First the Bad News: The Ajoya Massacre

Overlooking the Rio Verde in the foothills of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the village of Ajoya has for the last 37 years been the nucleus of the innovative community-based health and rehabilitation initiatives, Project Piaxtla and PROJIMO. These programs gave birth to the handbooks, Where There Is No Doctor, Helping Health Workers Learn, Disabled Village Children, and Nothing About Us Without Us. But tragically, the village is becoming a ghost town.

Like many of the villages of the Sierra Madre Occidental, for the last several years Ajoya has suffered a drastic increase in crime and violence, including drug trafficking, robberies, kidnappings, and killings. And like many other of these remote mountain villages, many families have been moving out, for what they hope are safer environments in the cities or along the coast.

Three years ago, after a wave of kidnappings and hold-ups, the main part of the PROJIMO Rehabilitation Program decided to move their base to the larger, safer village of Coyotitan, on the main north-south highway. In some ways this appears to have been a wise move. The new Rehabilitation Center in Coyotitan has grown and is much more accessible for a wide range of disabled people and families in the coastal villages.

However, part of the PROJIMO team, including myself, decided to stay in Ajoya and try to weather the bad times. We were reluctant to abandon the village in its most difficult time. So those of us who remained started the Ajoya-based “PROJIMO Skills Training and Work Program.” This program was set up to provide training and work opportunities not only to disabled persons, but also to unemployed youths who, for lack of opportunities, tend to get involved in drugs, gangs, and trouble. For a number of years the PROJIMO Work Program has struggled through ups and downs in its attempt to achieve self-sufficiency. Its most outstanding success has been the Children’s Wheelchair Program, in which disabled craftspersons and village youth collaborate to design and construct personalized wheelchairs for disabled kids with special needs.

Following the opening of the Skills Training and Work Program in Ajoya, for a couple of years the hold-ups and kidnappings quieted down. The village seemed to be pulling together and was exploring new opportunities for income generation. We liked to think that the Work Program had improved the situation. But the peace didn’t last. In fall of 2001, the violence resumed. During October and November eleven men lost their lives. Some were gunned down as they harvested their crops or tended their cattle outside of town. Others were kidnapped, two on the main street of town in broad daylight, and were never seen again.

But now the dynamics of the violence are different. That of previous years mostly had been committed by small groups of jobless, disillusioned youths, some of who had got hooked on drugs. The motive for kidnapping had been “redistribution of wealth” and those abducted were mostly sons of the rich. There was a sort of Robin Hood aura to the whole scene.

But the new wave of kidnapping and murder, sometimes including torture, though still involving some of the same, disillusioned young people, has links to organized crime. It involved a turf war between two rival gangs, each with links to powerful drug cartels in the state of Sinaloa. This had deteriorated into an escalating spiral of terrorism and vengeance. Ajoya was a hot-spot because, as a remote village deep into the foothills of the Sierra Madre, it had become a point of exchange between the hundreds of

small drug growers farther back in the mountains, and traffickers making their way north up the coast with cocaine from South America. By hooking the mountain youths on cocaine and then swapping cocaine for locally grown crude opium, the traffickers could increase their earnings by ten times when they sold their drugs in the US.

At first the gang-related killings and kidnappings had targeted specific individuals with links to the rival gangs, or at worst they targeted their family members or compadres. Nevertheless, the entire village was terrified. At sunset everyone locked themselves in their homes. The dusty streets and village square, which in the good old days had been alive with music, frolicking children, and gossiping old folks late into the night, were now empty and hauntingly still. And people began to leave. Each time another person was kidnapped or killed, his whole extended family—terrified about who might be next—moved away to a distant town or city along the coast. As result of this exodus, by the turn of the year, the population of Ajoya had dropped from over 1000 to 500.

In a belated response to the lawlessness in Ajoya, toward the end of 2001 the state government stationed a rotating squadron of 12 “Prevention Police” in the village. Their presence gradually gave the remaining villagers a false sense of security. With a dozen heavily armed policeman guarding the village, who would dare to attack?

And sure enough, except for the occasional hold-up on the road into town, the first months of 2002 passed without major incidents of violence. Little by little the population of Ajoya began to relax. Life seemed to be returning to normal.

And then came the massacre. It happened on the night of May 10th, which in Mexico is Mother’s Day, one of the most holy and celebrated days of the year. Although for 3 or 4 years all major dances and nighttime festivities had been suspended in the village because of fear, the village decided to hold a big Mother’s Day Fiesta. So to celebrate Mother’s Day over half the village turned out for the dance on the main street. The 12 armed state Prevention Police stood vigil.

