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Villagers recall fear as troops fired in ‘El Chapo’ raid

COSALA, Mexico — Ayon Mendoza was making tortillas when a burst of bullets hit her home in Mexico. She ran to get her toddler when two helicopters, apparently military, struck her village even harder.

At the time, she did not understand what happened in her northwestern Durango state hamlet on Oct. 6. But she later learned the shooting coincided with operations to capture fugitive drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the mountain region.

The 24-year-old housewife said her home in Comedero Colorado had dozens of bullet holes and her car burned, so she and hundreds of terrified people from other villages fled to Cosala, Sinaloa state.

Mendoza and her husband, Gonzalo Elias Peña, walked for four days along cliffs and through brush with their two-year-old daughter on the Sierra Madre mountain range, the bastion of the Sinaloa drug cartel chief.

Lacking food and water, they finally arrived in the picturesque town of Cosala, where more than 600 other people from villages from neighboring Durango state have taken refuge, recounting similar stories.

“We were walking in the dark because where there was light, they would start shooting. It was firing from all sides,” Mendoza said as she and other displaced families waited for clothes and food handouts from the authorities in Cosala.

Her husband, Gonzalo, said: “The newspaper reported they were looking for him (Guzmán), but he wasn’t there and they almost killed us.”

Federal officials say marine special forces closed in on Guzmán in the Durango-Sinaloa mountain region last week but that he slipped away, injuring himself in the leg and face because he fell while fleeing.

A federal government official denied that the marines fired on civilian homes.

But, the official told AFP, “obviously when they face people who fire at them, they will repel the aggression.”

U.S. law enforcement officials, who are helping Mexican authorities hunt for Guzmán, believe the 58-year-old fugitive fled to his Sierra Madre mountain stronghold after escaping prison in central Mexico on July 11, just 17 months after his capture.

Guzmán’s jailbreak — his second since 2001 — caused deep embarrassment to President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government detained a dozen prison officials and vowed to recapture him.

‘Rain of bullets’

People who live near the Durango state municipality of Tamazula, like Mendoza and her family, say the manhunt led marines to their communities, where they came under fire.

Marta Marbella, who lives in El Verano village, showed pictures she took with her cellphone of the bullet marks that were left on her house on Oct. 6.

The images show a dozen holes on the roof and more on the walls, door and outdoor bathroom, where Marbella had hidden with her baby. Her husband was working in the fields.

“I could see the helicopter stop and shoot directly at the house. I was scared, screamed and cried, although I knew it was useless,” the 32-year-old housewife said.

Francisca Quintero Sánchez, 40, rushed to hide with her three children under the bed when the “rain of bullets” came down for around one hour.

“It was a time of terror, fear that they would kill us,” the farmer said. “Their uniforms said ‘Marina’ (Navy). Some think we’re stupid because we are ranchers, but we know how to read and write.”

Missing people?

The next day, Marbella, Quintero and other residents of El Verano decided to speak with marines, who told them they were looking for “a person accompanied by many people,” she said.

The marines told them that they fired because they were under attack, but the women deny it.

No casualties have been reported so far, but local legislator Lucero Sánchez López said at least eight people are missing.

Oscar Loza, representative of the Sinaloa Human Rights Defense Commission, said he had no reports of missing people, but he voiced concerns over allegations that the authorities tried to hide evidence.

The government, meanwhile, says the hunt for Mexico’s most wanted man continues.

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