In The Heart Of The War in Mexico - Michoacan

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In The Heart Of The War in Mexico - Michoacan

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The violence and cruelty between autodefensas and the bloodthirsty Jalisco New Generation Cartel in Michoacán illustrates the magnitude of the problem that Andrés Manuel López Obrador is facing

Autodefensas patrol the border between Michoacán and Colima


Tepalcatepec (Michoacán) - Commander Teto leads a modern army of Pancho Villa where all vehicles have been modified. The armor of the windows is a thick overlay of glass, the doors have welded iron plates and at the top of the handle, there are holes like a mailbox through which a gun barrel pokes out. On the roof, Teto and his team have made a submarine iron lock from which it is possible to look out and continue firing.

Behind his Ford appears a Jeep, a Lincoln, a Dodge, a black, a white, a red ... Up to 15 4x4 trucks form the convoy that watches over Coahuayana, a town of 11,000 inhabitants, the last town in Michoacán before entering Colima, on the Pacific coast. In case of an attack, the strategy is clear: use the vehicle as a fortress and shoot until they run out of ammunition. With so many modifications, when it rains, the water sneaks into the cabin through small waterfalls.

It does not matter. The interior of the vehicle is the safest place for the commander in front of 80 angry looking men with everyone they don't recognize. While moving the steering wheel, Héctor Zepeda, Teto , checks his WhatsApp and hugs his AR-15 as if it were his life insurance. To the naked eye, inside the van there is an automatic rifle, two other 22 caliber carried in a belt, an AR-15 belonging to the copilot César, an old fisherman, four other pistols and two AK-47s carried by those who travel in the back, their bodies wrapped in cartridge belts. On the seat there is also a Barret with a telescopic sight and a grenade launcher. "We have taken everything from them when they flee," boasts the commander.

For some months in the Mexican State of Michoacán, a 3 hour drive from the capital, there have been deaths, beheadings, dismembered bodies thrown onto the streets or the appearance of bodies hanged on public bridges. In this lush region at the center of the country where 70% of the world's avocados come from and large portion of the lemon and papaya is consumed around the world, the fight between autodefensas and the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) is disputed with blood and fire, meter by meter, within the limits of Colima and Jalisco.

"Six years ago we put our lives on the line to get rid of the Templar Knights bullet by bullet and now we will not allow those from Jalisco to take over here," says Teto stroking his rifle, about the criminal group that until 2014 controlled this territory. “We will not allow murders, extortions & kidnappings to return. And there you have the data to prove it. Ever since the autodefensas began to monitor Coahuayana, all high-profile crimes have been reduced to zero. We are the people united to defend our families.”

The Mad Max- style caravan moves slowly through the municipality watching what happens: a young man on a motorcycle selling meth, a suspicious car, an individual whom nobody knows. When the vehicles reach a sign marking the entrance to Colima, they turn around and return to Michoacán.

Commander Teto's WhatsApp is in a frenzy. While conducting the interview in Tepalcatepec (at noon on Friday, August 30), his old friends in the autodefensas describe the battle that is happening 180 kilometers away. According to his sources, a group of 100 hitmen from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel have tried to take control of the town. After several hours of watching his cell phone the last message makes him happy: "Not 1 dead" it says. “Well, from us. Of them we killed nine bastards” he clarifies with the cold smile of someone who waits tensely for their moment. "And you think that these sons of bitches should be hugged and not shot, as proposed by the Government," he ironizes about the campaign slogan of current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The victory makes him happy. EL PAÍS journalists follow along the situation with their feet resting on bullet-filled grocery bags.

And it is not for less such satisfaction. The extension of the disputed area - the 66 kilometers that Michoacán shares with Colima and the 563 that it shares with Jalisco -, the number of men mobilized on Friday - about 120 men on each side -, the weapons used - a hundred armored vehicles, snipers, thousands of bullets, Barret grenade launchers, 10 hand grenades - the strategy utilized - a CJNG plane flew over the municipality two weeks earlier airdropping papers warning the populace not to leave the homes - the duration of the battle - almost three hours of firefights - and the number of casualties - nine dead and 11 wounded - the tally is similar to that of some battles in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The battle that took place on August 30th was fought 560 kilometers away from the palace where López Obrador read his Government report last Sunday. During the report he did not make any reference to Tepalcatepec, overlooking a dilemma that reaches historical figures. With 100 deaths per day (22 per 100,000 inhabitants), Mexico is living through its most violent period since the Revolution according to official data, a bloodbath that López Obrador attributes to social decomposition inherited from previous governments. Although he admitted that this is the greatest “challenge” facing his Government, of the 95 minutes he spent communicating to the country he spent only 40 seconds on the subject. Statistical figures, however, confirm the failure of a security plan focused on distributing National Guard members (military) throughout the country's "hot zones". A strategy whose main novelty is that the Army does not intervene, just as this newspaper proved on the ground.


