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How Mexico secretly launched a crackdown after Penn met ‘El Chapo’

Four days after Sean Penn met with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán last October, Mexican marine helicopters swooped in on the drug lord's hideout atop a pine-studded peak in the Sierra Madre mountains.

Amid the barrage of gunfire aimed at the collection of four houses known as El Limón, Guzmán was able to make another unlikely escape. But the residents who live scattered in the forests below weren’t so lucky.

Starting that morning, local farmers said, the marines went on a shooting and looting spree that appeared like an act of collective punishment. The marines peppered homes and trucks with bullets, set fire to four-wheelers and stole money, jewelry, blankets and clothes, residents said. The military hemmed in villages, prohibiting people from leaving their homes for up to five days in their ferocious search for Guzmán, according to interviews over four days with residents in the tiny mountain villages. As many as 250 families, nearly 1,000 people, fled the mountains in search of safety, arriving in the nearest city, Cosala, starting Oct. 9, according to the municipal government’s welfare office.

“This did not seem like the Mexican government,” said Maria del Carmen Verenice, a 47-year-old housewife, who added that she crouched in a ditch while shots were fired on the village from helicopters, then spent the next two days hiding in the woods. “This was a terrorist government.”

The Mexican government discounted the allegations against the marines, saying they were unfounded. A Mexican official said the trafficker manipulates his followers to make such claims in order to keep the military out of this drug-producing region of Durango state. “In this moment I have no knowledge that there has been one person” displaced, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Still, the accounts of 16 residents from communities far apart were consistent, describing unprovoked shooting from helicopters and property theft by ground forces. Some were interviewed in their hamlets in the mountains — with bullet holes visible in their houses and vehicles — while others were reached in Cosala, where they have fled.

The Mexican security forces have been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses for years. In 2014, Mexican soldiers allegedly killed 22 people, some of them execution-style, after they had surrendered in a warehouse southwest of Mexico City during an operation to pursue alleged kidnappers, according to human rights reports and charges against some soldiers. The U.S. State Department last year cut off a portion of its anti-narcotics aid after deciding Mexico failed to reach some of its human rights goals. Of the security forces, the marines have a reputation of being the best trained and equipped, and their elite teams are often given the task to hunt the country's most dangerous drug traffickers.

Guzmán was nabbed by federal police in the adjacent state of Sinaloa this month, a victory for the Mexican government. But the ferocity of the military action seems to have further alienated the people in this region, where many of the farmers grow opium poppy and marijuana.

The marines now based at El Limón, a rustic settlement with grapefruit and guava trees and a private airstrip, refused last week to describe their operation or give a tour of the premises. They have draped metal spikes across the entryway to block visitors. They clearly have a dangerous mission: Many of the farmers in this region are heavily armed. And cartel gunmen have shot down government helicopters in other parts of the country.

One of the marines acknowledged the difficulty of separating good from bad characters in the fight against illegal drugs.

“It’s hard to know who is involved,” the marine said, “and who isn’t.”

A remote hideout

Few people live in the forested mountains where Guzmán was hiding in early October, part of the municipality of Pueblo Nuevo. Heading up into that area from the colonial town of Cosala, the road turns to dirt and becomes little more than a steep, rutted path, accessible only in four-wheel-drive vehicles. This terrain, which extends into the states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa, is known as the "Golden Triangle" — the home base of Guzmán's Sinaloa cartel, considered the world's most powerful drug cartel. Many of the farmers here view Guzmán as more attentive to their needs than the distant government.

Guzmán escaped from Mexico's highest-security prison last July by sneaking through a tunnel. But even before then, his representatives had gone looking for journalists and actors to tell a life story that had grown into legend after his two escapes from federal prison. In Kate del Castillo, a famous Mexican actress, his team found a potential partner for a Chapo film and a woman the trafficker found beguiling.

“I’ll take better care of you than my own eyes,” Guzmán had texted her.

The actress presented the possible project to Penn, the American actor who instead offered to write a magazine article about the drug lord, according to his account. In October, Penn flew to Mexico. The rendezvous with the drug lord took place in a lush nature reserve associated with the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, in the foothills outside Cosala. Penn wrote about the encounter, without naming the location, in his piece, which was published online by Rolling Stone after Guzmán's capture.

The nature reserve was one brief stop during Guzmán’s peripatetic journey. He and his men owned safe houses and apartments across the region and beyond — authorities said they searched 18 of them in their exhaustive hunt for the trafficker. With the meeting arranged by Penn and Castillo, authorities zeroed in on Guzmán. Intelligence officials were monitoring the actors’ communications and photographed them as they met the men who would take them to the trafficker. The military had a capture mission planned for the day that Penn met Guzmán, according to Mexican news reports. But it was postponed until four days later.

