The day I decided to go to Nueva Italia, four bodies had turned up dead in and around the agricultural town in Michoacán on different days in the previous week.
I could not avoid going to Nueva Italia. This past summer I was investigating the disappearances and murders of journalists in Michoacán. Murders, disappearances, threats and aggressions against journalists in some parts of Mexico often attract the media’s attention—like Veracruz, one of the most dangerous places in Latin America to be a journalist— but in Michoacán there exists a deafening silence about its freedom of expression crisis. Precise numbers of previous cases are hard to come by. But the most recent disappearance of a journalist in Michoacán, Salvador Adame, the director of a local television channel, occurred on May 18.
Murder and violence are nothing new in this agricultural stronghold in Mexico’s Tierra Caliente—the largest town in one of Mexico’s most agriculturally productive regions, encompassing parts of Michoacán, Guerrero, and the State of Mexico. Around Nueva Italia, field hands work the fertile soil to produce melons, papaya, limes, and grapefruit destined for export, carried as cargo on the trains and trucks that pass near the town. Large transnational agribusinesses have significant holdings in Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente. So do organized criminal groups, which extort and traffic marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin; iron ore from wildcat mines; contraband shoes and clothing; and people.
Imports and exports make their way to and from Asia and the United States via Michoacán, connected through the city of Lázaro Cárdenas, its booming container port. The city’s cargo traffic grew 10 percent in 2016, outpacing the growth of the country overall. The train line and highway that links Lázaro Cárdenas to the global economy pass close to Nueva Italia, as an access point to the remote, drug-producing mountains of Tierra Caliente.
Anything of importance in Nueva Italia (population 40,000) sits on the avenue running through town. There is Our Lady of Guadalupe church, built in the mid-twentieth century—triangular, green, concrete—alongside tire shops, water purification stands, animal feed stores and veterinarians, funeral parlors (I counted three), shoes and clothes stores (many), a giant beer can advertising Negra Modelo, the offices for the ejido of Nueva Italia, and a bike shop. A dozen new bikes still covered in protective bubble wrap lined up outside it.
Today, the body count grows in Nueva Italia, a swelling number like the fruit in the orchards. “They are starting to accumulate,” one journalist from Morelia, the state capital, told me. And so it is throughout Mexico: 2017 is the country’s deadliest year since modern homicide record keeping began in 1997. This year’s Mexico Peace Index (MPI) from the New York-based Institute for Economics and Peace records that Michoacán is one of five states with the “largest deterioration” of peacefulness—the others are Colima, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, and Baja California Sur. From 2011 to 2016, the MPI documented a 62 percent increase in Michoacán’s homicide rate.
Repeated attempts by organized crime and transnational business interests to subjugate the people of the Tierra Caliente persistently provoke armed, violent resistance. In 2014, armed self-defense groups called autodefensas, led by the doctor and landholder Dr. José Mireles, rose up throughout the region and took Nueva Italia and other towns from The Knights Templar, an organized crime group. As documented in Matthew Heineman’s 2015 documentary Cartel Land, the shootout between the autodefensas and the Knights Templar in Nueva Italia in January 2014, the largest town seized by the autodefensas, lasted four hours. The autodefensas expelled Nueva Italia’s municipal government, including its police force, largely known to be colluding with the Knights.
The autodefensas controlled Nueva Italia and cowed the organized criminal groups in the Tierra Caliente only while Mexico’s federal government backed their efforts by turning them into armed members of a rural police force. When the federal government installed Alfredo Castillo in 2014 as its security commissioner, he began to turn rank-and-file autodefensa members into rural police officers but detained their leaders, facilitating the return of organized crime. In February 2015, when Mexico’s government withdrew Castillo from his position, the leader of the Knights, “La Tuta,” established control over Nueva Italia. One man I spoke with from Nueva Italia suggested the malos (“the bad ones”)—meaning organized crime—are settling scores with “former” autodefensas.
The men murdered in and around Nueva Italia this August—at least seven over the course of less than 22 days and many more in the previous months, with exact numbers difficult to ascertain—were individually abducted at gunpoint over several days. The captors later dumped them one by one— the front page of the tabloid El Testigo (“Witness”) referred to one man as a “frío” or a “cold one”— on the highway to the south of town. The newspaper also called the highway a “panteón” or “cemetery.” When I asked a taxi driver about the discovery of dead bodies beside the road he said, “We are accustomed to it,” and left it at that.
Meanwhile, attacks against journalists in Michoacán and throughout Mexico reveal how enforced censorship sustains and maintains silence, shaping impunity. In 2016, Salvador Adame and his wife Frida Urtiz, herself a journalist, were filming a protest about a sudden decision to move a women’s health and support center planned for Nueva Italia to the more remote town of Huetamo. 19 women blocked the highway and protested in front of Nueva Italia’s municipal building. On the orders of Mayor Salvador Ruiz Ruiz, state police interrupted the protest and arrested the women. The police also handcuffed, detained, and roughed up Adame and Urtiz. Although police released the journalists, their treatment prompted condemnation from press freedom group Articulo 19 in Mexico City. In mid-May 2017, just before Adame’s disappearance, Michoacán’s human rights commission found that Mayor Ruiz violated the women’s right to protest, requiring the town’s council to investigate and sanction the mayor, which the council has thus far failed to do.