Héctor Zepeda aboard his truck in Coahuayana

Until now the only ones capable of stopping the powerful Jalisco cartel in its attempt to control Michoacán have been the autodefensas, the popular movement dazzled the world in 2013 when it rose in arms against the Templar Knights cartel and began a crusade that expelled them from town to town. Subsequently they became rural police, some leaders were drawn to politics, others disengaged and others associated with smaller cartels. With the fall of El Chapo Guzmán, the weakening of the Sinaloa Cartel and the near disappearance of Los Zetas, CJNG has emerged as the strongest, wealthiest and most violent DTO in the country. With a presence throughout Latin America and some footing in Asia, it was only a matter of time before they tried to seize Michoacán one way or another. Since then, inhabitants of Coahuayana, Tepalcatepec, Aquila or La Ruana have chosen 1 of 2 sides: those who have left or those who stay & anticipate a battle at any moment.

The road of death. It's not the one that runs through the Andes or the Anapurna hillside, it's the 36 kilometers that connect Jalisco and Michoacán through Jilotlán, a small town surrounded by pines and oaks, considered the headquarters of CJNG in the western region of the country. A municipality of 9,000 inhabitants consisting of many scattered ranches and a small square with tile houses. Along the road there is a wonderful tool shop and an imposing soccer field with newly built stands like that of a third division level in Europe. From afar, CJNG hitmen look like day laborers who return crammed in the back of a truck. Up close, however, what appears to be a hoe or machete are actually AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. One of them passes by with a bandaged arm stained with blood. The aftermath of the battle the previous day.

The remainder of the drive to Tepalcatepec is blighted with remnants of tires, shell casings and shot up trucks abandoned in gutters. “I finished all the magazines and had to go get more,” explains one of the commanders of the autodefensas who defended the plaza preferring not to give his name out of fear. The previous day he emptied the nine magazines he carried in his chest, a total of 390 shots. In the legal limbo in which Michoacán lives, rural police are more afraid to identify themselves than to spend three hours in a firefight.

That Friday morning the same commander was in charge of calling military headquarters in the region of Apatzingán to ask for help and to alert that dozens of trucks were heading toward the town, “but the new orders are to not intervene and wait until everything is settled,” confessed an official on the other side of the call. So it happened. 10 hours later soldiers arrived, they made a report of the confrontation and then left. “It is humiliating to witness the abandonment in which the authorities have left us in. We are doing their job of providing security to the population and they despise us,” he points out a few meters from where Jalisco begins. “Ever since we exterminated the Templars six years ago we knew we were dead men. But we prefer to die like that, fighting, and not like threatened dogs."

The violence in Michoacán is not new, in fact, it was one of the first places to export marijuana thanks to its fertile land. However, in 2006 the situation spiraled out of control and the governor of the State reached out to President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) for help in the face of the brutal violence imposed by Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana and The Templar Knights. The president's response was to deploy to the Army and since then they have not returned to their barracks. Michoacán is a strategic region because it is considered an important area for drug transportation and control of the Lázaro Cárdenas port in the Pacific, the entry point of chemicals for synthetic drugs that has made CJNG millionaires. Two other ingredients season the pot: the money left by gold mines and avocados, says Alejandro Hope, security expert.

Against the backdrop of more recent violence is the emergence of Los Viagras cartel and the quarrel between two neighbors: Nemesio Oseguera, aka El Mencho, leader of CJNG born a few kilometers from here, in Aguililla, and Juan José Farías, aka El Abuelo, a veteran autodefensa leader worshiped by his people. The Government of Michoacán considers him a criminal but for thousands of people he is a “social fighter” who was received with mariachis and fireworks in his town when he was released in May 2018 without being charged after an investigation was launched against him.

Autodefensas have evolved unevenly and travel across a "very fine line" between those who legitimately defend their people and those with links to other cartels, according to security advisor Eunice Rendón who was hired in 2015 by the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto to turn autodefensas into rural police. He gives an example: "During the exams to turn them into local police, we had to remove questions about whether they had used drugs or whether they knew criminals because none of them passed the tests," he says. The current governor, Silvano Aureoles, rejected an interview with this newspaper to voice his opinion.

30 kilometers from Tepalcatepec, in La Ruana, four policemen protect the house of Hipólito Mora day and night. The 64-year-old lemon farmer who rose up against the Templars lives entrenched also waiting for their arrival at any time. He doesn't even know who is coming. Although he has severed relations with his former friends in the autodefensas whom he considers part of another cartel, the veteran leader agrees with them in two things: in his mockery of López Obrador's strategy and that everything is worse than before. “Hugs and not bullets?”, He says ironically, “I wish the Government stepped into our huaraches (peasant shoe). They have started kidnapped again and demanding extortion payments and I have no other solution but to take up arms again,” he announces. “These people do not understand another language and there is nothing to talk to them about because it is not possible to dialogue with the devil. I do not forgive any of those who killed my son,” he laments as he shows off the new battlement he has built on his roof to defend himself when they arrive for him.

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Re: In The Heart Of The War in Mexico - Michoacan

good  one
The way I see it.... the more people that don't like me, the less people I have to please
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Re: In The Heart Of The War in Mexico - Michoacan

In reply to this post by USA22x
Excelente reportaje.  Gracias por compartir.