Suicide by herbicide: An epidemic in the mountain region of Guerrero

Suicide by herbicide: An epidemic in the mountain region of Guerrero
Jairo Cruz Basurto, a me’phaa rapper from the Inéditos Crew hip hop band, wrote a song to break the myth about the suicide cases in Zilacayotitlán - Photo: David Espino/EL UNIVERSAL
English 13/11/2018 16:23 Newsroom Mexico City David Espino Actualizada 11:39

The Zilacayotitlán graveyard is considerably large compared to the village that bears the same name and has little more than one thousand inhabitants. Therein lie five girls and two boys who committed suicide between the years 2014 and 2016 under conditions so similar that the Me’phaa community in the Mountain of Guerrero began to get alarmed. They had all killed themselves with herbicide; notably, a type of venom that is stronger than a scorpion sting and more lethal than a rattlesnake bite, neither of which are rare in the region.

According to the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, an economic and administrative institution located in Tlapa, between the years 2013 and 2015 (until cases stopped appearing in official records), there had been 29 suicides by herbicide; in 2016, there were 2.1 per every 100 thousand inhabitants, while the state’s Ministry of Health reported a total of 83. However, Guerrero did not show the highest suicide rate in the country. In Chihuahua, there were 11.4 suicides per every 100 thousand inhabitants.

Neil Arias, a lawyer from Tlachinollan, assured that there are more suicide cases than those appearing in official record, since the Ministry of Health counted a total of 354 between the years 2013 and 2017. Cimitrio Guerrero, director of Middle and Higher Education and Distance Learning (EMSAD) in Zilacayotitlán, has come up with a plausible explanation. “It takes around three hours or less for the herbicide to take effect. If one should try to get to Tlapa –where the General Hospital is located, with more or less decent equipment- they would either fail and die on the way or arrive a little too late and find that the poison’s progress in the bloodstream has become irreversible and end up dying anyway,” he explained.

“The victims’ families usually prefer to avoid the whole process. Going to the hospital would imply notifying the prosecutor to file death records and move the body to the Chilpancingo morgue, which is ten hours away from the village. People usually just want to avoid all that bureaucracy when delivering the body of a loved one; it is thus understandable that there are no records for this type of death,” he added.

And it could be no other way. Zilacayotitlán, within the Atlamajalcingo del Monte municipality, is a little more than three hours away by car from Tlalpa. The village lies among pinewoods and mist, its bifurcated roads have been warped by the rain. A group of 60 Me’phaa students from EMSAD, mostly women between the ages of 15 and 18, play volleyball in the school grounds, which consist of a yard and a two-story building with only three classrooms.

At 10:30 in the morning, beyond 7,349 feet of altitude, the cold weather is an icy curtain that strikes their faces relentlessly. The teenagers seem not to notice; they run after the ball as if they were playing next to a swimming pool in the tropics.

The first case

However, they are not unfamiliar with fatality. Professor Cimitrio gathered the students in a classroom to discuss the problem. He is convinced that silence in the face of tragedy is not the best way to combat its underlying causes. Two days earlier, in Tlapa, he said that Florentina, aged 29, was the first girl to commit suicide in the village on April 2014. At the time, it was a strong blow for everyone and the students were unsure of what had happened.

“Later on, we tried to tell the kids that the act brought terrible consequences and deep-rooted pain to the family, that something like that should never happen again in the village. We even thought that it was an isolated incident unlikely to happen again. But during the same year, on May 10, another woman committed suicide: Kenia, aged 25, mother of two,” he claimed.

At the classroom where the students are gathered, along with five teachers and two mothers from the vigilance committee, who pay close attention while engaging in palm weaving and napkin embroidery, the tragic events are discussed. At first, the students hesitate, but they eventually open up and seem to agree that family issues, such as disintegration, fathers with up to four families, lack of communication, and heartbreak are some of the most common causes of suicide.

It seems simple once it is put in words, but this is still far from the truth. Another teacher claimed that courtship is still frowned upon in the village, as is a woman that has had more than one boyfriend in her lifetime. Professor Rosa Guzmán claimed that some youngsters had even taken advantage of this situation to blackmail their parents –“If you don’t do as I say, I will kill myself”- and condemned such outbursts, causing mothers from the vigilance committee to blush.

Two of the women who committed suicide by ingesting herbicide did so because they had become pregnant and were later rejected by their sexual partners, who argued that they had not been the first men to kiss them.

Zilacayotitlán has a church with white domes, a small square shaded by pine trees and a kiosk; small roads that run like streams among some 200 adobe houses roofed with tiles of baked clay; a health center in which, every day at 1:00 PM, young mothers –usually under the age of 20- with more than two children arrive to feed mash to their babies while their husbands are away in the north. There is also a deserted road seemingly leading nowhere.

