Indigenous Discrimination and Danger in the Mexican State of Guerrero

by Robert Kirkland

The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the current security situation in the Mexican State of Guerrero and how this situation impacts the indigenous population. Furthermore, it will highlight the institution neglect of these minority populations and how it makes them more vulnerable to cartels and gangs. Indeed, indigenous from Guerrero, especially women, cannot count on the government to protect them from these criminal elements. In immigration hearings, they rightly claim to fear the cartels but also the assert the unwillingness of the Mexican government to protect them.

Situation in the State of Guerrero, Mexico

Poppy cultivation in Guerrero has been a constant since the 1950s. The mountainous area of Guerrero is optimal for growing poppies, and cartels began to move into the region in earnest in the 1960s. It is estimated that over 50,000 people out of a total population of 3.5 million, and they employ many women producers who are the sole heads of their households. Most farmers have no reliable source of income other than poppy cultivation, and their livelihoods are regularly threatened by violence and displacement caused both by cartels battles and government raids [1].

The cartel situation in the region has been fluid over the past 10 years. The state was originally dominated by the Sinaloa- and Tamaulipas-based groups, most notably the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf Cartel. About 15 years ago, they began a series of nationwide turf wars that included bids for control of Guerrero. In conjunction with the violence between the two groups, the Mexican government began to attrit the dominant cartels starting in 2006 through a kingpin strategy that targeted senior leaders of both the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf Cartels. This resulted in fragmentation of the cartels and increasing violence.

The dominant cartels in Guerrero today are Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, La Familia Michoacana, Cartel Guarde Guerrerense, Los Ardillos, and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. This fragmentation is the main reason why violence has increased in Guerrero. The situation in the State of Guerrero is particularly bad in recent years, with deep corruption of the police at the state and local levels as well as involvement of the drug cartels. In September of 2014, 43 students (known as normalistas) while traveling to participate in a demonstration, were kidnapped by the city police of Iguala, handed over to one of the drug cartels, Guerreros Unidos, and murdered. The city mayor and his wife were also implicated in the kidnappings. This incident has sparked major protests in Mexico, but also demonstrates wanton disregard for the law as well as the relationship between the cartels, police and local officials.

As reported in the middle of last year by the Mexico News Daily, these cartels frequently extort local town governments for up to 5 to 10 percent of infrastructure projects they start. Refusal of local mayor or government officials to comply with cartel demands have proven fatal. In July 2016, the mayor of Pungarabato was murdered by a cartel for refusing to pay extortion demands on his town. The local chief of police fled the town rather than suffer the same fate as the mayor. Cartels have also executed brazen attacks on the Mexican military, shooting down an Army helicopter in 2016 and regularly attacking military convoys [2].

Population in the Mexican State of Guerrero

Guerrero has one of the three highest rates of poverty in Mexico, partly (but not entirely) because of their high indigenous populations which suffer from poverty levels four times higher than the national average. Approximately 70% of the population is poor. The rate of extreme poverty is also three times higher than the national average [3].

This failure or inability to integrate into the legitimate Mexican economy has forced the local population to rely on poppy cultivation to make a living and keep up with the increasing prices in Mexico. Cartels have taken advantage of the poverty of the indigenous and Mexican state’s discrimination of indigenous and failure to provide adequate resources to them by making continuing to pay local towns to cultivate poppy or if the local population is unwilling to follow cartel enticements, forcing them to grow the illegal plants [4].

Discrimination against Indigenous Populations by the Government

The Mexican government see the most marginalized indigenous communities as entities to be ignored. In 2010 the Inter-American Court conceded that in Guerrero, indigenous face daily “institutional violence” because they are not given basic institutional protections afforded to other ethnic groups in the country. This attitude by the government has also led to accusations of abuse. In December 2020, local indigenous groups accused the Mexican Ministerial Police of violating the fundamental rights of Amuzgos and Mixtecos [5].

Abuse has been particularly bad with indigenous women. In a forum conducted at the Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo in 2018, indigenous women denounced militarized violence against them, noting the case of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, two indigenous Me’phaa women of Guerrero that were captured, tortured, and raped by a group of military personnel in the previous year [6].

Indigenous and Immigration Hearings

During deportation hearings, Mexicans often express fear of returning due to threats they received from cartels or gangs that caused them to flee their home country. This is a major problem and one that is often ignored by immigration judges. Additionally, indigenous populations who fear return claim that they cannot rely on the military, police or judicial system to protect them from these criminal elements. The Mexican governments history of willful neglect of their indigenous populations is systematic and particularly problematic in Guerrero.


The security situation in Guerrero is unstable with drug cartels controlling local populations at will. Indigenous have suffered greatly under the threat of these cartels and have been forced to flee if they believe their life is in danger. This population has also experienced willful neglect and, in some cases, abuse from the Mexican government. If returned to Mexico, they cannot count on the police or military to protect them from the cartels.


[1] “Mexico’s War on Drugs,” Foreign Policy, November 20, 2018, accessed at:

[2] “Tierra Caliente defenseless against three feuding drug cartels,” Mexico News Daily, May 10, 2018, accessed at:

[3] On the Margins: Why Mexico’s Southern States have Fallen Behind,” Huffington Post, December 6, 2017, accessed at:

[4] “Inside the Mexican towns that produce America’s heroin,” Washington Post, February 17, 2018, accessed at:; See also: “Mexico’s New, Deadlier Crime Lords,” U.S. News and World Report, December 8, 2017, accessed at:


[6]. “Observations on the State of Indigenous Women’s Rights in Mexico,” Cultural Survival, June 2018, accessed at:

About The Author

Robert Kirkland is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and operational Latin American Foreign Area Officer. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He has provided expert testimony on drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico and Central America since his retirement from the Army in 2014. He also helps guide students in Service Academy admissions as well as ROTC scholarships. He can be reached at or at his website.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.