines stopped their vehicles, pointed rifles at them and loudly demanded who had sent them there.
A superior then videotaped the journalists and explained that he had instructions not to let anyone through.
The refusal to let anybody pass adds to the mystery of what exactly transpired in the operation to catch Guzman, whose brazen July 11 escape from a prison in central Mexico humiliated President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The government, in a brief statement Friday, said only that Guzman was injured in the leg and face while fleeing an operation in the northwest in recent days. Officials told AFP Guzman hurt himself in a fall and that the operation occurred in the Sinaloa-Durango region.
Authorities denied accusations by locals that the marines shot at the civilian population, with the navy saying Sunday that it has “strictly” respected human rights.
– Raining bullets –
But residents who fled the area tell a different story.
Ines Ayon Mendoza, 24, said she was making tortillas on the morning of October 6 when a burst of bullets hit her home in Comedero Colorado, near El Limon.
She ran to get her two-year-old daughter when two apparent marine helicopters struck her village even “harder.”
Her husband, Gonzalo Elias Pena, told prosecutors that their house had dozens of bullet holes and that her car had burned. AFP journalists did not see any bullet shells around the vehicle on Sunday.
Mendoza and her husband walked for four days along cliffs and through brush with their toddler.
Lacking food and water, they finally arrived in Cosala, where more than 600 others from Durango state have taken refuge, recounting similar stories.
“We were walking in the dark because where there was light, they would start shooting. It was firing from all sides,” Mendoza said as she and other displaced families waited for clothes and food handouts from authorities.
Her husband, Gonzalo, said: “The newspaper reported they were looking for him (Guzman), but he wasn’t there and they almost killed us.”
Marta Marbella, who lives in El Verano village, showed pictures she took with her cellphone of bullet marks that were left on her house on October 6.
The images show a dozen holes on the roof and more on the walls, door and outdoor bathroom, where Marbella said she had hidden with her baby. Her husband was working in the fields.
“I could see the helicopter stop and shoot directly at the house. I was scared, screamed and cried, although I knew it was useless,” the 32-year-old housewife said.
Francisca Quintero Sanchez, 40, rushed to hide under a bed with her three children when the “rain of bullets” came down for around one hour.
“It was a time of terror, fear that they would kill us,” the farmer said. “Their uniforms said ‘Marina’ (Navy). Some think we’re stupid because we are ranchers, but we know how to read and write.”
AFP journalists saw a house with at least five bullet holes on its tin roof while a nearby pick-up truck was struck about 20 times.
– Hidden evidence? –
Residents of El Verano said they spoke with marines, who told them they were looking for “a person accompanied by many people.”
The marines told them that they fired because they were under attack, but the residents deny that.
No casualties have been reported so far, but local legislator Lucero Sanchez Lopez said at least eight people are missing.
The Sinaloa Human Rights Defense Commission said it had no reports of missing people, but it voiced concerns over allegations that the authorities tried to remove evidence.