The war on drugs in Mexico uses drones, human shields and helicopter gunships

AGUILILLA, Mexico (AP) – The Mexican government is quickly running out of tools to control the expansion of the dreaded Jalisco cartel on the front lines of the Mexican narco war in the western state of Michoacan and the ground effort in standstill is complemented by a sophisticated air conflict.

Jalisco, Mexico’s most militarily powerful drug gang, has started organizing townspeople to act as human shields against army troops, who are now simply trying to separate rival cartels.

“If they try to get back here, we’ll put 2,000 people here to stop them,” said Habacuc Solorzano, a 39-year-old farmer who heads the civil movement associated with the cartel. His statement, like most of what comes out of the Jalisco side, is not mere bragging: there were already around 500 local residents marching last week – then fording a river – to confront a squad of l army blocking a dirt road leading out of the territory of Jalisco. .

The people of Aguililla are fed up with the army’s strategy of simply separating the Jalisco and the Michoacan-based Viagras gang. Army policy effectively allows Viagras – best known for its kidnappings and extortion – to set up roadblocks and checkpoints that have stifled all trade with Aguililla. Leaving limes and cattle, or incoming supplies, must pay a war tax to the Viagras.

“We would rather be killed by you than by these criminals!” A protester shouted at the soldiers during a tense hour-long clash between protesters and a squad of a dozen soldiers who hid behind a barricade of car tires. Many protesters carried stones and powerful slingshots, but did not use them.

Locals want the military to fight the two cartels, or at least let the two gangs fight.

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

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

What the inhabitants want above all is for the Viagras checkpoints to be cleared and for the road to be reopened. Because they sometimes have to cross these roadblocks, none of the inhabitants wanted to give their name for fear of reprisals.

But one of them explained it this way to the army squad: “The only road to Aguililla is blocked and controlled by a cartel which is only 500 meters away from you, and you (l army) do 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. “

This is actually a pretty accurate description of government policy: preserving the status quo and ensuring that each cartel remains in its own territory.

But Jalisco will not accept the government as arbiter of the territorial divisions of the drug cartel; the head of the local Jalisco cartel 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 homemade vans and armored cars bearing the cartel’s initials to the little trampolines the gang has set up for children in every village.

Some residents say they are under great pressure to participate in the protests, fearing that their water or electricity will be cut if they do not. Others are just tired of paying the Viagras war taxes and being cut off from the outside world. A protester described how her father died in early 2020 because the Viagras did not allow them to go to hospital.

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

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

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

Jalisco maintains his sizable army of troops with a potent mix of money – the cartel has plenty of it, sourced from fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficking in the United States – and cocaine, which he brings in from Costa Rica.

As the local boss stands at an impromptu command post by the side of the street, a pickup truck full of armed Jalisco men with AR15 assault rifles pulls up. The driver says, “The Scorpion said he needed some stuff,” and the boss reaches into his own truck and hands the co-pilot a plastic bag with what appears to be a kilogram of brick of cocaine, apparently for “The troops”.

Jalisco understands brute force; at the moment it doesn’t bother the people of Aguililla much, as it doesn’t have to. But if he suspects a resident of actively working or passing information on to Viagras, that person’s life expectancy will likely be very short.

The local boss is ignoring government claims that cartels like Jalisco are struggling to find young recruits, due to the current administration’s youth employment and training programs.

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

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

Beyond food, regular sales and unlimited drugs, the Jalisco cartel also offers its young infantry a kind of family structure. Everyone, even the local boss, calls their immediate supervisor “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. While initially crude and dangerous to load and use – and still worryingly – drone warfare has improved, and it’s not uncommon to see metal barn or shed roofs opening up like cans under the impact of drone explosions.

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

To deal with the conflict’s growing firepower, the Mexican government resorted to a powerful card to outsmart the Jalisco cartel: Blackhawk gunships equipped with rotary-barrel electric machine guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute.

It is a weapon which almost defines “blind cover fire” and which is prohibited in most countries during civil conflicts. This is the kind of weapon President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he no longer wants.

But at the moment, such massive firepower is the only thing holding Jalisco back.

“They shot and burned two of our trucks,” the local gang leader said of the gunships. “When the soldiers come in with a helicopter, you can’t do anything, you just walk away. “

It is not certain that this will be the case for long. Jalisco is known for two things: being Mexico’s most heavily armed cartel and the only one to ever shoot down a military helicopter.

In 2015, gunmen from the Jalisco Cartel shot down a Eurocopter transport helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing eight soldiers and a police officer. While the helicopters Jalisco faces now are Blackhawks, there’s no doubt the Cartel can come up with something more impactful.

The El Universal newspaper published transcripts of intercepted cartel communications where a leader can be heard training a sniper with a .50 caliber rifle to launch armor-piercing shells through the door of a helicopter. The Mexican military did not respond to a request for comment on this or other matters.

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

The government, frightened by the kind of bloodshed that began in 2018 when the Jalisco cartel took hold in neighboring Guanajuato state, now finds itself with an impractical policy of defending gang territorial divisions and an advantage. increasingly narrow military.

An anonymous army captain who tried to speak with protesters in Aguililla spoke about the situation.

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

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