On the Front Line of Mexico’s Forever War Against the Cartels

“You’ve found the heart of the mafia,” one cartel member in the state of Michoacán told us. “If I were you, I wouldn’t have come here.”
February 25, 2021, 6:03pm

AGUILILLA, Michoacán — The cartel checkpoint doesn’t look like much, just a few logs strewn across the two-lane highway. Two guys in camo and body armor, carrying automatic rifles, step out onto the pavement and gesture for us to stop.

We’ve been expecting this roadblock. The sun is setting, and at night the two groups battling for control of Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente region turn the main thoroughfare that connects the municipal capitals of Aguililla and Apatzingán into a no-man’s land. We didn’t plan to be here, and we’re not sure which cartel is stopping us.

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One of the two gunmen walks up to our car. Up close we can see his tattooed forearms, and he starts asking questions. We explain that we’re journalists filming a documentary, and he sounds skeptical as he relays our story to his commander through the walkie-talkie strapped to his bulletproof vest.

“Listen, I have a guy or some guys here — who are you again?”

“Reporters.”

“Some reporters.” 

There’s a pause, and the radio chirps. We can hear his boss ask: “Are they making a movie?”

“Affirmative, affirmative.”

Left: A gunman from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) at a cemetery near El Aguaje, Michoacán. Right: A CJNG commander near El Aguaje. Photos by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

Left: A gunman from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) at a cemetery near El Aguaje, Michoacán. Right: A CJNG commander near El Aguaje. Photos by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

He steps out of earshot to receive orders. We’re in disputed territory; laying claim on one side is the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG for its initials in Spanish. The group has risen to national dominance in Mexico on a wave of bloodshed, with some of the most brutal fighting concentrated here along the western edge of Michoacán. The birthplace of CJNG founder Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka El Mencho, is a hamlet just half an hour up the road.

Listen to the podcast version of this story on VICE News Reports.

Mencho’s forces invaded Michoacán in 2019, ambushing and killing 14 state police officers and leaving a note that accused the cops of serving rival cartels. The CJNG’s enemies are a motley assortment of local gangs that have divvied up the Tierra Caliente into small fiefdoms. After years of internecine feuding, in the last 18 months these groups formed a loose alliance known as the United Cartels, banding together to beat back the Jalisco incursion. The fighting has involved explosive drones, armored “monster” trucks, and ultra-brutal killings on both sides.

We had set out that day planning to meet contacts from CJNG, but they failed to show up at the rendezvous and stopped responding to our messages. We were left flying blind as we traversed the highway back across the front lines. At the checkpoint, we suspect based on our location that we’re talking to the United Cartels. A well-known United Cartels leader had spoken to us earlier on our trip, so we gamble and mention his name to the gunmen.

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The tattooed one radios the name along to his boss. A few moments pass before he returns with a stern, one-word command. “Regresa.” Go back. 

A white Jeep Cherokee stops us again as we return the way we came. A chubby guy in a camo T-shirt, ballcap, and sandals steps out from behind the wheel carrying an M16-style rifle. He’s not quite pointing it at us, but he’s keeping it at the ready as he orders us all out of the car, right in the middle of the highway.

That’s when we have to stop the tape recorder.

***

In our years of reporting for VICE, including several previous expeditions into the heart of cartel territory, there has never been a moment of fear quite like that one. Mexico is the deadliest country in the world for journalists, with at least nine people murdered in reprisal for their work last year alone. Being international press affords a degree of protection; local reporters face the gravest dangers.

We came to the Tierra Caliente to chronicle the latest bloody chapter in what is essentially a civil war, one that’s dragged on longer than the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, killing tens of thousands and displacing millions. The end of 2021 will mark 15 years since the start of Mexico's “guerra contra el narcotráfico.” The war against drug trafficking officially began in December 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers to topple the cartel terrorizing Michoacán, his home state. 

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Mexican troops have long played a pivotal role in the drug war (sometimes fighting traffickers, other times facilitating their activities), but Calderón kicked off a new era of militarization — one bankrolled by the United States, which has sent $3.3 billion in security aid since 2008. Loose U.S. gun laws and the porous border allowed millions of military-grade arms to be smuggled south. Calderón’s war soon spread far beyond Michoacán, plunging the entire country into a downward spiral of violence that continues today. Homicides have more than tripled since 2006, with 34,515 killings recorded in 2020.

Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, was Calderón’s political nemesis in 2006, and he later campaigned on the slogan “hugs not bullets'' and a vague pledge to de-escalate the drug war. But since taking office, AMLO has mostly done the opposite, rebranding a few police and military units as the National Guard and leaning even more heavily on federal troops for policing. López Obrador has toyed with upending the existing security agreement with the U.S., but for now business still continues as usual. 

AMLO blames his predecessors for the country’s ongoing security woes. When we asked the president about Michoacán at a press conference in October, he offered a cryptic reply suggesting the root of the problem is corruption. (Never mind that AMLO’s government recently intervened to stop the U.S. from prosecuting Mexico’s ex-secretary of defense on narco-corruption charges, then swiftly cleared the general of any wrongdoing.)

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“Of course there’s been an increase in violence and, most unfortunately, in homicide rates,” AMLO said. “They allowed the creation of criminal associations between authorities and criminals. Isn’t that obvious?”

Asked to clarify, AMLO continued: “If there’s no clear difference between authority and crime, we can’t move forward. The states where we have more problems are the ones that allowed the increase of this association. It’s much more difficult to solve the problem of violence.” 

It’s doubtful Mexico (or the U.S.) will “solve the problem of violence” anytime soon, but we were in Michoacán to try to understand if anything will or can change for the better. We ultimately did find a few reasons for hope — but first we had to talk our way out of that cartel checkpoint.

***

Our journey starts in a sleepy little town in the Tierra Caliente, about an hour’s drive west of the de facto regional capital Apatzingán. We’re parked next to a deserted plaza waiting to meet with a leader of the United Cartels. Lookouts on motorbikes have been doing laps around the plaza for hours, eyeing us with suspicion. The boss is running late.

We’ve been invited here because the United Cartels are on a public relations offensive. Their coalition includes at least half a dozen criminal groups, including some that formed years ago for the ostensible purpose of defending the people of Michoacán from cartel extortion and kidnappings. These original autodefensas first started popping up in 2013 and were a hodgepodge of community militias. The name literally translates as “self-defense forces,” and some were genuine citizen-led forces that took up arms to overthrow the Knights Templar, the cultlike cartel that once held an iron grip on the state. 

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But the Knights Templar rivals and defectors jumped on the bandwagon, and the ex-cartel members found cloaking themselves with the autodefensa label led to favorable media coverage and acceptance from the Mexican government. Some of the vigilantes were issued rifles and uniforms, but in the years afterward many went back to being outlaws, trafficking meth and shaking down local businesses for protection. 

To win hearts and minds in the war against CJNG, the United Cartels have attempted to revive the autodefensa label and once again portray themselves as community protectors. One faction recently staged a photo op with women (some pregnant) toting assault rifles and standing guard at barricades with children in tow. Some groups have handed out care packages with food and essential supplies during the pandemic. But the veneer of benevolence fades when the United Cartels boss finally arrives for our meeting.

The boss is flanked by at least two dozen sicarios, all carrying automatic rifles and wearing tactical vests. Some resemble Brooklyn hipsters, with skinny jeans and bushy beards. One has a bleach-blonde “Tiger King” mullet. There’s one woman in the bunch, armed to the teeth with a grenade launcher attached to the barrel of her AR-15 and sporting a band of skulls tattooed around her biceps. The boss wears a polo shirt and has a gold-plated pistol tucked into the waistband of his distressed designer jeans. They’re not exactly the bunch of humble farmers the term autodefensa is meant to conjure.

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The boss won’t let us record his interview; he’s worried it will cause him problems with the government or the other leaders of the United Cartels. But he speaks openly about his business, and shakes his head at the memory of the autodefensa uprising.

“You guys should have been here 10 years ago,” he says. “It was really the Wild West here.”

“What’s it like now?”

“Well, I guess it’s still the Wild West,” he replies with a chuckle. He describes the “union” of cartels as an effort to restore some semblance of order. “Look, I'm a criminal. But we’re trying to get peace in these communities by joining forces with my former enemies.”

The boss offers to escort us to El Aguaje, the most hotly contested town in the battle against CJNG. Once home to around 5,000 people with an economy that revolved around lime farms, El Aguaje has the misfortune of being strategically located near the highway turnoff to El Mencho’s hometown. After changing hands several times over the past 18 months, it’s now a ghost town. Charred husks of burned-out cars dot the streets. The houses are abandoned and pocked by bullets. We’re told fewer than 50 families remain amid the ruins.

The boss’ deputy introduces himself as Juan Carlos and tells us he’s from El Aguaje as he takes us into a ransacked house. Thousands of spent shell casings are scattered across the floor, along with heaps of empty beer cans and other detritus. In the kitchen there’s a dirty Looney Toons mattress from what used to be a child’s bedroom down the hall. Juan Carlos says the CJNG made it a safe house after taking over the town. The family that once lived here was displaced, he says, and the man of the house disappeared after he refused to join the cartel.

