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Thousands of displaced people in southern Mexico fear returning to their homes after the violence

YAJALON, Mexico (AP) — Thousands of residents displaced by the violence that increased this week in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas were still afraid to return to their homes on Tuesday.

Authorities have had to set up camps for more than 4,000 displaced people who fled the city of Tila this weekend and are trying to bring them home, but the displaced are on alert.

One of them, Julio César Gómez, fled after armed gangs shelled the city and set fire to the homes of several family members.

“They say we have to return, but who can guarantee that we will be safe and that there will be no problems?” Gómez said, speaking Tuesday from a sports field that had become a camp for the displaced in Yajalon. “No one guarantees anything. There is no solution in sight.”

Some residents said they were trapped in their homes for days before army troops and state police showed up to let them leave.

Now Gómez, like many others, doesn’t know what to do.

The criminal gangs have burned down the houses of his father-in-law, brother and brother-in-law, so he fears that if he goes back, the gangs will still be there.

“I think I’m going to move to a new state and look for work in carpentry and painting,” he said. Gómez is one of the few who dared to give his name and complained that authorities are downplaying the problem.

Others among the displaced said the problems in Tila are nothing new but have now become more complicated.

Observers said criminal gangs and political interests were behind the clash.

The Digna Ochoa Human Rights Center said a group calling itself the ‘Autonomos’ or Autonomous Ones was behind the violence and said it was linked to drug trafficking.

López Obrador depicted the attack as “a conflict between the very same people” from the city of Tila, an apparent reference to a long-standing land dispute between farmers. He said many families were rescued when the military arrived.

The gangs were also blamed for extorting residents even to receive basic services such as power and water.

Violence in this area and other parts of Chiapas has increased in the past year.

Fighting between rival drug cartels has hit several townships in Chiapas near the border with Guatemala, as the area is a major route for drug and migrant smuggling. López Obrador has long tried to downplay the violence in Chiapas, accusing those who write about it of “sensationalism.”

In 1994, rebels from the Zapatista Indigenous Rights Movement staged a brief armed uprising in Chiapas and thousands of people were displaced as a result of the fighting between the rebels and the army.

In 1997, the massacre of 45 indigenous villagers in Acteal, fueled by land and political conflicts, also caused thousands of people to flee.

The state has also seen slower but years-long evictions of residents from some townships over land or religious disputes.

Raul Vera, The Associated Press