A Mayor Celebrated an End to a Cartel War. Then He Was Killed.

The assassination added to the chaos in Mexico’s Michoacán state, where the military is trying to kick out the CJNG cartel.

MEXICO CITY — In one of his last public acts, César Valencia Caballero, the mayor of Aguililla, Michoacán, held an event in the central square to celebrate the peace the government declared in the town after months of cartel control. Three weeks later, he was assassinated in his car.

Sources in the area shared photos and videos of the scene of Valencia’s murder with VICE World News. A white pickup truck is parked on a city street with a body covered with a white sheet slumped in the front seat. Soldiers stand guard. One person at the scene, who asked not to be named to protect his security, said in a voice message forwarded to VICE World News that the mayor had been shot twice in the chest and once in the neck. On Friday, Michoacán’s state prosecutor tweeted that Valencia’s adviser had also been found dead.

The murders underscore the chaos engulfing Aguililla, which the Jalisco New Generation Cartel—the most powerful and violent crime group in Mexico—had been controlling for almost a year until the Mexican army and National Guard launched an offensive to kick out the group, known as the CJNG, in February. The CJNG’s leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes aka El Mencho, is from Aguililla and among the most-wanted fugitives in Mexico.


Blanca García Cervantes (left), the wife of Aguililla mayor César Valencia Caballero, weeps at his funeral while holding his portrait. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

The killings are the latest in a series of escalating acts of brutality in the Pacific Coast state. On the same day as Valencia’s assassination, a group of hitmen descended on the town of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, a reputed stronghold of the CJNG that is about four hours east of Aguililla.

Videos shared on social media showed fighting in the streets and inside a municipal government building, kids hiding behind their desks, and vehicles modified to look like tanks roaming the streets, all to the sound of high-caliber bullets. Residents in the community also reportedly tried to lynch members of the community police for not protecting them before the National Guard stopped them.

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Mexican soldiers enter the memorial service for Aguililla mayor César Valencia Caballero, who was shot dead on March 10, 2022. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

Local authorities said 32 people had been arrested and five people died in what appeared to be a battle between cartels. Over the weekend, the Mexican military dispatched more reinforcements to Michoacán, including to the state capital Morelia, in hopes of quelling the violence.


Analysts say it’s difficult to describe what is happening in Michoacán compared to any other conflict.  “There is no category in international law” for the violence and conflict that’s plaguing Mexico, and especially Michoacán,” said Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Some call it a crime problem. Others call it a war. Others call it an internal armed conflict,” Ernst said. “If you look at the casualty rates in Mexico over the last 15 years, it’s been heavier than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.”


Townspeople from Aguililla, Michoacán, march in the streets following the murders of their mayor and his advisor on March 11, 2022. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

Michoacán, which produces 80 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States, has been a center of conflict among criminal gangs for years, which use the fruit as a kind of war tax as they fight over territory to smuggle drugs, extort businesses and operate kidnapping rings.

At the end of February, armed gunmen burst into a wake in San José de Gracia, Michoacán and reportedly executed as many as 17 people, including mourners. A blurry video of the massacre appears to show people being lined up against a wall and gunned down. No bodies have been found and it’s believed that the assassins took the corpses and disappeared them. According to Michoacán state prosecutor Adrián López Solís, authorities found DNA evidence at the scene indicating at least 11 different victims.

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A heavily armed police officer stands guard at the scene of a murder in Aguililla, Michoacán, on March 11, 2022. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

Valencia’s murder in Aguililla is yet another reminder that mayors and other local officials face deadly risks in Mexico. He was elected in June 2021, after the CJNG seized control of the municipality, and he took office in September. While the military is attempting to push the Jalisco cartel out of Michoacán, a coalition of local organized crime groups known as the United Cartels remains a powerful force in the state.

“We strongly condemn the murder of the mayor of Aguililla, César Arturo Valencia Caballero,” tweeted Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla, Michoacán’s governor, on Thursday evening.

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Members of a special forces unit from the Michoacán state prosecutor’s office look on during a homicide investigation on March 11, 2022. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

Widespread impunity has led the murder of politicians and candidates to become almost routine in Mexico. In the run-up to the 2021 midterm election, at least 89 politicians, including 25 candidates, were killed, according to Etellekt, a security consultancy firm. And in the 2018 general election, more than 110 politicians and candidates were killed. 

Ernst said local politicians working in regions where criminal groups act openly are in a lose-lose position. Mayors that seek to work for their communities lack support from state and federal governments when they face threats from cartels to bend to their demands. 


A mourner holds a photo of Aguililla’s former mayor, César Valencia Caballero, at his funeral on March 11, 2022. (Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafin / VICE News)

“And if they start collaborating with one group, they still face the violent threats and pressures from the opposing groups,” he said, adding that the idea of confronting criminal groups in the current climate is “borderline suicidal.”

U.S. authorities have avoided criticizing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s security strategy. Rooted in his campaign slogan of “hugs not bullets,” it seeks to provide more opportunities for youth, as well as move away from his predecessors’ focus on killing or arresting cartel kingpins. At the same time, he has militarized policing by forming a National Guard. Homicides rose during López Obrador’s first two years in office before falling 3.6 percent in 2021.