“The Jaliscos took out the family and made them kneel here,” Juan Carlos says, gesturing at the patio as he recalls the words he says witnesses heard exchanged. 

“‘Hey, we don’t like trouble.’”

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“‘We don’t give a fuck; you’ll fight for the boss.’”

Asked which side he fights for, Juan Carlos is careful not to say “Carteles Unidos.” He prefers “Pueblos Unidos” — the United Towns. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but he prefers the more inclusive term because some “legitimate autodefensas” are also involved. The military helps out too by occasionally catching CJNG members, he says, “but it’s not enough.”

“We don’t want families torn apart, we don’t want theft, kidnappings,” Juan Carlos says. “We are tired of that. That’s what’s happening here, and that’s what we’re fighting for. Maybe I won’t live to see it, but we will die trying. We will get the Jaliscos out of here.”

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The United Cartels boss who has been waiting nearby interrupts our interview with Juan Carlos, honking the horn on his truck and signaling for us to hurry up and leave. He speeds off down the highway, and we scramble to keep up. In the moment, there’s no explanation — we’re just told it’s not safe anymore in El Aguaje. Only later do we learn that someone from their organization was murdered just a few miles up the road from the site of our interview.

The boss leads us to another town under his control, one that’s hosting a literal carnival, with small amusement park rides, games, and ranchero music blasting in the streets. The place is crawling with armed men, many of them zooming around in expensive-looking off-road vehicles. The boss is clearly pleased with himself. He tells us to ask anyone, life is great here. But we’re not allowed to film or conduct interviews. It feels like seeing a peaceful, happy town through a funhouse mirror.

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Earlier on our trip, we met a 20-something woman we’ll call Rita, who was forced to flee El Aguaje with her young children. She told us what life is really like under cartel rule. She got used to seeing armed people around, and for a time it felt relatively peaceful. Then the gun battles started, sometimes raging in the street right outside the family’s front door.

Rita and her partner both worked in the lime orchards, and their employer provided a comfortable home with enough space for the whole family, plus wages to sustain them.

“We used to play volleyball or card games with our neighbors,” Rita says, recalling the day the family was split apart. Her partner left for a volleyball game one night and she stayed home with their children.

“It got to be 1 a.m. and he still wasn’t back,” she says. “They were saying that [the cartel] was taking men to make them fight. My children’s father — they beat him and left him for dead. That’s how we got separated. He had to leave. You join them or they kill you.”

She’s now unemployed and lives in a temporary shelter, a one-room shack where she and her kids share a few mattresses spread across the concrete floor. The father of her children is in Tijuana, she says, looking for a way to cross the U.S. border and find work.

Rita is too afraid to speak the name of the group that nearly beat her husband to death, but it was one of the United Cartels factions. She has no hope for justice, and says the Mexican government is doing nothing to restore order in El Aguaje or assist displaced families.

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“We don’t know why they won’t stop it,” Rita says. “There are many children caught in the middle. But no, they haven’t wanted to step in.”

Father Gregorio López, a priest better known by his nickname, Padre Goyo, coordinates relief efforts for the displaced in Michoacán. Other towns in the area have emptied out too, the priest says, pulling up a list on his phone with the names of 525 families he’s helped resettle. Many have fled to border cities with plans to seek asylum or try their luck sneaking across, he says.

The pandemic has made the priest’s work even more difficult as each displaced family needs their own accommodations. Padre Goyo encourages victims of crimes to file reports, but few are willing because of the perception that the police serve the cartels. The lack of documentation creates difficulties for those seeking asylum and makes it hard to quantify the scope of the crisis. Drug violence has displaced anywhere from 1 million to 8 million Mexicans, and more than 79,000 are classified as “disappeared.” 

Padre Goyo was once a vocal supporter of community militias in Michoacán. He took to the streets in the early 2010s wearing a bulletproof vest over his cassock and carrying a bullhorn, calling for townspeople to unite and drive out the cartel members in their midst. Years later, he’s grown weary of organized crime co-opting the autodefensa movement. Asked whether the United Cartels could be considered the lesser of two evils in the war against CJNG, he scoffs.

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“There’s no good cartel,” the priest says. “Carteles Unidos has remained because they have the army’s support or the National Guard’s support. I’m not saying the other one (CJNG) is good; none of them are. The government shouldn’t support criminals. They should go and clean up, take them both out.”