One year after the first two cases appeared, there were three more deaths. On January 2, 2015, Rosa, aged 16, committed suicide, followed by Nancy, aged nine, who was the younger sister of Kenia. Shortly after, it was 14-year-old Celso. Back then, claimed Cimitrio, they stood in awe and wondered whether a curse had afflicted the calm village of Zilacayotitlán, a catholic and evangelical place in which children find joy in the most simple activities, such as playing at the central square or leaning on its concrete benches to do their homework.

They decided to call for a town meeting. They spoke with the youngsters directly and parents were asked to keep the herbicide away from their children. Visiting one house at a time, they asked mothers to send their children to school, since suicide was often caused by inactivity and lack of friends. They found that young people returned to their normal activities and were able to calm down again.

Shocked and paralyzed

However, there were two more suicides in 2016. In March, it was Estela, aged 17. She died on a Sunday. Professor Rosa remembers it well because, on Monday, Estela’s mother went and notified the school that another of her daughters would skip school that day because her sister had committed suicide. The teachers were in shock. They knew that she had ingested the herbicide and when her parents responded, the poison had already had its effect.

The second suicide of 2016 was Florencio, aged 25, who took the same poison barely a few months later. He lived in Piedra Blanca, a hamlet near Zilacayotitlán that can be seen from the graveyard where his body lies buried.

The problem is also discussed in Tlapa like a menace that hangs in the air. Jairo Cruz Basurto, a Me’phaa rapper from the Inéditos Crew hip hop band, wrote a song to break the myth about the suicide cases in Zilacayotitlán. The song is about a girl that is rejected by both her boyfriend and her parents because she has become pregnant, so she decides to kill herself with herbicide. The song lyrics say: “The effect begins to consume our bodies / What have you done? / I look at myself full of regret. / Baby, this is not your fault / but I can’t turn back time.”

Jairo says that these cases are far more common than people think. He claimed that last September, there was another suicide in Alpoyeca, a municipality close to Tlapa. The psychologist Régulo Osorio Cano, from the Addictions and Health Care Center, confirmed the case. He criticized the local media for sensationalizing the problem and pointed out that the incidence was high. He commented that many young people had turned to him to express their intention to commit suicide.

When asked about the exact percentage, he claimed that it represented a 10 percent of cases each year. “We treat around 300 patients each year and around 30 of them have suicidal thoughts.”

On the other hand, the aforementioned herbicide is very easy to obtain. In any fertilizer shop of Tlapa –and mostly in every village of the region- one can buy a liter for 120 pesos (USD$5.86) and the substance is sold without restriction. Jairo tells about the macabre jokes surrounding the subject within a small coffee shop in Tlalpa where both Cimitrio and the poet Huber Matiuwaa, both from the Me’phaa indigenous community, are also present.

Huber has made a couple of clips in his language for community radio stations seeking to raise awareness. He claimed that his own inquiries have led him to believe that the herbicide adheres to clothing and skin, and that when people come into contact with it constantly, it produces some sort of anxiety that may lead people to ingest it in moments of despair. However, this is only one of many theories currently circulating due to the lack of a serious investigation. Nevertheless, Cimitrio commented that the herbicide was definitely not the cause, but only a method.

A public health issue

In any case, people are committing suicide by using this substance and no one outside the region has seemed to notice. Arias claims that the under-registration, the dark-number, is caused by the fact that many health centers often omit the term “suicide” when drawing up death certificates. He stressed that it is now a public health issue, though it has not received the attention it deserves.

The state’s Ministry of Health seems to agree. In the city of Chilpancingo, the Chief of Social Communication, Alberto Herrera Santos, seems surprised at the fact. He claims not to know about the herbicide, adding that it is none of the ministry’s business. Three days later, after insistence, he issued a bulletin with some of the information mentioned above, along with the measures that the state is now taking to address the problem.

What is not mentioned, however, is that there are more suicides by herbicide in the Mountain of Guerrero than in any other region in the state. There also seems to be a pattern: People who have ingested the poison are mostly indigenous women between the ages of 14 and 29.

This could be the reason why there are no official records for the last two cases that happened this year. Only the local press, with its soapy sensationalism, has released information on these events through social media. The most recent case happened on October 29, when Eufrocina, aged 14, from Oztocingo, Copanatoyac, drank the herbicide “shortly after finding her boyfriend with another woman.”

The Zilacayotitlán graveyard is disproportionate when compared to the village itself. There are 480 graves in a village of 1,079 inhabitants, ranging from very humble tombs which consist of a pile of dirt and a wooden cross to more sophisticated crypts made of cement. Two of them host the sisters Kenia and Nancy Avilés. Their story has become a legend in the village’s oral history: Both girls had fallen in love with the same man, an individual who seems to jump from women to women, leaving only their bones behind. Their graves are separated by the tomb of their grandmother, who died years before. Their mother decided that, since they had been separated in their lifetime, there was no reason for them to stay together after their death.