Mexico’s drug war fought with drones, human shields, gunships

AGUILILLA, Mexico (AP) – The Mexican government is rapidly running out of funds to control the expansion of the feared Jalisco cartel on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war in the western state of Michoacan, and stalled ground efforts are being caused by an increasingly sophisticated air conflict.

Jalisco, Mexico’s strongest military drug gang, has started organizing townspeople as human shields against army troops who are now trying to keep rival cartels apart.

“If they try to get in here again, we’re going to bring 2,000 people out of here to stop them,” said Habacuc Solorzano, a 39-year-old farmer who leads the cartel-linked civil movement. His testimony, like most that comes from the Jalisco side, isn’t just boasting: he had about 500 residents marching – then wading across a river – to face an army squad down a dirt road out of the area last week blocked by Jalisco.

The residents of Aguililla are fed up with the army’s strategy of simply separating the Jalisco and Michoacan-based Viagras gangs. Army policy allows the viagras – best known for kidnapping and extortion – to set up roadblocks and checkpoints that have choked off all trade with Aguililla. Limes and cattle on the way out or supplies must pay a war tax to the viagras.

“We’d rather let you kill us than these criminals!” One protester yelled at soldiers during a tense hour-long confrontation between protesters and a squad of a dozen soldiers taking cover behind a barricade made of automobile tires. Many of the demonstrators carried stones and powerful slings but did not use them.

The residents want the army to either fight both cartels or at least let the two gangs fight.

“Let the two cartels fight out and kill each other,” shouted another protester. “Jalisco will beat everyone!”

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This view is widespread. “What we need is for a cartel to take control, end the fighting, and allow a semblance of calm to reign,” said a local priest. “Everything indicates that this group is the Jalisco cartel.”

Above all, residents want the checkpoints of the Viagras to be cleared and the road to be cleared again. Since they occasionally have to pass these roadblocks, none of the residents wanted to give their names for fear of reprisals.

But one explained to the army: “The only road to Aguililla is blocked and controlled by a cartel just 500 meters from you, and you (the army) are doing nothing to protect our right to free travel, “he said.” You don’t know how hard it is to pay a war tax that is used to kill us. “

That’s actually a pretty accurate description of government policy: maintaining the status quo and getting each cartel to stay in its own territory.

But Jalisco will not accept the government as an arbitrator in the territorial divisions of the drug cartel; The local cartel leader in Jalisco says the army is only trying to protect the weaker of the two gangs, the Viagras, for corruption reasons.

Jalisco is everywhere in Aguililla, from pickups and homemade armored cars with the cartel’s initials to the little trampolines the gang has installed for kids in every village.

Some local residents say they are under severe pressure to participate in the protests because they fear that if they do not, their water or electricity could be turned off. Others are simply tired of paying the viagras war taxes and being cut off from the outside world. One protester described how her father died in early 2020 because the viagras did not allow them to get to a hospital.

Dozens of cartel-armed men openly wear bulletproof vests with the group’s Spanish initials, “CJNG” – Jalisco New Generation Cartel – on the back and “FEM” – “Mencho’s Special Forces”, a reference to the cartel leader’s nickname, Nemesio Oseguera.

Jalisco is the only cartel in Mexico that doesn’t hide what it is and doesn’t hint at the politics of public relations or restraint.

“We are Narcos,” said the local Jalisco leader, who did not reveal his name. “Everyone should mind their own business.” His beef with the Viagras and other local gangs he fights is that “they want everything for themselves”.

Jalisco keeps its sizeable army of troops running with a strong mix of money – the cartel has a lot from trading fentanyl and meth to the United States – and cocaine, which it flies in from Costa Rica.

When the local boss is standing at an improvised command post on the street, a pickup truck full of gunmen from Jalisco with AR15 assault rifles drives up. The driver says: “The scorpion said he needs something” 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 doesn’t bother the residents of Aguililla very much because it doesn’t have to. However, if a resident is suspected of actively working for Viagras or providing information to Viagras, that person’s life expectancy is likely to be very short.

The local chief rejects government claims that cartels like Jalisco are having difficulty recruiting young recruits because of the current government’s youth employment and training programs.

“It depends on the type of youth,” he says. “Those who sleep under bridges come here thinking they are in Paris. There is food here. “

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

In addition to food, regular pay, and unlimited drugs, the Jalisco cartel also offers its young foot soldiers a kind of family structure. Everyone, even the local boss, refers to their immediate manager 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 “Dronero” or drone operator. Initially crude and dangerous to load and operate – and still worryingly indiscriminate – drone warfare has improved, and it’s not uncommon for metal barns or shed roofs to open like tin cans from the impact of drone explosions.

Locals also claim – although there is little evidence other than a few craters in the streets – that the cartels are starting to use landmines.

To cope with the increasing firepower in the conflict, the Mexican government has played a powerful card to outperform the Jalisco cartel: Blackhawk attack helicopters, equipped with rotating-barrel electric machine guns that can fire 6,000 rounds per minute.

It is a weapon that defines almost “indiscriminate area fire” and is banned in most countries during civil conflicts. It’s the kind of weapon that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he doesn’t want anymore.

CONTINUE READING: Mexico’s new drug war is deadlier than past violence

But right now, that massive firepower is the only thing holding Jalisco back.

“They shot and burned two of our trucks,” the local gang boss said of the attack helicopters. “If the soldiers arrive in a helicopter, there is nothing you can do, you just have to get out of the way.”

It is not clear that this will be the case in the long run. Jalisco is known for two things: it’s the most heavily armed cartel in Mexico, and the only one to have ever shot down a military helicopter.

In 2015, armed men from the Jalisco cartel crashed a Eurocopter transport helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing eight soldiers and one police officer. While the choppers Jalisco now faces are Blackhawks, there’s no doubt the cartel can come up with something more powerful.

El Universal newspaper published transcripts of intercepted cartel communications in which a leader trained a .50 caliber sniper to fire armor-piercing rounds through the door of a helicopter. The Mexican Army did not respond to requests for comments on this or any other matter.

Jalisco has historically sourced Squad machine guns, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and 40mm grenades and launchers.

The government fears the bloodbath that began in 2018 with the entry of the Jalisco cartel into the neighboring state of Guanajuato.

An unnamed army captain who tried to speak to the demonstrators from Aguililla expressed the predicament.

“How can Mexicans kill other Mexicans?” said the captain. “It just can’t be.”

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