A year after the protest, gunmen abducted Adame on May 18, 2017 at around 7:30 PM from outside a store on the main road running through town. According to the state prosecutor, fragments of his burned body turned up several weeks later, and DNA testing, state authorities say, confirmed his identity. Adame’s family does not believe the state prosecutor’s test results and requested a test by an independent laboratory. Instead, Mexico’s Attorney General conducted a second DNA test, confirming the first results, but the family still wants an independent test. Ignacio Mendoza, the lawyer representing Adame’s family told me in Morelia, the capital of Michoácan, that he doesn’t believe Michoacán’s prosecutors will solve his disappearance or possible murder.
In Michoácan, Artículo 19 has recorded five journalists disappeared and four murdered in the state before the disappearance of Salvador Adame. In Morelia, one veteran Michoacán journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me the number could be as many as fifteen reporters disappeared or murdered. Most come from the Tierra Caliente region. State authorities have failed to prosecute anyone for these crimes. Other journalists I spoke to in Morelia also on the condition of anonymity told me that universal impunity in the murders and disappearances of reporters in Michoacán makes them feel unprotected and alone.
The dead body dumped by the highway the day before I went to Nueva Italia, hands tied behind his back, bullet wound to the head, was referred to as a “popsicle”—another euphemism given to dead bodies in Michoacán; a macabre pun that evokes Mexico’s most ubiquitous ice cream franchise, Michoacana. On Monday, August 7th, the day after the cadaver appeared, I headed to Nueva Italia. I climbed into an early-morning bus for the four-hour ride from Mexico City to Morelia and then took another bus from Morelia to Cuatro Caminos, Nueva Italia’s bus terminal.
In the early twentieth century, Italian immigrant Dante Cusi founded Nueva Italia as a large landed estate or hacienda by amassing 62,000 hectares, paid for with a loan provided by a development bank backed by then-President Porfirio Díaz’s government. Cusi built irrigation works for large-scale agricultural production, leveling the land and developing fruit trees resistant to the region’s hot climate. His haciendas continued to prosper even during the Revolution. Abusive and vicious labor exploitation on Cusi’s lands ultimately led to their seizure by the post-revolutionary Mexican government.
In the middle of the roundabout to the south of Nueva Italia at Cuatro Caminos on the main road that runs through the town stands a statue of Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Mexican flag in hand and astride his charger, Zapata faces north towards the town. Zapata never came to Nueva Italia; he was murdered in 1919 after years spent fighting large landholders in Morelos, south of Mexico City. But his effigy sends a message to the community of the legacy of the value of armed self-defense against the violence of the region’s landholders and organized criminal groups.
The statue, dedicated in 1958 and twenty years after the land expropriations, proclaims the Revolution’s victory over Nueva Italia’s large landholders siding with the then landless peasants. Even though Mexico’s economic paradigm changed gears in the 1980s towards neoliberalism and the defense of private land ownership, Nueva Italia is still Mexico’s largest ejido, or communal landholding. And Zapata’s statue, ever silent, is the figure guarding its community.
Nueva Italia’s Mayor Ruiz of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), plans to remodel this main thoroughfare, including adding bike lanes. According to Animal Político, journalist colleagues of Salvador Adame say he was also investigating the installation of a new gas station in Nueva Italia, alleging a link to organized crime. Mayor Ruiz’s term ends next year, and he is looking for promotion to higher office. It is customary for Mexican politicians in municipal, state, and federal offices to use transportation infrastructure modernization as a way to win votes. It’s also a way in which municipal politicians enrich themselves and their friends through kickbacks or by failing to fulfill all parts of the contract.
I knew that Nueva Italia’s priest had concerns about remodeling the avenue. I passed by the church twice, hoping to speak to him. I wanted to ask some questions about the town. But I hadn’t yet built up the courage. All the piercing eyes from the people on the street unnerved me.
I returned to the church after taking a look at the main plaza, the municipal building, the community cultural center, and the nearby food stands. Women were preparing the day’s lunch, peeling and chopping vegetables, stirring the contents of saucepans. The heat numbed my anxiety.
In the church offices I found a woman to answer some questions. When I inquired after the priest, she said, “The priest isn’t here anymore.” I asked when he’d be back. “He’s now in the mountains,” she said. “He was transferred. It is difficult to see him. Besides, priests always rest on Mondays.” These mountains, she said, were about an hour from Nueva Italia. I found out later that the priest was transferred to a location in the hands of La Tuta, one of the founders of the Knights Templar who is now serving time in a Mexican prison. Something told me I wasn’t going to travel into those mountains to see the priest.
Instead, I went to buy a newspaper. The only one available was Testigo. I skimmed through pages filled with stories about car accidents and crime—the latest of Nueva Italia’s dead bodies appeared in a story buried on page four—and in the centerfold was a picture of a scantily-clad woman. The newspaper seller explained to me that the local newspaper had folded. “Nobody wants to do that anymore,” he said. Local residents told me that they had depended on Salvador Adame to know what was going on in Nueva Italia. Now that he’s disappeared, all they have is Testigo and whatever news comes on the local television channels.
It had only been about two hours since I’d arrived, but the midday sun and discomfiting silence had made it seem like much longer. I climbed into a taxi heading south.
“Had enough of Nueva Italia?” the taxi driver asked. “Yes,” I said, “I thought there was going to be more to see here but there isn’t that much to see.”
“No, there isn’t. But we do have a statue of Emiliano Zapata. Did you see that?”
“Yes,” I replied, “it is impressive. But he lived long ago and those were different days. Times have changed.”
“It’s a shame we don’t have rulers like Zapata now,” the taxi driver said.
Patrick Timmons is a freelance journalist, translator, and human rights lawyer and investigator. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project and lives in Mexico City.