MEXICO CITY- A drone attack that injured two cops shows how Mexico’s powerful drug cartels are building up their arsenals as part of an arms race in the violent turf wars engulfing the western state of Michoacan.
Media reports said that Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym) used drones to attack a local police headquarters earlier this week, but it was unclear which criminal group was responsible. A CJNG source in the Aguililla region told VICE World News that the group wasn’t responsible for the recent attack, and accused rivals of using the drones to "heat up the plaza" and attract police attention.
Although drug cartels have begun to equip consumer drones with explosives, the most recent attack marks the first time that one of these weaponized drones has caused injuries.
The attack took place close to the town of Aguililla, a strategic entryway to an area known as the Tierra Caliente, which loosely translates as hotlands, where opium is cultivated and which has long been disputed by organized crime for control over trafficking routes and extortion rackets. It’s also notorious for being the birthplace of the alleged leader of the CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera, alias “El Mencho”.
Fighting around the area has increased over the past four months, as the CJNG has tried to wrest control of the area from local criminal gangs. El Mencho is believed to have a special interest in establishing his cartel in his hometown.
Mexico’s Defense Minister, Luis Cresencio Sandoval González, said that the drone attacks in the town of El Aguaje against state police “are not worrisome, because they have not been as effective as they want” given that the drones cannot carry “damaging” quantities of explosives. One person has been arrested, he said.
But Romain Le Cour, from Noria Mexico and Central America, a research body, has investigated Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente power dynamics on the ground and suggested that the government may be trying to play down the importance of the attacks.
“The [army’s statement] has to do with an evident political discourse. I imagine that the Ministry of Defense cannot say that it is overwhelmed by [the attacks],” said Le Cour.
There is an ongoing arms race spearheaded by the two leading organized crime gangs in the Tierra Caliente – the Carteles Unidos (United Cartels), a federation of local gangs, and the CJNG, Le Cour said. Both want more drones to monitor their turf but also to turn them into remote-controlled weapons. The CJNG source who spoke to VICE World News claimed United Cartels were linked to previous drone attacks near the town of Tepalcatepec and in the state's coastal region.
“The arms race going on is truly worrying because [organized crime groups] now have more innovative ways to exert violence,” said Le Cour.
It’s not clear how the CJNG got the drones, but the cartel has become particularly adept at using the internet to order weapons accessories from the United States, and has even used Ebay to buy them. The drones that organized crime groups employ in Mexico are commercially available. The Mavic 2, for example, goes for about $2,500 on Amazon Mexico. Gangs later repurpose the high-end consumer drones they buy from web vendors to install improvised explosive devices.
While not common yet, four previous incidents involving drones outfitted with IEDs have occurred during Mexico’s drug wars, and three of those four attacks have been linked to the CJNG, according to a report by Small Wars Journal.
This fifth incident was the first to cause any injuries. Two earlier events involved seizures by security forces of drones outfitted with explosives, one was an aborted attack on a state official that appeared to be intended as a warning, and a fourth was an aborted attack by the CJNG against Carteles Unidos, according to the report.
“We may be eventually reaching a tipping point where these systems at some point become institutionalized in CJNG operations,” wrote the report’s authors in their recent article.
The CJNG has become well known for its military strength. In July 2020 a video of the cartel appeared online showing off dozens of homemade tanks and refurbished trucks surrounded by masked men holding large weapons. They have used their firepower to mount brazen attacks on security forces.
In 2015, the CJNG used a rocket grenade launcher to shoot down a Mexican army helicopter in an incident that left 15 dead. In 2016, another gang allied to the CJNG took down a Michoacan state police helicopter, killing five people, using a .50-caliber Barrett rifle, one of the most frequently seized weapons by the Mexican military today.
But the recent show of strength seems like an attempt to force state police forces to leave CJNG to operate with free rein in the territory, said Le Cour. Midterm elections slated for June 6 are adding to the violence as the cartels fight to establish control over local civilian authorities.
Both local and federal security forces operating in Tierra Caliente are either “passive, complicit or colluded” in the conflict, Le Cour said. At times, security forces are attacked at their bases, attempts to pressure them to support different criminal groups.
The war raging in the Tierra Caliente has been going since as far back as December 2006, when the then-President Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s drug war. Michoacan is his home state and he deployed thousands of soldiers there as one of his first moves against the country’s powerful cartels.
The United States has spent billions of dollars to support Mexico’s government in its crackdown on organized crime. Military grade weapons bought on the legal market in the U.S. are constantly smuggled south to arm the cartels in Mexico.
Homicides in Mexico have more than tripled since 2006, with 34,515 killings recorded in 2020, Mexico’s second most violent year on record. Of all homicides in 2020, Michoacan accounted for nearly seven percent of the total, and the numbers there are on the rise this year.
This story was edited at 1pm on April 23 2021 to reflect some uncertainty around the authors of the drone attack.