Cartel wars displace even wealthy families from rural Mexico

Michoacan entrepreneur holds firm in Juarez shelter after losing livestock, 200-acre farm following clash with Jalisco cartel

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Not so long ago, Eladio Mena lived in peace and prosperity in his native Michoacan, Mexico.

He owned a ranch where he tended his 50 head of cattle and planted a variety of crops on a 200 acre expanse. His wife contributed by making and selling cheese. His son was becoming financially independent through a successful small seafood restaurant.

But then Jalisco’s Next Generation Cartel emerged, recruiting muscle for a turf war with the regional Viagras drug gang and “raising” funds through extortion and outright theft.

“They do work for them. But we didn’t need it and we don’t think like them,” Mena said, explaining why he refused to let drug traffickers use his property to plant illegal crops or pick up a gun and join in the slaughter. “They only gave us a short time to leave, and we had to leave at night to avoid their roadblocks.”

Eladio Mena (photo from border report)

Today, Mena, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons sit in a Juarez migrant shelter, waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. They are part of a growing wave of families leaving rural Mexico contested by drug cartels.

According to the latest statistics from US Customs and Border Protection, the number of encounters with Mexican citizens jumped by more than 10,000 in February, to 71,210, from the previous month. The combined number of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – increased by only 7,500, to 39,178.

Overall, unauthorized migration rose 7% in February, totaling 164,973.

The US government doesn’t process asylum claims at ports of entry, and Mena doesn’t want to lead her family through an unauthorized and possibly dangerous run across the border. His resolve holds firm as the days go by at the Juarez refuge.

“I have a brother in Sacramento (California). I also have a brother-in-law there. He is a legal resident, he works, he will be responsible for us,” Mena said. “We don’t want to go back to Michoacan. We cannot return because we have been threatened.

A divided campaign

Because he fears cartels so much, Mena prefers not to say which city he’s from or let them know which of Juarez’s roughly 20 migrant shelters he’s staying in.

The western state of Michoacan has become a graveyard over the past four years as the Jalisco cartel battles a host of local gangs, including Familia Michoacana, Guerreros Unidos, Los Viagras and now also for-profit vigilante groups. Mayors and journalists have been killed, attacks with drones carrying explosives have been reported and cartels are “taxing” avocado producers. The Mexican army was recently sent in to clear landmines planted by criminals along the roads near the town of Aguililla.

A Mexican army soldier demonstrates a search for antipersonnel mines during a media presentation near Naranjo de Chila in the municipality of Aguililla, Mexico, Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. The town had been the scene of a bloody turf battle between two drug cartels. Earlier this month, the government sent a large military contingent to liberate the area from organized crime. (AP Photo/Armando Solis)

He emphasizes his total lack of confidence in the authorities of his country.

“The authorities are colluding with the criminals. Mayors protect criminals, they share information. We cannot complain. If someone dares to do that, they tell (the cartels),” he said.

When asked what makes a successful farmer and rancher – and his restaurant owner son – leave behind everything he’s spent his life building, Mena explains how cartels aren’t a threat distant and figurative, but a brute force of co-optation that pits neighbors and friends against each other.

“People in the community have moved on to the cartels. It was people from the same (community) who threatened us. It’s five or six brothers who are in charge” of enforcing the orders of the cartel, he said. “They pay them a certain amount to keep everyone under control. We saw people from the (municipal government) running with them.

View of a house abandoned due to a wave of violence between different drug cartels in the community of El Aguaje, municipality of Aguililla, state of Michoacan, Mexico, February 18, 2022. (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/ AFP via Getty Images)

Mena said the first contact was to co-opt him, to make him work for the cartel on the same basis as his neighbors. After that came extortion.

“They came looking for the cut (a ‘tax’) and we didn’t like it,” he said.

Then came the threats. He said other people in his community were attacked and then law enforcement targeted his son. Fearing for his life and that of his son, and having learned there was no longer a place for him in the community, Mena said he had no choice but to leave.

“They took everything we had. Our 50 head of cattle, our 80 hectares of land. […] A relative had to drive us home in the middle of the night. We left everything behind,” he said, waiting for the US border to reopen to asylum seekers.

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