***

Versions of the turf war in the Tierra Caliente are playing out all over Mexico. There’s a local twist to each one, but a common denominator is the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. The CJNG has earned a reputation for ruthlessness, piling up bodies wherever they’ve expanded, often by enlisting local syndicates to join their cause of trafficking enormous amounts of cocaine, meth, heroin, and fentanyl. The cartel’s forces now dominate Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, along with much of the region around Jalisco. By one estimate, the cartel now has over 5,000 members worldwide and operations in at least 35 U.S. states. 

The DEA is offering a $10 million bounty for El Mencho, who founded CJNG in the early 2010s. But El Mencho apparently dreams of a triumphant homecoming, hence the attempted takeover of Michoacán. One news report claims his plan is to convert the municipality of Aguililla into a virtual “bunker” where he can safely run his empire.

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El Mencho has never given an interview, and his cartel is notoriously secretive. But through our contacts, we managed to request an interview with the leaders of the CJNG faction operating in Aguililla. They direct us to a remote town atop one of the rugged mountains that separate the Tierra Caliente from the Pacific Coast.

As we leave behind the highway and the road winds up the mountain, we notice street signs tagged with CJNG graffiti in black letters. The pavement soon fades to dirt, then mostly mud and rocks. Three harrowing hours later, navigated in our Kia minivan by the grace of God and with spotty Google Maps coverage, we arrive to find the town eerily quiet. After some delicate conversations with curious locals, we learn the CJNG members we planned to meet left earlier to avoid a military patrol.

With daylight fading fast, our only move is to drive down the other side of the mountain — a route with a mostly paved road that will take us through El Aguaje and back into United Cartels territory. There’s no cell service and we’re unable to communicate with our contacts on either side. We keep passing the ghostly skeletons of torched vehicles. 

The first checkpoint is at the entrance to the city of Aguililla, then under control of the United Cartels. A teenage gunman waves us through without question. It’s about 45 minutes later, just as the sun starts to dip below the horizon, when we hit the second checkpoint and are told to turn back.

The guy in the white Jeep who stops us next starts off his conversation friendly enough: “Do you have a few minutes to chat?” But he’s gripping an assault rifle slung over his shoulder.

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We leave our minivan parked in the middle of the highway. He makes us line up in front of the car and show identification. We hand over our press credentials and IDs and he snaps pictures on his cellphone, then gets on the radio. More trucks show up, carrying at at least 30 men, all heavily armed. They park with their headlights on us.

We try mentioning the name of the United Cartels leader again, and that’s when they break the news to us. One guy, dressed head to toe in black like a commando, pulls a velcro patch out of his pocket and affixes to the front of his bulletproof vest. It says in block letters: CJNG.

“You’ve found the heart of the mafia,” he says. “If I were you, I wouldn’t have come here.”

***

At first, they interrogate us. We try to explain that we’ve been in contact with someone who represented CJNG in the area, but they don’t seem to know what we’re talking about. They take away our cellphones and search our minivan. When they find a drone, which we’ve been using to film landscape shots, the commando in black grows even more suspicious.

“Are you DEA?” he asks. “If you’re DEA, you’re not getting out of here.”

Some of the gunmen next to the pickup trucks are smoking weed and snorting cocaine, laughing and seeming to enjoy watching us squirm. The tat-tat-tat of machine gun fire rattles in the distance and one shouts: “¡Ya empezó la guerra!” — the war has started!

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The threat of violence hangs in the air until their true comandante arrives, then the ice breaks. Satisfied that we are, in fact, journalists and pose no threat, the CJNG commander apologizes for the misunderstanding and invites us back for a proper interview the next morning. He’s not even mad that we name-dropped the United Cartels, saying he understands our job is to get all sides of the story.

The gunmen are suddenly friendly and curious to learn about marijuana legalization in the U.S. They mostly hail from Guadalajara and say they’ve been deployed in Michoacán for over a year. They want to know what Americans think about CJNG, and they seem pleased when we say they’re known as the most bloodthirsty and powerful cartel in Mexico. As we’re leaving, they direct us to a nearby garage and help put air in a tire on our minivan that’s going flat.

The next morning, we return to a small town near where we were stopped the night before. The CJNG gunmen arrive in a convoy of trucks, including an armored black Ford Raptor, with steel plates and gunports installed in the windows. The thick barrel of a .50-caliber sniper rifle pokes through a hole in the windshield.

