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Drones and human shields in Mexico’s war on drugs

AGUILILLA, Mexico (AP) –

The Mexican government is quickly running out of tools to control the expansion of the dreaded Jalisco cartel in the fight against drug trafficking in the western state of Michoacán, and the stalled effort on the ground is complemented by an increasingly sophisticated air conflict.

The Jalisco cartel, the strongest drug trafficking gang in military terms in Mexico, has begun organizing townspeople to act as human shields against the military, who are now only trying to keep rival cartels apart.

“If they come in again, we put 2,000 people here to stop them,” said Habacuc Solórzano, a 39-year-old farmer who leads the civil movement associated with the cartel. His statement, like most of what comes out of the Jalisco side, is not mere boastfulness: he already had about 500 residents marching last week – then fording a river – to confront a military squad blocking a dirt road to get out. of the territory of Jalisco.

Aguililla residents are fed up with the Army’s strategy of simply separating the Jalisco cartel from the Viagras, its rivals that operate in the neighboring state of Michoacán. Army policy allows the Viagras, best known for kidnapping and extortion, to set up barricades and checkpoints that have blocked all trade with Aguililla. Leaving lemons and cattle, or incoming supplies, must pay a war tax on Viagras.

“We’d rather you kill us than criminals!” A protester yelled at the soldiers during a tense hour-long clash between protesters and a dozen soldiers who took cover behind a barricade of car tires. Many of the protesters carried stones and slingshots, but did not use them.

The residents want the Army to fight both cartels or at least let the two criminal organizations face off.

“Let the cartels kill themselves,” shouted another protester. “The Jalisco cartel is going to run into everyone!”

That opinion is widespread. “What this town needs is for a strong cartel to come in and take control and impose some semblance of calm,” said a local priest. “So far, everything seems to indicate that this group is Jalisco.”

Above all, what residents want is for the Viagras to be removed and the road reopened. Because they must occasionally travel these closed roads, none of the residents wanted to give their names for fear of reprisals.

But one explained it like this to the military: “The only national entrance we have to the town of Aguililla is blocked and is controlled by a cartel, which is just 500 meters from you (the Army), and you are not doing anything. so that our right of free movement is fulfilled ”. And he added: “You don’t know how difficult it is for us to have to pay for a war that comes to kill us.”

That’s actually a pretty accurate description of government policy – preserving the status quo and making every cartel stay on its turf.

But Jalisco will not accept the government as the arbiter of the territorial divisions of drug groups; the local leader of the Jalisco cartel says the Army is only trying to protect the weaker of the two groups, the Viagras, for corruption reasons.

Jalisco is everywhere in Aguililla, from homemade vans and armored cars bearing the cartel’s initials to the small trampolines the organization installed for children in each town.

Some residents say they are under great pressure to participate in the protests, fearing that their water or electricity will be cut off if they don’t. Others are simply tired of paying war taxes on Viagras and being cut off from the outside world. One protester described how her father died in early 2020 because Viagras prevented them from reaching the hospital.

Dozens of cartel hitmen openly wear bulletproof vests stamped with the initials “CJNG” (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) on the back, and on the front, “FEM” (Mencho’s Special Forces), a reference to the leader’s nickname, Nemesio Oseguera.

Jalisco is the only cartel in Mexico that does not hide what it is and does not play with the politics of public relations with the press or moderation.

“We are drug traffickers,” said the local Jalisco leader, who did not give his name. “Let everyone dedicate themselves to their own.” And he adds that the problem with Viagras and other local gangs that they are up against is because “they want everything for themselves.”

Jalisco keeps its sizeable army running on a significant mix of money — the cartel has a lot coming from the fentanyl and methamphetamine trade that it ships to the United States — and cocaine, which it transports by air from Costa Rica.

While the local chief is at a makeshift command post on the street, a pickup truck full of Jalisco men armed with AR15 assault rifles stops. The driver says: “The scorpion says he needs merchandise,” and the boss reaches into his own truck and hands the copilot a plastic bag with what appears to be a kilogram of cocaine, apparently for “the troops.”

Jalisco understands brute force; At the moment, it does not bother the residents of Aguililla much, because it is not necessary. But if you suspect that one is actively working for Viagras or is passing information to him, that person’s life expectancy is likely to be very short.

The local chief shrugs off the government’s claims that cartels like Jalisco’s are having trouble recruiting young people, due to the current administration’s employment and training programs for them.

“It depends on the type of youth,” he says. He points out that some leave with that (scholarships and other programs for young people to build their future) “but the others, those who sleep under bridges come here and think they are in Paris, here is food,” he adds.

“I make it clear to my people that they come here to fight,” he adds.

Beyond food, regular pay, and unlimited drugs, the Jalisco cartel also offers its young soldiers a kind of family structure. Everyone, even the local boss, refers to their immediate superior as “Apa”, as a child would say “papa”.

Both cartels have developed bomb-carrying drones, and the most feared warrior on these battlefields is the “drone”, the operator of these devices. While initially crude and dangerous to load and operate – and still worryingly indiscriminate – drone warfare has improved, and it’s not unusual to see metal barn roofs or sheds open like cans from the impact of drone blasts.

Locals also claim, although there is little evidence beyond a few craters on the roads, that the cartels are beginning to use landmines.

To handle the growing armed power in the conflict, the Mexican government has turned to a powerful card to overcome the Jalisco cartel: Blackhawk helicopter gunships equipped with rotating-barreled electric machine guns that can fire 6,000 rounds per minute.

It is a weapon that almost defines “indiscriminate general fire” and is prohibited in most countries in civil conflicts. It’s the kind of weapon that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he no longer wants.

But for the moment, an armed power this enormous is the only thing stopping Jalisco.

“We set two vans on fire,” the local gang boss said of the machine guns. When “the watches (soldiers) arrive by helicopter, with minigun, there is nothing to do there, you stand aside.”

It is not clear that it will be this way for long. Jalisco is known for two things: being the most armed cartel in Mexico and the only one that has shot down a military helicopter.

In 2015, gunmen from the Jalisco cartel shot down a Eurocopter transport helicopter with a grenade launcher, killing eight soldiers and a police officer. While the helicopters Jalisco faces now are Blackhawks, there is little doubt that the cartel can come up with something more forceful.

The newspaper El Universal published transcripts of intercepted cartel communications where a leader can be heard training a sniper with a .50 caliber rifle to pierce the door of a helicopter. The Mexican Army did not respond to a request for comment on this or other issues.

In the past, Jalisco has obtained squad machine guns, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and 40mm grenades and launchers.

The government, fearful of the kind of bloodshed that began in 2018 when the Jalisco cartel moved to neighboring Guanajuato state, now has an unworkable policy of defending gang territorial divisions and a narrowing military lead.

An Army captain who did not give his name and tried to speak to the Aguililla protesters expressed the situation.

How are we going to allow three Mexicans to kill? Said the captain. “This just can’t be.”

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