Lizeth Abundis and her sister Martha were flipping through a tabloid newspaper on Saturday morning when they came upon a photograph that they immediately believed depicted their missing brother.
The photo, however, was not promising.
It showed the torn bodies of three people, wrapped-up in blue and purple blankets, that had been found in Chilapa, a small mountain city now at the center of the latest mass disappearance to shock Mexico.
The sisters noticed one of the dismembered body parts had a tattoo similar to one worn by their 30-year-old brother Gilberto. The sisters were devastated — and furious. They haven't received any confirmation of what happened to their loved one.
* Warning: Image below is graphic.
This photograph appeared in a local tabloid newspaper in Chilapa. (Photo via VICE News)
"My dad is a retired teacher, and my mother is a housewife. We are a low-income family. I don't understand why they would do that to my brother. He didn't even live here," Martha told VICE News.
Gilberto was in college in neighboring Michoacan state, studying visual arts. He had been in Chilapa for only a week, visiting his parents and documenting the work of local artisans. On May 9, Gilberto was watering the garden outside his parents' house when men rolled by in pick-up trucks and carried him off.
Gilberto Abundis is one of 14 people confirmed to have disappeared in Chilapa, Guerrero state, after an armed group describing itself as a "community police" force arrived and occupied the town between May 9 and May 14. The mayor estimated that as many as 30 people were kidnapped by the group that took Chilapa, but some victims' families are not filing claims out of fear.
The three bodies seen in the newspaper were found last Thursday morning at Nepaja, one of the 140 mostly indigenous villages contained within the Chilapa municipality.
Guerrero, and Chilapa in particular, produce poppy and in lesser amounts marijuana meant for export in Mexico's huge drug trade. The municipality is also disputed between two drug gangs with roots in the sierras of Guerrero that are deep and often blurry: Los Rojos and Los Ardillos.
The situation in Chilapa reflects the persistent problems with Mexico's US-backed war against powerful drug cartels: Armed, organized, criminal groups with firm local bases of power and influence exert control over a specific territory, and fight back against incursions, or submit to an invading outside cartel.
In the middle, civilians are stuck, suffering the consequences.
"We don't know what to tell our parents," Martha told VICE News. "My brother was killed like a dog, worse than that. And the governor is siding with the criminals!"
Alleged members of Los Ardillos — or a community police force — guard Chilapa while Mexican military units arrive to negotiate their release of the town. (Photo de Arturo de Dios Palma/VICE News)
Guerrero's governor Rogelio Ortega — who assumed the office after the resignation of the previous governor, accused of mishandling the case of the missing 43 students — has injected himself into the case of the Chilapa disappearances.
Last Wednesday, the governor met with the "community police" leaders who briefly occupied the town, to hear their demands that the government capture the alleged local leader of Los Rojos. He also met with relatives of the disappeared on Sunday.
The Abundis sisters and relatives of the other missing people said those armed people who met with the governor last week are sympathizers or members of Los Ardillos, an organization that has worked in the Chilapa area for more than three decades.
Los Ardillos are said to control the poppy and marijuana plantations in the small settlements surrounding Chilapa. But in recent years, Los Rojos have attempted to muscle their way into the trade here, and have established a presence in the city of Chilapa proper — surrounded by their enemies Los Ardillos on all sides.
According to testimonies gathered by VICE News, on the morning of May 9, dozens of men and women with their faces covered entered Chilapa and broke into the headquarters of the municipal police station. Inside, they disarmed the 80 policemen that guard the city, taking their weapons, and established checkpoints at the entrances to Chilapa.
They were intent on "cleaning out" the presence of Los Rojos. That's when the kidnappings in Chilapa started.
Taken on Mother's Day
On May 10, the Carreto brothers — Miguel, Juan, Victor, and Bernardo Carreto, all of them construction workers — left their home in the tiny community of Ahuihuiyuco to head to Chilapa to sell a calf.
It was Mother's Day, so they also wanted to get their mother a present. The brothers did not know that Chilapa had been besieged a day before by outsiders.
On their way into Chilapa, they drove past a place called 'The Bottle.' That's where a group of armed civilians intercepted their truck.
Bernardo, who was driving alone in another vehicle, was allowed to pass. But the rest of his brothers and the calf "were taken to the back of the truck, where they were beat up, and then were taken away," he told VICE News. Bernardo hasn't seen his brothers since.
Local authorities told VICE News that Chilapa works as a stock and distribution center for marijuana and mostly poppy. The farmers that are under the control of the criminal organizations work the land in some of the neighboring indigenous villages, such as Ahuacalzingo, Hueycantenango, Ahuihuiyuco, Atlixtac, and Ayahualco.
They take their crops to the municipality's center, Chilapa, and the distribution begins.
The wife of Miguel Carreto, one of the people who disappeared in Chilapa on May 10, holds a photo of her husband. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo/VICE News)
Chilapa's mayor Francisco Javier Garcia told VICE News in an interview that since the arrival of Los Rojos about two years ago, clashes have repeatedly resulted with Los Ardillos. Such confrontations have left at least 101 people disappeared, a figure that could be twice as high, the mayor said.
The disappearances in Chilapa have once again sparked criticism against the government and questions about whether the state is capable of responding to mass kidnappings.
The trouble is 'not even knowing who rules here.'
Chilapa is located just 23 miles away from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, where 43 students were disappeared last year after coming under attack from police officers linked to yet another drug gang in the splintered narco geography of Guerrero: the Guerreros Unidos.
The trouble is "not even knowing who rules here … whether the narcos, the corrupt politicians, or both of them are controlling things," said Geremias Rodriguez, a 43-year-old Chilapa shoe seller who had to close his business due to the mounting violence.
Officials also are being questioned for apparently doing nothing while the occupation of Chilapa took place. Mexico's gendarmerie police force and Mexican military units had arrived on May 10 to try to negotiate the armed civilians' release of Chilapa — meaning federal forces were there while the kidnappings were happening.
"Somehow, and despite everything they had done, [the armed group] managed to negotiate with the federal police and took off, but they threatened to come back," said mayor Garcia in an interview.
"The state allowed them to do so," Garcia added.
Mexico's federal attorney general and the Guerrero state human rights commission opened investigations into the Chilapa disappearances.
The relatives of the missing people discredited the governor's meeting with the group that took Chilapa. Ortega's office said the meeting was with group of "commissaries that had taken the Chilapa municipality in previous days."
One of the members of that group, Jose Apolonio Villanueva, commissary for the town of Xiloxuchican, asked the governor that the state detain Zenen Nava, alias El Chaparro, the alleged leader in Chilapa of Los Rojos, reports said.
As of Tuesday, the 14 people confirmed to be missing in Chilapa have not appeared. The armed people who briefly occupied Chilapa have returned to their communities in the hillsides surrounding the city. Nava, the Los Rojos leader, remains at large.
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @melissadps.