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Over 4,000 residents flee a town in southern Mexico after armed gangs start shooting, burn homes

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador acknowledged Monday that authorities have had to set up camps for displaced people after some 4,200 residents fled a town in the southern state of Chiapas.

Residents of the town of Tila fled over the weekend after armed gangs shot up the town and burned many homes last week, state prosecutors said. It was probably the biggest mass displacement in Chiapas since 1997.

Some residents recounted spending days trapped in their homes before army troops and state police showed up over the weekend to allow them to leave.

Photos distributed by state authorities showed people fleeing with just purses on their shoulders, or sometimes small backpacks or shoulder bags.

López Obrador depicted the assault as “a conflict between the very same people” of the town of Tila, an apparent reference to a longstanding land dispute between farmers.

Víctor Gómez, a resident of Tila, said many people spent three days in their homes, too afraid to go outside, before federal forces arrived. “A lot of people left with what they had on their backs, without money, without clothing, they left behind all their possessions, a lot of their pets remained in Tila because they could not be evacuated,” he said.

But 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. At least two people were confirmed dead and at least 17 buildings were burned last week, according to state prosecutors.

The gangs had also been blamed for extorting protection payments from residents and setting up roadblocks.

López Obrador said food was being supplied to the camps. He claimed “things have calmed down,” and said the government now wanted to start negotiations with the groups “to reach an agreement so that people can return to their communities.”

Battles between rival drug cartels have hit several townships in Chiapas near the Guatemala border, because the area is a main route for smuggling drugs and migrants. López Obrador has long sought to downplay the violence in Chiapas, accusing those who write about it of “sensationalism.”

In 1994, rebels of 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, sparked by land and political conflicts, also sent thousands of people fleeing.

The state has also seen slower but yearslong expulsions of residents from some townships due to land or religious disputes.

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