TIERRAS COLORADAS, Mexico (Reuters) - Just after Christmas, drug hitmen rolled into the isolated village of Tierras Coloradas and burned it down, leaving more than 150 people, mostly children, homeless in the raw mountain winter.
The residents, Tepehuan Indians who speak Spanish as a second language and have no electricity or running water, had already fled into the woods, sleeping under trees or hiding in caves after a raid by a feared drug gang on December 26.
Using murder and intimidation, rival cartels are fighting for control of this drug-growing area. A group of armed men came searching for a man rumored to be cultivating marijuana.
He died trying to defend himself, but not before killing a suspected drug trafficking leader, and residents were sure the gang would return for revenge.
“We saw they killed one person and we thought, ‘Now they are going to kill everyone.’ So we ran,” said Jose, a village leader, standing in front of the charred remains of the one-room pre-school, with mangled desk chairs strewn outside.
On December 28, two days after the initial raid, a column of 50 to 60 men, some in military-type uniforms and ski masks, filed on foot down a steep mountain road and torched three dozen homes -- about half the village -- as well as two schools, 17 trucks, the radio receiver and the community store.
The attack on Tierras Coloradas is one of the most dramatic examples yet of a still largely hidden phenomenon of Mexico’s drugs war: people forced from their homes by the violence.
“The situation is out of control,” Durango state prosecutor Ramiro Ortiz said in an interview at his office last week. “Organized crime has no limits any more. They don’t respect women or children. It’s a situation of total brutality.”
President Felipe Calderon’s four-year-old army-led campaign against the cartels has shaken up the balance of power in Mexico’s criminal underworld and sparked a wave of turf wars, sometimes trapping civilians in their midst.
Tierras Coloradas lies in the heart of a marijuana and opium poppy growing region known as Mexico’s “Golden Triangle,” and is more than 11 hours by car on poor roads and dirt tracks from Durango’s state capital,
The rule of law is evaporating in the region as drug gangs extend their power. Jose said he tried to call the municipal police on the village’s only radio the day before it was reduced to ashes but he was told there were ‘dangerous people’ on the road who wouldn’t let police through.
“We were waiting and waiting but they never came,” said 24-year-old Maria Guadalupe, wearing the traditional Tepehuan dress of brightly colored satin blouse and skirt lined with ruffles, paired with fuzzy fluorescent socks.
Walking with difficulty because of a limp, she fled with her mother, seven brothers and sisters and a four-month old niece. The villagers hid in the mountains for nearly a week before soldiers arrived to secure what was left of the town.
In the northern states of Durango, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, cartels fighting for control of lucrative smuggling routes to the United States have threatened entire towns with ultimatums to flee or be killed.
No official numbers exist, but the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, or IDMC, estimates 115,000 people have been displaced by Mexico’s drug violence.
Another 115,000 or more have fled and slipped into the United States, IDMC says. Some leave and then move back, creating a floating population that is hard to track.
“The focus of the government is obviously on beating the cartels ... Beyond keeping a tally of people who have been killed, they are not tracking the impact of this violence on the civilian population,” IDMC’s Mexico program director Sebastian Albuja said.
Compared to Colombia, where some 3.4 million people have been displaced by a decades-long conflict involving cocaine-smuggling guerrilla, paramilitary and other armed groups, Mexico’s problem is still small.
But as violence grows, with more than 34,000 drug killings in the past four years, Calderon is coming under increasing pressure to help states burdened by drug war refugees.
Durango’s state government needs millions of dollars to rebuild homes and schools in Tierras Coloradas and to resettle some 1,400 people who fled towns in the nearby municipality of Pueblo Nuevo because of threats from drug traffickers.
“People have left not because they want to, but because they are forced to by the situation,” state governor Jorge Herrera said when he helicoptered into Tierras Coloradas to hand out stoves, rice, beans, oil, sacks of cement and bricks.
Durango is not the only state with drug war ghost towns. Last November, some 300 residents of Ciudad Mier -- once dubbed one of Mexico’s “magical pueblos” for its rich history -- fled after gunmen told people to clear out.
The surrounding region in Tamaulipas state, near the Texas border, has been plagued by spiraling violence as the Zetas gang, a group of military deserters, tries to grab key towns from its arch-rival, the Gulf cartel.
There are similar scenes of burned-out homes and shuttered businesses around Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent city.
Last year, thugs told residents of Praxedis G. Guerrero, an hour outside of Juarez, they had until Easter Sunday to leave town. About 50 houses were burned and one-third of the population left for good. Those who stayed live in fear.
“People don’t go out. There are no dances, no parties because of the threats they’ll be machine-gunned,” said a 40-year-old farm worker in Praxedis’ silent central plaza.
Officials blame much of the violence around Ciudad Juarez on Mexico’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, muscling in on territory controlled by the Juarez Cartel.
Around Tierras Coloradas, Guzman’s group is trying to halt an incursion by the Zetas. Some impoverished towns in Durango’s remote canyons are thought to be involved in planting illegal crops and are now caught up in battles between rival groups.
Until there is development and job opportunities in the poorest, indigenous parts of Mexico, many towns like Tierras Coloradas will continue to live under threat, said a local congressman who represented the region before he was severely wounded in a cartel ambush that killed a local mayor.
“There is still fear about what will happen when the security forces leave,” said the politician, who now uses a walker and speaks with a slur. “No one knows if the people who did this will come back.”
Additional reporting by Julian Cardona in Ciudad Juarez and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Kieran Murray