The Mexican army stands between the gangs, enforcing territorial divisions


AGUILILLA, Mexico – In western Mexico, a small squad of soldiers with about half a dozen trucks and sandbag locations stand guard on a rural road. In one direction, almost within earshot, a drug cartel operates a roadblock, extorting farmers. In the other direction, a rival cartel carries out armed patrols in trucks bearing its initials.

The Mexican military has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here, instead ordering soldiers to guard the dividing lines between gang territories so they don’t invade each other – and turn a blind eye. on illegal cartel activities a few hundred meters away.

At the first roadblock, set up by the Viagras gang that has long dominated the state of Michoacan, a truck is parked across the highway and stacked sandbags protect the cartel’s gunmen.

Every few hours, the gunmen back the truck to let the farmers pass, but they question every driver who passes by how many crates of limes – the region’s most valuable commodity – or head of cattle are being transported to. the market. The answers are written in a book.

Local farmers say the Viagras charges around $ 150 for each truckload of limes. They weigh and invoice each head of cattle separately. Further north, avocado growers are subject to similar protection payments on every box of fruit they ship.

“Be careful what you publish,” the head of the Viagras dam told passing journalists. “I can watch you on Facebook, and I’ll find you.”

About 3 kilometers (2 miles) on the same road, you officially enter the territory of another cartel, marked by squads of gunmen and handcrafted primitive armored vans bearing the letters “CJNG”, the cartel’s Spanish initials. Jalisco New Generation.

Between them stand the soldiers, doing very little at all.

The Jalisco state-based cartel invades neighboring Michoacan, causing thousands of farmers to flee, some seeking asylum in the United States. While reporters could see few open threats in the newly-taken Jalisco town of Aguililla, Michoacan, local residents report gunmen from Jalisco kidnapped and possibly killed youth they suspect of working for rival gangs. .

Mexican Secretary of Defense Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval has publicly stated that the soldiers are there to stop the Jalisco cartel’s incursions into Michoacan.

“We managed to roll back one of the cartels, the Jalisco, to the Jalisco border,” Cresencio Sandoval said in October. The federal and state governments have not responded to repeated requests for comment on the strategy.

Michoacan’s seaport, Lazaro Cardenas, is seen by cartels as an entry point for precursor chemicals from China used to make methamphetamine and fentanyl. Its avocado orchards and iron ore mines are also a prime target for the extortion of the Viagras, a gang named after the liberal use of hair gel by its founders.

The leader of Jalisco, Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, wants to take control of it all and take back control of his hometown; he was born in the Michoacan hamlet of Chila.

Security analyst Alejandro Hope says the government’s strategy is clearly “a kind of non-aggression pact”.

“There is something like an increasingly explicit attempt to administer the conflict,” Hope said. “They (the soldiers) are not there to disarm both sides, but rather to prevent the conflict from spreading. The problem is that we don’t know where the army draws the line, what they are prepared to do. accept.”

How passive has the military become and how much abuse will it take? In the mountain town of Aguililla, now dominated by Jalisco, nearly 200 soldiers have been barricaded in their command posts by residents who have been angry for four months.

The military has been transporting food for troops by helicopter since townspeople used a grader and bulldozer to block the two entrances to the military barracks in late June. This is part of a growing trend in Mexico: soldiers have been taken hostage by locals because they know the troops will not even defend themselves under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policy of “hugging.” , not with bullets ”.

Residents of Aguililla say they won’t let soldiers out of their barracks until the military does its job of removing Viagra roadblocks that make things like medical care, medicine impossible or expensive. food, fuel, electrical or telephone repairs. Some residents have died because ambulances are blocked or delayed at the roadblock.

“The most shameful thing is the absence of the government, which has become simply a bystander in a war that has left so many deaths, so much destruction,” said the local priest in Aguililla, Reverend Gilberto Vergara, describing the inhabitants frustration with the army’s reluctance to fight either of the two cartels.

“He just stands there watching, and at some point when he can’t do anything else or when a team seems to be winning, he will act,” said Vergara. “But that’s not the rule of law.”

This was a reference to the army’s only real action in recent months: in September, after a Jalisco cartel offensive against the nearby town of Tepalcatepec beheaded five local militiamen, the army sent out helicopters, apparently armed with rotary-barrel machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds per minute, to repel Jalisco.

Since then, the army has taken up position around Tepalcatepec, but has done the same as on the road to Aguililla: nothing.

“Why is the army not advancing? Why are they not sending the helicopters again? said a farmer in the hamlet of Taixtan, near Tepalcatepec, as he walked down a dirt road towards the sorghum fields he could not reach to harvest because the armed men of the Jalisco cartel stationed on a nearby hill can hit fields with their .50 caliber sniper rifles.

“Since they (the soldiers) arrived, they haven’t fired a shot,” said the farmer, whose “self-defense” squad regularly exchanges gunfire with Jalisco. The farmer, like most of the others interviewed, refused to give his full name for fear of being identified and killed by the gangs.

Most farmers in Tepalcatepec feel they have been left alone to fight an invasion.

The locals don’t rely on soldiers but their own World War I style trench warfare combined with 21st century technology like explosive drones.

On top of a hill near Tepalcatepec, the vigilantes built a bunker of concrete, steel beams and bricks, topped with more concrete for protection from drones. They approach the bunker, known as “Achicumbo”, through trenches one meter deep to avoid sniper fire.

A farmer showed shrapnel from a drone still lodged in the bumper of his truck; the devices cause terror, in large part because they are unexpected and appear indiscriminate. Across the region, impacts from drones launched from either side are visible in the metal roofs of open structures like tin cans by the force of the explosions. Each party found “drones” to operate the devices.

No one asks too much where the vigilantes of Tepalcatepec got their bulletproof cars and AR-15 rifles. There are rumors that the Sinaloa cartel sent aid, within the framework of the national war of this cartel with its great rival Jalisco. The only evidence is a “dronero” from the state of Sinaloa.

Pedro, who runs his family’s ranch in the nearby hamlet of Plaza Vieja, gazed out over the rich valley where his family has been raising livestock and crops since his grandfather’s time and vowed “I won’t go.”

“My umbilical cord is buried here,” he said, fighting back tears. “We are not invading someone else’s land. We are just defending what is ours, what our grandfathers built.”

An elderly woman said she was forced to leave her home and farm in a nearby hamlet in mid-September after gunmen from the Jalisco cartel showed up and told them they had two days to go. go out.

“Everything here belongs to El Señor Mencho,” the armed men told her and her husband, whom they kidnapped and then released. “I walked, weeping and leading my cows in front of me,” she said.

The takeover of Aguililla by Jalisco at least brought a minimum of peace; small cargoes of gasoline can pass and the fuel is sold in plastic cans on the streets. The only gas station in the city remains closed.

The man overseeing the blockade of the army barracks in Aguililla more or less reflects the Jalisco cartel’s view of the conflict.

“Look, there is a conflict between two cartels here,” said the man, who identified himself only as José Francisco. “The army should do its job and fight the two cartels, if it has to. But it should not side with one of them.”

López Obrador has sought to avoid conflict since 2019, when he ordered the release of Ovidio Guzman, a son of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman ‘, to prevent bloodshed after gunmen from Sinaloa descend in the street and started shooting to win the release of young Guzman.

But the government’s strategy to avoid conflict has forced residents to choose sides.

“If the government is absent, then the cartels take over. It’s not that we choose one, that we want this one or that one. There is a war between them, and they share the territory. “said Reverend Vergara. “If they’re here, we have to live with them. It doesn’t make us accomplices, or applaud them, or say one is better than another.”

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