A little before midnight, when the street dance was in full swing, a group of what people assumed was another squadron of police arrived: 20 or so men dressed in gray uniforms, each equipped with a radio transmitter and armed with an M-16 machine gun. No one was worried. “More police mean more protection,” the people naively thought.

Suddenly the men in gray opened fire on the unsuspecting Prevention Police who were standing guard. A raging gun battle ensued. Terrified, the crowd ran for safety. Frantically they pushed and shoved into the houses as the bullets flew. But as the people fled, the gunmen in gray fired at them, at random. Bullets struck people in their backs as they tried to push their way into the houses or ran down the alleys. It lasted about 10 minutes. Then the gunmen retreated down the alleyways, crossed the river and headed for the hills. Behind them they left the bodies of innocent people sprawled in the street and in the doorways of houses.

Twelve persons were killed and eight injured. These included 2 policemen dead and five wounded, two seriously. The youngest villager killed was a 7-year old boy, the oldest a 60-year-old woman. Two of the dead were brothers of Sergio, a local youth who has been running the PROJIMO Work Program’s carpentry shop.

One boy’s death hit me especially hard, a 16-year-old who I had helped pull through a life threatening illness when he was eight. Often Jorge—or Tote, as his friends called him—had helped me to chase marauding pigs out of my garden and to water the wild orchid with which I had festooned the boughs of the giant fig tree that shades my house.

What made this massacre more terrifying than the previous violence in the village was that this time the killers were so heartlessly indiscriminate. They vented their anger and wrought revenge not on specific adversaries

or their family members, but randomly, on the village as a whole. Now no one feels safe.

Roots of the Massacre

I am still trying to understand the “chain of causes” behind this brutal massacre. There is little doubt that pride, rivalry, revenge, and machismo were a driving force. And so was deepening poverty and the voiceless desperation of the destitute. On a smaller scale—yet no less tragic for those whose lives were immediately affected—the tragic happening

in Ajoya seems to echo the outbursts of unconscionable violence and terrorism that are increasingly plaguing the world.

In this newsletter I will not try to detail the complex forces, alliances and antagonisms that precipitated the Ajoya massacre. Frankly, I don’t quite dare to, since I am not yet willing to forsake my home in Ajoya. That the horrific event involved rival drug gangs is certain, but there is much more behind it than drug wars. The massacre was a time bomb at the end of a long wick of desperate actions and reactions, which included the recent history of kidnappings, hold-ups and killings. It involved a gang of local vigilantes that formed for self protection and revenge due to the failure of law enforcement at all levels. Most of these crimes and kidnappings were initiated not by large organized gangs or drug cartels (those links came later) but by desperate, impoverished youth. Many were adolescents and young men who had lost hope and direction, got hooked on drugs, and needed quick cash, a common story today around the world.

The roots of the Ajoya massacre and the wave of assaults and kidnappings that preceded it are far reaching. They tap into the long history of inequity, oppression of the peasantry and working class by the ruling oligarchy, and institutionalized corruption. They are also tied to the trends of the international market, and to the global economic forces that place the interests of the wealthy before the basic needs of the people and the planet.

The wave of kidnappings in Ajoya is not an isolated event. Throughout Mexico, the incidence of assaults, kidnappings, and murder have escalated in the last several years. In the large cities the problem is worse than in the countryside. Mexico City has cases of kidnappings nearly every day. And according to a recent article in the New York Times (June 7, 2002) the police are often themselves involved in the kidnappings. The promises of the new President, Vicente Fox, to clean up crime and corruption have proved as empty as his promises to combat poverty.

The state of Sinaloa, where Ajoya is located, has been infamous for drug trafficking, crime, and corruption. The Sinaloan government has become so concerned about the epidemic of kidnappings that it has launched a strong-armed police campaign to control it. On the highways huge billboards declare Sinaloa’s pride in its new “ANTISECUESTRADOS” (Counter-kidnapping) program. The signs depict a plump business man in suit and tie standing beside his tender son, with a line-up of heavily armed storm troopers in bullet-proof vests standing vigilantly in the background.

