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Mexican towns, once frozen with fear, now frozen in time

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.

***

Don Polo showed so much intellectual promise as a boy that his family decided to send him to Mexico City for schooling. He became a petrochemical engineer, living in the cosmopolitan capital and traveling the world before moving back, two years ago, to Guerrero. He wanted to shift gears, he said, and live a slower, less stressful life.

So he reinvented himself as the owner-operator of a mango and coconut packing company. Today he seems comfortable in his role of tropical country squire, his raspy voice quick to issue a command, his ruddy face typically shielded by the floppy brim of a simple straw hat.

But he could not shield himself from the troubling stories coming out of the mountains. Members of his extended family and other refugees told him not only of cartel terrorism, but also of wanton crime by Mexican soldiers who were supposed to be keeping the peace. Some, they said, were stealing furniture and appliances from abandoned homes, or worse.

In early September, soldiers killed six young men in the still-populated town of El Tule. Government authorities said the young men had fired on the troops. Don Polo didn't believe it. One of the dead had been in a wheelchair.

On Sept. 10, Don Polo organized a protest on the coastal road, with banners blaming the army for unjustified executions. A month later, soldiers raided his packing plant, according to a complaint he filed with the state attorney general's office. The soldiers lined up his employees, said they were waiting on an order to kill them, and searched the place for marijuana bales. They came up empty-handed, Don Polo said.

On Nov. 7, more soldiers raided his home, overturning boxes of business papers in a hunt for evidence linking him to organized crime, according to a complaint he filed with the national human rights commission. Again, he said, they found nothing.

Don Polo says he has nothing to do with the drug gangs. He interprets the raids as a warning to keep out of the army's business.

The narcos, he said, have threatened him too, since he founded the area's first human rights group a few months ago. In San Luis, he showed the bullet holes in the group's modest offices. The place had been shot up one evening while it was empty.

He assumed, from the descriptions given by neighbors, that the shooters were cartel members.

"We think they were trying to scare us away from opening this place," he said.

***

Such is the fog of modern Mexico: A self-appointed human rights advocate is suspected, by the army, of being a drug dealer. The army, sent into the streets to protect the people, is accused of robbing them and of killing the innocent. The federal government pays the salaries both of the soldiers and of the federal police who must be sent in to protect against the soldiers' alleged threats.

Meanwhile, the Knights Templar cartel argues — between extortion attempts and violence — that it is protecting the common folk from a corrupt federal government.

Perhaps the sole unassailable fact is that most people who once lived in the pueblos are gone

Farther along the road, in the town of El Cuaulotal, Don Polo stopped in front of an empty orange house adorned with a hand-painted mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Inside, he pointed to a shrine that someone had left behind on a living room wall. It memorialized his nephew Luis Soberanis and the nephew's brother-in-law, Federico Fernandez. Their names were painted on a pair of wooden crosses.

They were also killed here, Don Polo said.

Today, at least, El Cuaulotal was not totally abandoned. Two men were standing in a yard, with a burro and a rifle: Gumersindo Soberanis, 68, a campesino married to Don Polo's cousin, and his friend Cosme Acosta, a weather-beaten 73-year-old rancher in a cowboy hat.

Acosta said his house was up the road, but he didn't live there anymore. He was just here to check on his land, he said. But he couldn't stay long.

He pulled a small pistol from a pouch. It wasn't safe here anymore, he said. The army treated him like he was in with the cartel. The men from the cartel had come a few months earlier, and set his house on fire.

Why?

"We don't know," he said.

The convoy motored farther into the mountains to El Banco, where it came across Acosta's charred home, high grass outside and blackened bed frames within. Don Polo pointed out the details as if he was a dejected real estate agent: Spacious kitchen. Stunning countryside view. Light fixtures like one might find in a U.S. suburb.

"This place was almost a paradise," he said. "People had their cattle. They weren't rich, but they lived well."

In a town called Ojo de Agua, Don Polo's uncle Hernandez showed the ruins of a ranch house and told how two men he knew had been hanged from its exposed rafters.

Nearby, in La Cienega, there was a closed-up church, and little red tomatoes on the ends of unruly vines, and another burned-out house on a hill. The men were pretty sure it had belonged to the sheriff, now long gone.

They traipsed through an empty home containing unpacked luggage, laid open on unmade beds, and a home with drinking glasses lined up neatly in a cupboard, as if someone would be returning that night. Did you get a picture of that? Don Polo asked.

There was one more charred house that Don Polo was eager to show. But one of the bodyguards rushed over, a pistol in his right hand.

"Engineer," he said, sounding worried. "There's a little truck up there." He thought maybe they were being watched. "We need to hurry up."

In the yard of the smoke-scarred house was a guanabana tree, and a sweet lime tree fat with fruit. Nearby, blazing ripe oranges had fallen in piles in the grass and dirt.

Don Polo stooped, gathering what he could.

After all, who else would?

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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