SONOYTA, Sonora — Anabel Cortez is afraid to leave her children home alone anymore.
After deadly gunbattles between rival organized crime groups started on April 30, Cortez took her children and fled her rural community outside this border town.
She is back home now that the violence has subsided, but not by choice.
“Where else am I going to go?” asks the mom of three elementary- and middle-school students.
Sonoyta and the rural communities to the east, all part of the municipality of Plutarco Elias Calles, have been the battleground for rival cartel factions vying to control valuable territory for moving people and drugs into the United States.
Sonoyta borders Lukeville, a crossing frequently used by Arizona travelers on their way to the beach town of Puerto Peñasco, commonly known as Rocky Point.
Cortez, 34, was among hundreds of people who fled Desierto de Sonora, less than 10 miles east of Sonoyta, after violence erupted last month. By some accounts, 28 gunmen and two innocent civilians were killed in the Sonoyta area from April 30 to May 5. The Sonora investigative state police reported six people killed on May 1 and another five on May 4. Residents said the criminals themselves started to warn people of upcoming shootouts and asked them to leave.
The fighting nearly paralyzed the town. Many parents stopped sending their kids to school. The city canceled all cultural and sports activities, including the traditional Fiesta de las Flores, an annual fair that is one of Sonoyta’s main events.
“We didn’t want to put citizens in danger in case of a violent incident, that we would be caught in the crossfire,” said Carlos Arvizu, Sonoyta’s city manager. “It was a preventive measure.”
The mayor, Julio Cesar Ramírez Vásquez, is no longer giving interviews, his office said, after one of the groups threatened him for speaking out.
So far this year, the Sonora state police have reported 38 homicides just in the Sonoyta area — with a population of about 18,000 — and another five wounded. May was the deadliest month, with 15 dead and another one injured, Sonora police data analyzed by the Arizona Daily Star show.
And those are just the officially reported numbers. By other accounts, it was 22 dead — including six burned bodies — and at least a handful of others injured that month. There also have been gunbattles between Sonora state police and gunmen that resulted in at least another 14 dead.
Local residents talk of many others who are missing and unaccounted for.
Another 14 people have died in neighboring Caborca, plus 11 injured — including four state police officers.
Most recently, more than a dozen Central American immigrants were rescued near a ranch on the town’s outskirts, close to the U.S. border. State police reported three dead, including two men found inside torched vehicles and a woman with gunshot wounds.
“From what we can tell, migrants were using one of the drug routes,” said Erica Curry, a Phoenix spokeswoman with the Drug Enforcement Administration. “We believe they were attacked because drug traffickers don’t want that kind of attention.”
Then, on June 8, a former municipal police officer and lawyer was murdered by gunmen outside the Circle K in Sonoyta.
BATTLING FOR CONTROL
The recent violence across the border is due to fighting between cells of the Sinaloa cartel known as Los Memos and Los Salazar.
Violence in the Sonoyta area began to spike in January over Los Memos’ attempt to take control over the Sonoyta plaza and all drug smuggling routes. It’s the most intense fighting since early 2009, when 12 dismembered bodies were found in an abandoned vehicle along the Caborca-Sonoyta highway, with a narco message saying the Sinaloa Cartel was taking over the plaza.
The latest round started in March, Curry said. The Sonora state police reported 10 deaths in the Sonoyta area that month, including a soldier who was patrolling a rural area when he and his partner — who survived — came under attack.
The Sinaloa Cartel has decentralized over the past few years, leading to sporadic, violent power struggles between plaza bosses in northern Sonora, said Tristan Reed, a security analyst for the Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. Also, several top leaders of the cartel were arrested, creating a power vacuum.
On Sept. 6, 2012, Mexican police arrested Adelmo Niebla González, the suspected leader of Los Memos and presumed to be in charge of bringing weapons into Mexico and transporting marijuana, meth and cocaine from Sonora to Maricopa County. El Memos came to power with help from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel who was arrested in February 2014. He and his two bodyguards escaped a Sinaloa prison in 2014 through a tunnel that was dug into the prison from the outside.
A few months after that arrest, in November 2012, Mexican soldiers arrested Jesús Alfredo Salazar Ramírez, the leader of Los Salazar, in the state of Mexico. Salazar, who came to power after his father was arrested in 2011, was said to be responsible for cultivating, transporting and smuggling marijuana through Sonora and a western sliver of Chihuahua into the United States. He was also an important lieutenant of El Chapo Guzmán.
In 2013, Puerto Peñasco was the scene of an hours-long battle between drug cartel gunmen and the Mexican federal police, who allegedly killed Gonzalo Inzunza, a top lieutenant of the Sinaloa Cartel also known as “El Macho Prieto.” The body was never recovered.
“Macho Prieto was involved in one of the first signs of Sinaloa infighting we are still seeing going on,” Reed said.
Sonora has always been a key place for traffickers. To the south and east, in neighboring Sinaloa and Chihuaha — and somewhat within Sonora, too — is significant drug production, including opium poppies, marijuana and meth. To the north, the border is more porous than in other places and far more desolate.
Across the border from Sonoyta is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 330,000 acres of public land, and further east is the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a reservation about the size of Connecticut.