By that time, Guzmán had returned to El Limón, his hideout at the top of a 6,000-foot peak. El Limón, which some have mistakenly called La Piedrosa, had many advantages for the fugitive. It had visibility for miles, allowing occupants to spot approaching aircraft. And arriving by road was a slow, punishing slog.

‘Soldiers arrived attacking’

About 7 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, at least three marine helicopters descended on the ranch, according to interviews with five people who live in or near El Limón. Later, airplanes and drones circled overhead.

“No one attacked them; the soldiers arrived attacking,” said Lorena Zeron Nuñez, 20, who lived for the past two years at El Limón. “We had to run and hide. It didn’t matter to them whether you were carrying children; they would still shoot at you.”

Authorities said Guzmán escaped that morning, carrying the daughter of one of his cooks in his arms, a human shield that gave helicopter gunners pause. He stumbled on the steep slopes below El Limón and injured his face and leg, officials said.

None of the area residents would confirm that Guzmán had been at the ranch, and many declined to speak about him. One said that more men than usual had arrived at the ranch in the days before the marines arrived.

A presidential spokeswoman said the operation started Oct. 8, but that was not corroborated by the residents and other news reports that say the operation started Oct. 6.

That Tuesday morning, Laura Amayrani Ayon Robles, 20, fled El Durasnito ranch, the nearest house to El Limón, when the gunfire erupted. She recalled running outside while bullets from the helicopter kicked up dirt alongside her. When a reporter visited the house Thursday it appeared ransacked, with clothes and furniture strewn on the ground. Bullet holes were visible in the roof. The desiccated remains of a slain and butchered cow lay on the ground.

Ayon said she slept that night in the woods, then reunited with other members of her family, who had taken shelter elsewhere. They began a four-day hike through the mountains in search of refuge, she recounted. The family did not eat throughout that period and survived by drinking from creeks. Her father-in-law, Jose Antonio Peña Grey, said he killed a rattlesnake with the heel of his boot.

One of the nearest houses to Guzmán’s hideout is called El Aguila, situated on a ridge about an hour’s drive down through pine forests. Jose Eraclio Peña Najera, a 30-year-old farmer who lives there with his wife and infant daughter, said a marine helicopter arrived firing not long after 7 a.m. Oct. 6. Bullets shattered the windshield of his silver Ford F-150 pickup, which was parked in the dirt lot outside, and pierced the corrugated tin roof of his home, he said. A visiting reporter saw bullet holes in the truck and roof.

When other marine forces ­arrived in pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles, they looted his house, he said, hauling off blankets, mattresses and food, as well as supplies from the shop he runs from his home. “They robbed everything,” he said.

“They said the order [to hunt Guzmán] came directly from the president,” he recalled. “They wanted to find that guy dead or alive.”

Over the course of the day, the marines widened their search and worked their way down the mountains. By 6 p.m., they arrived in El Verano, one of the largest communities in the area, with about a dozen houses and some 60 people. Marta Marbella Valencia was preparing tortillas in her home when she heard the rotor blades. Her husband was at work in his poppy fields, and she was alone with her 2-year-old daughter, Angela Cristela. As the marine helicopter got closer and started firing, she recalled, she scooped up her child and ran outside. Bullets smashed into the red concrete walls. She raced back inside and hid behind a yellow plastic barrel of water in the bathroom, she recalled. A bullet hit the wall above her head, spraying plaster in her hair.

“I was screaming,” she said.

Valencia said she dashed to the bedroom and hid on the dirt floor under her wooden bed and its two “Mi Amor” embroidered pillows, shielding her crying daughter, as bullets slammed through her roof. She didn’t move for eight hours, she said.

After the shooting, marines bivouacked at the one-room high school and began interrogating residents, they said. The marines set up checkpoints on the dirt roads leading out of the valley and prevented residents from leaving their homes for at least four days, local people said. The marines broke open doors, left gates open so livestock could escape and

smashed solar panels that some residents use to power their homes, according to residents. Rosa Martinez, 32, said marines stole earrings, phone chargers, money and blankets from her home.

“They said they were looking for a Don. They didn’t say who,” Martinez recalled, using an honorific term in Spanish. “We didn’t think it was El Chapo. He has never come here.”

Other residents said they had heard Guzmán had been in the region — although not in their community — at least three times over the past decade.

When the marines left El Verano, villagers said, one of them scrawled a note on the high school chalkboard in Spanish. It was still there more than three months after the operation.

“Twenty years after you die you will [still] remember this night,” it read.

Miguel Angel Vega in Durango and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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