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Thousands flee Mexico's epicenter of marijuana and poppy production

A Mexican human rights NGO says close to 25,000 people have been displaced from Sinaloa state due to fighting between drug cartels over the past several months, according to InSight Crime.

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As many as a dozen people were killed in his community in the municipality of Sinaloa de Leyva at the end of last year, he said. The final straw came in January, when villagers say between 8 and 9 vehicles – some of which had makeshift machine-gun turrets in the pickup beds – with 70 to 80 heavily armed men arrived and burned several houses.

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Nearly 300 families fled to nearby Surutato, in the neighboring municipality of Badiraguato, where the majority remain. Some of these displaced say the villagers have regrouped, armed themselves and are employing guerrilla tactics, such as putting obstacles in the road, to keep the opposition forces, who they say are from the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) – ZetasJuarez Cartel at bay. The Mexican army is also present, sending reinforcements to the small battalion based in Surutato.

The pattern of attacks in Sinaloa de Leyva is repeating itself further north in the municipality of Choix and south in the municipalities of San Ignacio and Concordia, where mixed groups of suspected BLO, Zetas, and Juarez Cartel members make regular incursions in an attempt to root residents suspected of supporting the Sinaloa Cartel from their areas of production.

In Concordia, the prize may be control of the new highway that will slice through the mountains, connecting the key port city of Mazatlan with Durango, where a similarly bloody battle is playing out between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas.

But it is in Choix where the recent battles have been the fiercest. During one five-day stretch beginning in late April, at least 21 were killed in running battles through the mountainous region. (Press reports oscillated between 21 and 40 dead.)

The Sierra is the birthplace of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," who, along with his partner Ismael Zambada, alias "El Mayo," has ruled this territory for years. For a time, they were partnered with the Beltran Leyva Organization, which also hails from the Sierra.

But a dispute between the Chapo – Mayo faction and the Beltran Leyva family erupted in January 2008 when authorities arrested a top member of the family, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The BLO, believing Chapo had betrayed the clan, killed Chapo's son as he entered a Culiacan mall in May of that same year.

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