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Mexico convoy threads its way through strange drug war in Sonora state

A heavily armed convoy heads off to deliver pensions to people caught behind the siege line as one drug cartel tries to starve out another in a sinister battle for trafficking routes into Arizona.

October 16, 2010|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

They planned it so they'd arrive there early, wouldn't be caught after dark in the region considered the hardest-hit by the siege. The day before, people answering phones at the town hall didn't know the whereabouts of Mayor Fidel Lizarraga Celaya, and couldn't say when, or if, their 10 police officers would return.

Dozens of children, women and senior citizens were waiting for the convoy at the town hall. Many of the elderly pushed walkers across dusty streets. Some leaned on their weathered canes or sat in scratched-up wheelchairs. Conspicuously absent were young men. Residents said most had either fled, been killed or joined the cartels.

The federal official toting the black bag strode into the town hall, past the town's lone police car, a battered Nissan with a flat tire whose only apparent purpose was to provide shade for a sleeping, flea-infested dog. As officials began distributing the money — for the first time in four months —citizens gathered outside.

Several elderly women, speaking in hushed tones, said their town was controlled by gunmen who emerge at night and patrol the town in convoys of 20 to 30 vehicles. The gang members, hiding behind masks and tinted windows, stop for any "suspicious activity," such as using a cellphone or carrying food, questioning and in some cases kidnapping residents, they said.

Mail carriers, produce and soda distributors, even ambulances, have stopped going to the town, they said. They pointed to several abandoned homes. A middle-aged grocer looked at the dwindling stock on her shelves, saying two months had passed since her last deliveries. There was no meat or soda, or flour to make tortillas.

The only food supplies were brought in by older, longtime residents who shopped in Altar and were allowed through the cartel checkpoints, apparently trusted by gunmen to not pass along the food to rivals.

The meager supply was distributed among a close-knit circle of older, relatively well-off residents, said one woman. A few pesos could buy some food, toilet paper and medicine, but not much.

"I don't know what the poor people are doing for food," she said.

Seeing the federal police posted around the perimeter of the town hall emboldened the despairing Saric grandmother. She barged into the one-room police station and demanded that the authorities investigate the kidnappings of her sons.

A top police official, speaking privately later, made it clear that no investigation was likely. "I don't arrest any of them. That's how I stay alive."

Back in the town hall, the crowd parted for the arrival of the town's oldest resident. Manuel Aureliano, 100, was wheeled into a cramped office, where he presented his I.D. and was given a stack of 500-peso notes, for a total of about $450.

The great-great-grandfather clutched one 500-peso bill in his hand, kissed it and raised it over his head. Born during the Mexican Revolution, the deaf man celebrated the arrival of the government force like another national triumph, instead of a rare, small victory against the cartels.

"Gracias a Dios!" he yelled. "Viva Mexico!"

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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