San Quintin, BAJA CALIFORNIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In Baja California, Gabino Bautista yearns for his homeland thousands of miles south of the northern Mexican state, but the bullet wounds in his body remind him he can never go back.
Bautista is one of about 15,000 members of the Triqui indigenous tribe forced by drug-related violence to flee mountainous San Juan Copala in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca state for a fresh start, only to find life in northern Mexico is worse.
Fighting in Oaxaca left Bautista, 51, with punctured lungs from gunshots that cost his parents their lives and sent him north to Baja California, where fellow Triqui founded the settlement of ‘New Copala’ in 1989.
But sustaining a new homeland has proven difficult, particularly among the new generation, as the Triqui struggle to keep their culture alive and battle poverty daily.
Drugs cartels and criminal gangs run unchecked in New Copala, leaving Triqui youth with little sense of purpose or identity, hardly any education and no hope of decent employment.
Many Triqui simply want to go home. But first they want the government to restore stability to their ancient homeland where vigilante groups run drugs cartels.
“I would love to see my homeland the way it was when I was young, but while the situation continues there it’s better to accept it and stay alive,” said Bautista, standing outside the New Copala communal kitchen, where Triqui families were meeting to discuss how to defend their community.
Bautista said he has been robbed by members of his own Triqui community.
“The community’s younger generation has no fixed identity,” he said. “They have never seen their cultural homeland, nor are they accepted by the local people, so they turn to crime.”
As head of a New Copala committee determined to rid the streets of crime and delinquency, Bautista works from 5 a.m. for nine hours at local farms picking vegetables for the U.S. market, earning $6 daily, then spends his afternoons with his wife Martha Morales working on community improvement efforts.
WORLD‘S LARGEST TRIQUI COMMUNITY
The Triqui people have been fleeing their homeland in the southern Sierra Mixteca since the mid-1980s, when their struggle for autonomy led to a deadly guerilla war with government forces pitted against an array of vigilante groups.
The violence grew as drug gangs moved in to battle over territory and smuggling routes.
Today it is estimated only 5,000 Triqui remain in their native region, highlighting the plight of hundreds of indigenous tribes throughout southern Mexico battling for survival in the remote mountain homelands of their ancestors.
The Triqui who left fled as far as Alaska and New York, but many landed in Baja California, where the promise of regular farm work allowed some 700 families to settle permanently.
The peninsula is now home to the world’s largest Triqui community.
“We had no choice,” Juan Martinez, who arrived in New Copala in 1992, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he sat outside his family-owned store.
“It was either risk death by staying in Oaxaca or seek a new life with your own people elsewhere,” said Martinez, who wears a cowboy hat typical of his adopted home in the dusty flatlands of Baja, that he exchanged for the jungled hills of Oaxaca.
Assimilation in Baja California did not go smoothly. Few of the new arrivals spoke Spanish, and many existing residents were suspicious of their new neighbors.
“There was a huge amount of antipathy towards them at first because of their history of violence,” said a Christian missionary who did not want his name used. He has spent 23 years working with the Triqui community.
The Triqui in New Copala have tried to preserve tradition. Families converse in their indigenous, tonal language, and women wear the traditional huipil red poncho. Worn over the shoulders, the full-length Triqui huipil typically is adorned with designs that denote a woman’s social, work and marital status.
They celebrate ancient rites such as a festival day in June, when the Triqui prepare food and drink using traditional recipes and native ingredients.
CYCLE OF CRIME AND HOPELESSNESS
The Triqui govern themselves with a chieftain, who mediates disputes. He is elected each year by a meeting of elders.
Lucila Martinez, who left Oaxaca 15 years ago due to the violence, works with the Mexican government’s Indigenous Development program and puts on a weekly radio show celebrating Triqui music and culture.
“It’s up to us to ensure that our culture survives,” she said. “It’s unlikely that we will ever return to Oaxaca given the violence, so we must strive to pass our traditions on through community involvement.”
But Triqui young people born in Baja California are caught in a discouraging limbo, not fitting into their new land but having never seen the ancient land their elders hold so dear.
No road signs direct visitors toward New Copala, but it can be found by following signs to a municipal dump on the rough side of Vicente Guerrero, a town some 290 kms (180 miles) south of the U.S. border at Tijuana and San Ysidro.
The settlement’s dirt roads and graffiti-covered shacks provide a backdrop to unemployment, crime and hopelessness.
Without work other than in the fields and with no chance at higher education, the younger generation gets in trouble. Gangs of menacing young Triqui men walk the streets, drinking, taking illegal drugs and intimidating local residents.
The community lives in poverty. Day rates for picking strawberries and tomatoes on U.S.-owned farms are about $6 to $8 and the harvesting season runs only from February until June.
During a farm laborers’ strike in Baja California earlier this year, primarily by the Triqui community, New Copala’s police station was burned and destroyed by rioters.
No new police force has been established, leaving gang rule to take hold.
“You can’t walk the streets after dark,” said Jose Martel, whose business in front of the abandoned police station has suffered from an extortion racket run by Triqui gangsters.
“We desperately want the police back before the situation gets out of hand.”
The international Sinaloa drug cartel that is primarily based in Culiacan in northwestern Mexico moves 80 percent of all its U.S.-bound narcotics through Baja California, authorities say, and its influence is obvious in New Copala.
Gang insignia are scrawled on buildings and furtive lookouts stand on street corners, while drug addicts lie on the streets.
In such grim surroundings, many of the community’s older generation long to return to Oaxaca and have petitioned both the federal and state governments to address the violence that keeps them from their cultural homeland.
But little action has been taken to tackle the vigilante groups that dominate the Sierra Mixteca, the area between the states of Oaxaca and Puebla. The lack of a government presence has boosted the growth of drug cartels that encourage cultivation of opium poppies for heroin production.
A group of 50 displaced Triqui families has been occupying the Oaxaca state congress building since early October hoping to pressure the government into restoring them to their homeland.
“Our men have been murdered, our women raped and our houses burned,” said protest leader Braulio Hernandez. “We want to see our homeland restored and justice done.”