Cobwebs are taking over a pair of shoes left on a porch. (Richard Fausset / Los Angeles…)
OUTSIDE SAN LUIS DE LA LOMA, Mexico — Don Polo's heavily armed convoy wound its way through the hills above the lush coastal plain of Guerrero state, its groves of slender palm trees now far below him.
The two-lane country road twisted eastward, and upward, for miles. But around each bend, there were no campesinos, no burros, no dogs, no cars barreling down toward the Pacific. Fields of yellow grass, grown taller than a man, covered the landscape, animated only by the wind.
This, though, was no vision of tranquillity. This was the road to the pueblos fantasmas, the ghost pueblos.
PHOTOS: Ghost pueblos of Mexico
"There used to be hundreds of heads of cattle here," Don Polo said. "But now there are no cattle to eat the grass, because the farmers can't live here anymore.
"All of this is due to organized crime."
Leopoldo "Polo" Soberanis, a 54-year-old fruit-packing impresario whom most here respectfully address as Don Polo, said he wanted the world to see what had happened in this swath of Guerrero state set between the famous beach resorts of Acapulco and Ixtapa.
Thanks to a retinue of police bodyguards provided by the Mexican government, which has declared him to be in "imminent danger," Don Polo was able to give a rare tour of the no-man's-land created by the drug war here.
It consists of more than 20 pueblos, Don Polo said, which have steadily been emptied of residents. Those who have fled tell of mistreatment by the Mexican army and of persistent threats and violence carried out by a small group of armed men, perhaps no more than 100, who claim to be members of the Knights Templar drug cartel.
The people say that masked men come down from the mountains where clandestine fields of poppies grow. Wearing paramilitary uniforms and carrying AK-47s, they demand loyalty, as well as a "tax" for the privilege of staying in one's home or running a business.
Sometimes they force residents to leave without giving them time to gather their belongings. Sometimes they burn down the houses of those who decline. Sometimes they simply kill.
A few miles up the road, the convoy of pickup trucks rolled to a stop at La Palapa, once a settlement of about 60 people, now a clutch of abandoned homes hugging the road. A quartet of burly bodyguards jumped out ahead of Don Polo, assault rifles drawn. But there was no one to aim them at.
Come and get a picture of this, Don Polo said, pointing to a green house that had belonged to his cousin. He walked past the chained door of the community store and through the open one to La Palapa's single-room school, where no one had bothered to pack up the textbooks. He sifted through heaps of them strewn on the floor. Come and take a picture, he said.
The next town, El Huamilito, was bigger, and just as empty. Don Polo stopped at an attractive lime-colored ranch house. He pointed to an iron gate with painted flowers. It was pocked with bullet holes.
"Cuerno de chivo" — "goat's horn" — he said, using the Mexican nickname for an AK-47.
Farther on, he pointed to a dusty corral. This, he said, was where they had killed his nephew, a cattleman named Jose Luis Garcia.
They came for him on the morning of July 14, 2011, while he was milking cows. He ran up the hill, Don Polo said, but they caught him, and they slit his throat.
In recent weeks, residents of other towns in Guerrero have generated headlines by forming vigilante groups in an effort to protect their communities. But in this long, sad and bloody chapter of Mexican history, it has been more common, and perhaps more sensible, to flee.
More than 1.6 million Mexicans left their homes because of drug violence from 2006 to 2011, according to the Mexico City polling firm Parametria. They might be considered lucky, if only because they are not among the 70,000 Mexicans slain in the drug war.
But the reward for survival is often financial hardship and heartbreak. Don Polo estimated that 1,500 people had fled to his hometown, San Luis de la Loma, while others had settled in a slightly larger city farther down the coast. Neither city has the jobs or the social services to support them.
"These people have lived in the countryside forever," Don Polo said. "They've lost their way of living."
Don Polo's uncle Serafin Hernandez Garcia, 63, was among them. He had come along for the tour of the ghost pueblos and he wore the evidence of the living he had lost on his feet. His dusty white cowboy boots were holdovers from his days as a cattleman, on his 500-acre ranch near the town of Los Toritos. Now, he said, he was in the city, working on a road crew, just scraping by.
He said the masked men had come to Los Toritos about two years ago and called a town meeting.
"They said, 'Help us, or we will kill you,'" Hernandez recalled. He didn't like either option. So he left.