APATZINGAN, Mexico — Under the scorching sun of the aptly named Tierra Caliente (Hot Earth), in southwestern Mexico, lies the city of Apatzingán, the former stronghold of the brutal Knights Templar cartel. It's also home to hundreds of women widowed by the drug war.
These are women who've lost husbands and sons to kidnappings, fatal robberies, extortion and stray bullets. For years they mourned their losses quietly, because the cartel, with its iron grip on the community, demanded silence on the matter.
Recently the cartel's grip has weakened as federal police captured the Knights Templar's top cartel boss, "La Tuta," and self-styled vigilante groups have retaken control in neighboring areas. Now, for the first time in years, the widows of Apatzingan are speaking out and telling their stories — even if a bit warily.
For six months Adelaida Valencia, who was two months pregnant at the time, walked the streets of Apatzingan posting photographs of her missing husband, Daniel Melgar, an auto mechanic whose body shop supported the entire family. Melgar disappeared in 2004 and was never found. He was 42.
Eight years later, tragedy struck the family again. Adela's oldest son Cristian was hit by stray bullets during a shootout between cartel members and police outside his university. Christian was one of three students killed.
Now Adelaida is alone with her three youngest children. She cleans houses to try to make ends meet, which she says is a constrant struggle. One of her children has epilepsy, and Adelaida says oftentimes she can’t afford his medicines.
The death certificate for Juanita’s husband says he died from "sickness." Juanita says that’s a lie; her husband was killed in a shootout. But she didn’t dare challenge the official record or demand an investigation into the death of her husband, Gilberto Camacho, who worked at Electricity Federal Company.
“It was better to let it go for our safety,” she says.
Rosaura says her husband disappeared because an unknown van was abandoned in his parking lot. The van was apparently tied to a rival drug gang, and that was all the evidence The Knights Templar needed to declare Rosaura's husband guilty by association.
A mother of two daughters, Rosaura said her in-laws warned her to stop asking questions about her missing husband.
The Knights Templar’s reign of terror affected everyone in Apatzingán to one degree or another. For years, it was common practice for the cartel to burn down stores and kidnap business owners who failed to pay extoritionary “protection fees.”
Last year alone, nearly 1,400 of the city’s 1,500 companies shuttered their businesses, according to the National Chamber of Commerce’s Gonzalo Zaragoza Mendez.
Despite the recent drug-war busts, many businesses have been hesitant to reopen.
The widows of Apatzingán could provide an important key to unlocking the economic recovery of their city. The women have started to connect with one another to take strength in numbers and work together to build a new economic motor for their community and families.
Every weekday a group of more than 60 of women gather for evening classes in business administration, computer technology and other job-related skills. The classes are grueling five-hour sessions every night after a full day of working. But the women are determined.
The goal, supported by training from the local and federal governments, is to open and managed a factory that processes dried fruit for export to Europe. The factory was the brainchild of two local priests, Salvador Gonzalez and Gregorio López, who believe the program will give the women financial independence to provide for their families.
The walls of the factory are already going up on the outskirts of the city. Construction is scheduled to end next moth.
Unfortunately for the people of Apatzingán, last month’s capture of cartel boss Servando “La Tuta” Gomez has not brought a return of law and order to their besieged town.
The cartel, though weakened, has not disappeared. In fact, recent reports suggest the gang is just reorganizing and moving to other towns.
But for the women of Apatzingán, projects such as the dried-fruit factory, which will offer employment to 60 of the 400 local women widowed by the drug war, are helping to return some semblance of hope to a community desperate for positive change.
All photos by Alan Ortega.