July 24, 2021

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“We are trapped here.” A Mexican city isolated from the terror of the cartels

"We are trapped here."  A Mexican city isolated from the terror of the cartels

The city of Aguililla, located deep in one of Mexico’s most illegal regions, made headlines this month when eight headless bodies were dumped there.

Three weeks later, he is at war. Hardly anyone enters or leaves, at least not without permission from rival gangs that have blocked the streets.

In telephone interviews and social media posts, trapped residents described a community living in terror of armed criminals walking the streets and shooting at each other. Some shops remain open, residents said, but food supply is dwindling and there is no access to hospitals.

“If the groups want to continue fighting each other, this is their problem,” said Father Gilberto Vergara, the parish priest. “But this situation is suffocating us.”

The priest has publicly called on the gangs to let the citizens go to the nearest town – Apatzingán, a two-hour drive to the northeast – for food, medical care and gasoline and to be able to sell their products and livestock.

A convoy of Mexican army patrol vehicles during Monsignor Franco Coppola’s visit to the community of Aguililla, Michoacan state, Mexico, on Friday.

(ENRIQUE CASTRO / AFP / Getty Images)

At the root of the chaos is a struggle for control of a large segment of drug trafficking in the conflict-plagued state of Michoacán and a government that has been powerless to prevent cartels from taking over large swaths of the nation.

In recent years, Aguililla, a population of 15,000, has branched out from tomato farming, livestock farming and marijuana cultivation to become a strategic hub for methamphetamine production for the burgeoning US market.

Authorities say dozens of illegal manufacturing plants scattered in nearby countryside of precursor chemical processes have been smuggled from Asia into the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas, 175 miles southwest.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents have fled the violence, some in the United States but many more in other parts of Mexico.

“I have worked in Aguililla all my life. I have plots of tomatoes, corn, chilli… But we had to leave it all behind for fear, ”said Victor Arnoldo Aguaje, 68, who left last June with 14 relatives for Uruapan, the second largest city in Michoacán.

“In Aguililla, you live in constant fear that you could be killed or kidnapped at any moment,” he said.

The conflict demonstrates how gangs have infiltrated the regional government across much of Mexico. Authorities blame two cartels for the riots.

One, known as United Cartels, is a confederation of various mobs, including the Michoacán Family, the Knights Templar, and Los Viagras, which US prosecutors say is led by Adalberto Fructoso Comparán Rodríguez, 57, a former mayor of Aguililla.

He was arrested in Guatemala last month at the behest of the United States for his alleged part in a plan to smuggle more than 1,100 pounds of Mexican methamphetamine to Florida hidden inside concrete tiles and dissolved in five-gallon buckets of paint for the House.

View of a bullet riddled wall bearing the initials of the Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) sign in Aguililla

A bullet-riddled wall bears the initials of the Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) cartel at the entrance to the community of Aguililla, Mexico.

(Enrique Castro / AFP / Getty Images)

The competing group is the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of Mexico’s largest unions, known for its bent and monstrous expansionist social media demonstrations of armored vehicles and military-grade weapons.

Its leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes – who goes by the name El Mencho and once peddled heroin in San Francisco bars – is sought after in both Mexico and the United States. He is reportedly originally from Aguililla.

“El Mencho wants to control the area he grew up in,” said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration. “It is part of his grand plan to move to strategic areas where he can control various criminal activities.”

Many in Aguililla ask for the intervention of the Mexican government.

“Of course we want the military to come and fight the criminals,” Maribel López, 53, a nurse, told the phone on the phone. “Is it too much to ask that they at least open the way for Apatzingán?”

Her diabetic aunt died a few weeks ago because roadblocks prevented a relative from taking her to the hospital, López said.

There is a widespread belief in Aguililla that the security services and the military cooperate with cartels. Social media footage showed citizens taunting Mexican National Guard units as they retreated from the city.

A Mexican military base of 200 soldiers is located in Aguililla, its troops were refueled by helicopter, but the forces avoided direct conflict with the warring gangsters.

A Pentagon official recently estimated that cartels control about a third of Mexican territory. President Andres Manuel López Obrador disputed this figure at a recent press conference but refused to provide his.

For more than a decade, Mexico waged a “war on drugs” that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths but did little to undermine organized crime – an approach that López Obrador abandoned in favor of avoiding direct conflict by providing the at the same time economic opportunities for poor young people to keep them out of gangs

But the conflict in Aguililla is putting a strain on its strategy ahead of the mid-term national elections in June.

“The current administration’s approach to insecurity, to the entire armed conflict, has been silence,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst in Mexico at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization. conflicts. “Their political calculation is that it’s best not to talk about it.”

López Obrador defended his decision to refrain from a military assault on Aguililla.

“If we take the cities and use the force, we invade with the police, with the soldiers, well that won’t lead to anything good,” López Obrador told reporters this month. “We must call everyone for serenity, for tranquility, to seek peace. No to violence. “

In 2019, 14 state police officers were killed in an apparent cartel ambush in Aguililla. Last week the state police sent to Aguililla were attacked by at least one cartel drone armed with explosives. Authorities said two officers sustained minor injuries.

The president supported the dialogue in hopes of resolving the situation there.

But Silvano Aureoles, the governor of Michoacán, said a solution was elusive without the deployment of federal forces.

“You can dialogue with communities in conflict, with social groups, but dialogue with criminals is another matter,” Aureoles told the Mexican news agency Milenio.

Not that his efforts have gone any better.

The governor flew to Aguililla in a military helicopter last week in a highly publicized show to show that safety had improved.

Accompanied by heavily armed bodyguards, he was greeted by several protesters in the central square of the city who hoisted handwritten signs demanding that the authorities restore peace and open the streets. “I want to live free in mine pueblo, “Read a closet.

“People don’t believe in the government – we don’t have security or peace of mind,” said Fernando Padilla, 43, a teacher from Aguililla, who led his 10-year-old son to protest.

“The government comes here to do a ‘show’, it says the situation is calm, but it’s not true. … We are at the mercy of criminals, here we are trapped. This is not a life. “

Video footage of the scene showed the governor approaching the protesters and pushing Padilla as security guards grabbed two of the protesters’ signs.

After the push went viral on social media, the governor claimed on Facebook that he was confronted by hostile “lookouts” from the cartel.

Padilla, who has been teaching in Aguililla for 20 years, has denied any connection with drug traffickers.

The governor’s characterization of the protesters as crowd starters, he said, put their lives in further danger. He said his salary was suspended after the incident – a move he considered retaliation for his protest – but was later reinstated when he complained to the local press.

In a threatening way, Padilla said, gunmen passed her house.

“We no longer know if this is normal or if these delinquents come for me,” he said. The people of Aguililla are stuck in living hell, trapped and ruled by crime. “

Special correspondents Sánchez and Liliana Nieto del Río contributed from Apatzingán, Mexico.