“There’s nothing but desert for miles and miles,” said the DEA’s Curry. “It’s, unfortunately, one of our biggest vulnerabilities for drug trafficking.”
On the Mexican side, it’s all agriculture, cattle ranching and sparsely populated rural communities.
THE DRUG ROUTE
Most drug shipments are believed to arrive in Puerto Peñasco. From there they go east to Agua Prieta, Sonoyta, San Luis Río Colorado, Nogales or are shipped by foot north through the desert, where there is less law enforcement, Stratfor has reported.
The western corridor of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has been the busiest for years. More than 60 percent of the marijuana seized in the sector is in this area.
Mexican federal authorities have destroyed and seized thousands of pounds of marijuana and had several major seizures of meth, primarily found inside tractor-trailers headed to Tijuana and Mexicali.
For a drug trafficker, it’s almost impossible to avoid Sonora, Reed said, whether it is to bring drugs directly into the United States or to transport them further west to Baja California.
“Drugs and people are transported from Mexico to the United States while weapons and money come from the United States to Mexico,” said Sonora State Attorney Carlos Navarro Sugich, who oversees the state’s investigative police.
The complexities of the area make it essentially a paradise for the cartels, Sugich said. But the violence in Sonoyta is not representative of what’s happening in the rest of the state.
Sonoyta has seen more than twice as many homicides this year compared to last — 38 so far in 2015 versus 16 for the same period in 2014, he said. The state’s overall number of homicides fell during the same period, from 275 to 200.
The three levels of government are working together to bring peace back to the region. Sonoyta has only about 20 police officers, but with all levels of government included, more than 100 law enforcement personnel patrol the area.
“I don’t care if the criminal groups get along or not,” Navarro said. “No one has a reason to be killing each other.”
At the shooting scenes, officials have found AK-47s and AR-15 rifles, shotguns and ammunition. Some of the dead were found wearing camouflage clothing and tactical vests. Those identified have been from Sonora and from neighboring states including Sinaloa and Chihuahua.
LIFE GOES ON
One day in May, a fight broke out, and Cortez, the mother of three, told her kids to get on the floor. They grabbed at her legs and pleaded with her to lie down with them, but she kept watch.
“Don’t get up,” she demanded as she peeked through the bedroom window. “I have to make sure they’re not coming this way.”
As soon as the fighting was over, she grabbed a change of clothes for each child and fled to her sister’s home in Sonoyta.
She was there for almost two weeks. She didn’t want to overstay her welcome, she said, but she doesn’t want to live in Desierto de Sonora anymore.
If she has to leave the house and can’t take the children with her, she tells them to lock themselves in and not open the door to anyone.
Her son Joel, 13, said only a handful of children have gone back to school. Many fled to other cities, even other states.
Joel likes his home, he said, but only when bad things don’t happen. He knows sicarios, people who kill each other, are in the area.
“There was a killing over there, and over there,” he says pointing to different locations.
His mother is still afraid.
“Every little sound wakes me up at night,” she said.
Juan Ortega, 65, was at home when shooting broke out on his street.
He and his wife, María Hernández, ran inside and hid under their bed, he said.
The bullets sounded like hail hitting the tin roof.
The couple worked in the nearby cotton and asparagus fields until they could no longer do so because of their age. Now they run a small snack stand outside their home, where neighborhood children go for their daily treat of potato chips, juices and Mexican candy.
The day of the shootout, they packed a suitcase, grabbed their pit bull, Rocky, and headed to Sonoyta, where they stayed a few days with a relative.
“We were last ones to leave and first ones to come back.” Ortega said.
Desierto de Sonora has been their home for 42 years.
“We didn’t want to leave our little house,” he said. “This is all we have.”
VIOLENCE COMES HOME
Desierto de Sonora is an ejido — communal land owned by the people. Many came decades ago from other states to work in the fields and never left. They had children and their children had children. With about 200 houses, it is home to 1,200 people.
This is a place where people look out for each other. It’s a place where kids can roam free.
“If someone gets sick, everyone pitches in to help,” said Dionisia Gutierrez, who has lived here for 22 years.
But even though the gunbattles have stopped and people return home, violence so close to home has taken a major toll on residents’ financial and emotional well-being.
“For sale” signs and boarded-up homes dot the landscape.
Antonio Huitrón had been coming from Puerto Peñasco to sell his seafood and seasonal fruit for 15 years. He stopped his weekly trips through town while the violence was at its peak. Now he drives through twice a week, using a portable loudspeaker affixed to the top of his truck to advertise his offerings: fish filets, watermelon and sweet oranges for sale. There are still some areas further east where he won’t go.
After the violence last month, Gutierrez, 32, gave several interviews to Mexican television outlets. She showed reporters the broken windows and the more than 20 bullet holes in her pantry and in her children’s room. She wondered aloud what would have happened if they had been at home.
When interviewed last week, though, she said everything was fine and she never wanted to leave in the first place. She did it for her kids, ages 8 to 16.
Another resident was with her husband at their snack stand when the shooting started and had to hide in a small metal closet in their backyard, a neighbor said. But when asked by the Star, the woman said she hadn’t been there. She didn’t see anything.
Her first name? She hesitated. “Rosa.”
“Can we leave it like that?” she asked. “I don’t want trouble.”