The Catholic Church is issuing letters of recommendation to residents of Aguililla, Michoacán, to support their future claims for asylum in the United States as they flee violence and crime in the embattled municipality.
Parish priest Gilberto Vergara said the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Aguililla — where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Cárteles Unidos are engaged in a bloody turf war that has intensified in recent months — has issued 85 such letters this week, which serve as proof that residents’ lives are in danger due to the violence.
The Diocese of Apatzingán issued 50 to 60 letters of recommendation to Aguililla residents last week, he told the newspaper Milenio.
Residents can present the letters directly to United States immigration authorities, Vergara said. “It’s a kind of guarantee that they’re from here [Aguililla] and that their lives and those of their families are in danger.”
An exodus from Aguililla, located in the notoriously violent Tierra Caliente region, is underway, he said.
Some 200 families have fled the area in the last three weeks, El Universal reported, to escape violence, extortion and death threats. Some people are staying with family, some are in church-run shelters and others have already headed to the United States, said priest and activist Gregorio López Gerónimo.
Aguililla has become a ghost town, he said. He claimed that the authorities are in cahoots with the criminals, who he described as “beasts” and “soulless beings.”
One person who asked the Catholic Church for a letter for him and his family was an elderly farmer identified only as Luis. He said the CJNG had forced him to join a human shield outside the army’s Aguililla base to stop it from carrying out operations and threatened to kill his wife and other members of his family if he didn’t obey.
He and his family have lived their entire lives in El Aguaje, an Aguililla community where the CJNG paraded an armored “narco-tank” in broad daylight last month and attacked state police with explosive-laden drones last week. The same cartel also kidnapped and presumably killed his daughter and nephew a year ago, he said.
The rancher and lime producer took advantage of the visit of the Vatican’s ambassador to Mexico to Aguililla last week to get his family out of the municipality. Archbishop Franco Coppola, papal nuncio to Mexico, was able to travel to Aguililla by road from a neighboring municipality because security forces set up several checkpoints on the 84-kilometer Apatzingán-Aguililla highway, which was reopened early last week after being blocked by organized crime for months.
According to Vergara, criminals continue to set up blockades on the highway at night.
Fleeing Aguililla was the only way to avoid being murdered, said Luis, who had cattle and a lime orchard in El Aguaje and used to export his products. He fled with just 200 pesos and a few essentials.
He and other members of his family will seek work as jornaleros, or day laborers, in other parts of Michoacán to raise the money they need to travel to the northern border to seek asylum, he said.
“We’ve left our home, our land and an entire life of work to look for a calmer life because it seems that our luck has run out,” he said. “… We can no longer put up with this violence that screws us over every day. … I managed to take a few things to survive and [received] God’s blessing that the Vatican’s envoy gave us.
“… The CJNG took everything from us, even courage.”