But might doesn’t make right. It will take more than a build-up of policemen and soldiers to combat kidnapping and terror. Indeed, the militaristic approach to resolving social unrest is a part of the problem. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

From NAFTA to Kidnapping

Many analysts tie the growing subculture of violence in Mexico to NAFTA: the North American Free Trade Agreement. I have written about this in previous newsletters, and in our book, “Questioning the Solution: The Politics of Primary Health Care and Child Survival.” In brief, NAFTA has to a large extent benefited big business and foreign investors at the expense of the poor. This is in part because, as a condition for Mexico’s entry into NAFTA, the Mexican government was required to change its constitution and annul its agrarian reform laws. When the legislation that safeguarded the holdings of small farmers was rolled back, millions of hectares of the best farmland concentrated again into giant plantations, much of it now owned or controlled by giant US agribusiness. Also, NAFTA’s lifting of tariffs on export to Mexico of US-subsidized grain and cattle has driven countless small farmers and herders in Mexico into bank


As a consequence of all this, since the beginning of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico has seen a massive exodus of over 2 million small farmers to the mushrooming slums of the cities. In turn, in the cities, the huge influx of destitute job-hunters pushed real wages of day laborers down by 40%. This was followed by the crash of the peso in 1995, triggered by the sudden pull-out by foreign speculative investors, causing the closure of half of Mexico’s small businesses, with subsequent massive unemployment. To make things worse, austerity measures and “structural adjustments” imposed to correct the crisis resulted in cut-backs in public assistance, and sales taxes were increased, resulting in still further hardships for the poor. The result was a pandemic of street children, drug trafficking, petty crime, and then kidnappings and assaults, precipitating a backlash of police brutality, corruption, and unsolved human rights violations.

This desperate situation in Mexico led in 2000 to the fall of the powerful PRI (Institutionalized Revolution Party), a corrupt oligarchy that had wielded heavy-handed, single-party control of the nation for nearly 70 years. But the new PAN coalition party under Vicente Fox, though it promised to fight corruption and reduce crime, has not been effective at either. In terms of crime and kidnappings, the situation has worsened.

The physical violence in Mexico is the fruit of structural violence: namely the entrenched socioeconomic situation that allows the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. Since the onset of NAFTA, both the numbers of people living in poverty and the percentage of malnourished children have increased. While millions of destitute people struggle to find jobs and feed their children, Mexico today has more billionaires per capita than any other nation! Although the aptlynamed President Fox talks with a smooth

tongue about lifting the poor out of poverty, this former chief of Coca Cola Mexico is in essence a Harvard-trained corporate executive and a great pal of George Bush. The fact that Fox kicked Fidel Castro out of the recent Monterrey Economic Summit as favor to Bush reveals his stars and stripes.

Despite Fox’s beguiling pro-poor rhetoric, his social policies are regressive. He has pushed for raising the sales tax and extending it to include basic foods and medicines. And he has proposed a “user fee” for rural health centers that have historically been free. Introduction of this kind of cost-recovery “health reform package,” formerly only imposed by the World Bank, has caused worsened heath in a number of poor countries. This is documented in Questioning the Solution, by Werner and Sanders.

If Mexico wants to reduce the epidemic of crime, kidnappings and violence now wracking the country, it will not do so through investing in more police and military force. Rather, it will do so by working toward a socioeconomic balance which helps reduce poverty and despair by providing fair wages and fair distribution of land. It will do so by increasing the accessibility of health care and other services in a way that effectively reaches the most vulnerable. And it will do so by encouraging a participatory democratic process where the poor and disadvantaged gain an effective voice in the decisions that determine their lives and their deaths. This in turn will require an educational system that encourages critical analysis rather than blind obedience, and deals more honestly with history.

But for the people of Mexico and of the poorer and weaker nations of the world to bring about such democratic transformation within today’s top-heavy, market-driven world, the concerned and forward-looking people of the planet must mobilize a groundswell of awareness for change.

This is the goal of such groups as the International People’s Health Council, the People’s Health Movement, Health Counts, MedAct, and the International Forum on Globalization and other coalitions with which HealthWrights has links. We encourage all of you who want to work toward a fairer, more peaceful world, or who want to see an end to the rising incidence of violence, kidnappings, terrorism, and authoritarian

reactionism, to study the root causes of these symptoms of social injustice. And we encourage you to join the groundswell of concerned, humanitarian action to correct them.

The answers to violence and terrorism lie not in retaliation and punishment but in understanding and equity. Not in more soldiers but in more teachers. Not in hate but in love.