The black truck belongs to the CJNG comandante in charge of the region. He leads us into a small cemetery to do the interview, taking a perch atop a cement grave. He speaks English from spending time in the U.S. — including a stint in prison for drug trafficking — but says he was raised in Michoacán and, like his boss El Mencho, he’s now fighting to take back his homeland. Like his gunmen we met the night before, he shows an almost fanatical devotion to his leader, and says the United Cartels are spreading lies by accusing CJNG of terrorizing civilians. 

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“We don’t do that,” says the comandante. “We are drug traffickers. We produce, we export, and we sell drugs. That is how our ‘father’ makes his money. That’s our business. We don’t depend at all on extortion or kidnapping.”

A CJNG commander speaks with VICE News near El Aguaje. Photo by: Miguel Fernández-Flores.

A CJNG commander speaks with VICE News near El Aguaje. Photo by: Miguel Fernández-Flores.

When he hears we’ve met people displaced by the violence, the comandante expresses sympathy and says many have been targeted by the United Cartels because they have relatives in CJNG or are suspected sympathizers.

“Señor Don Mencho is a very honorable person,” the comandante says. “We are not people that will act against innocent civilians. That goes against my orders and my principles. If I didn't think that way, I wouldn't be part of this cartel.”

Throughout our interview, the comandante cradles an assault rifle and grenade launcher across his lap. A walkie-talkie attached to his bulletproof vest crackles as lookouts in the surrounding hills give updates on the location of military forces in the area. 

Near the end of our conversation, a family — two women and several children — comes to tend to a grave near where we’re seated. It’s almost Day of the Dead, and they ignore the sicarios in ski masks lingering nearby as they leave offerings and clean up the tombstone. 

A Jalisco cartel member stands guard during the interview. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

A Jalisco cartel member stands guard during the interview. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

When we ask the CJNG comandante about the drug war in Michoacán that has stretched for 15 years, he mentions that he has four children who haven’t seen him in over a year because he’s been off fighting. 

“I’d like to be able to live here without a weapon, to bring my family,” he says. “I’d like to come with them here in 15 years without needing to have armed people with me. That’s what I’d like.” 

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But the comandante isn’t ready to lay down his arms quite yet. He makes a vague reference to politicians who failed to keep their promises and vows to keep fighting as long as it takes to conquer this land — or as long as El Mencho commands it.

“We know that with this path we’re on, if we die, we died for something that was worth it,” he says. “War never ends. We’re going to keep doing this.”

***

Leaving the cemetery, we pass a group of women and children huddled by the highway. They flag us down because they’ve seen we have cameras and they want us to spread their plea for help. El Aguaje is just up the road, and they say the situation is dire because the United Cartels are blocking trucks from passing through, even ones carrying essential supplies.

“They’re not letting food through,” one woman says. “El Aguaje is full of armed people, there’s a bunch of them on the hill up there and they shoot at anyone driving by.”

A car drives past toward El Aguaje, and a few minutes later we hear distant sprays of gunfire. Local news reports say the area was without electricity after the United Cartels destroyed a power transformer. In other communities nearby, the cartels have used construction equipment to dig trenches and make the highway impassable, impeding the advance of CJNG but also laying siege to the disputed areas.

It’s difficult to calculate the economic impact of the drug war in Michoacán, but abandoned farms and warehouses are visible all along the highway. The state produces the majority of Mexico’s avocados — with crop exports valued at $2.4 billion — and the cartels have long threatened the lucrative industry by extorting and robbing producers. Along the coast of Michoacán, large-scale papaya farmers have been subjected to the same treatment. Tourism, once the lifeblood of beach towns before the pandemic, has further dried up amid the cartel wars, as it has across Mexico.

Our last stop in Michoacán is the municipality of Aquila, which sprawls along the lush tropical coastline west of the Tierra Caliente. The coast makes for prime drug smuggling territory, but the land here is valuable for other reasons, too. The hills are rich with iron ore, and the steel conglomerate Ternium maintains a large mining operation near the municipal capital.

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Mexico’s cartels have diversified their revenue streams in recent years, moving beyond the drug trade and muscling in on all types of legitimate businesses, including mines. AMLO’s government has made the protection of mines a top priority, sending a specially-trained force of armed guards to protect a gold mine in the north of the country. But in Aquila, the fight against CJNG has fallen to the local autodefensa, led by a former mine laborer named Rubén Baltazar, aka El Chopo.

Members of the autodefensa community police force in Aquila, Michoacán. Photos by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

Members of the autodefensa community police force in Aquila, Michoacán. Photos by Miguel Fernández-Flores.

Chopo says the mine employs more than 300 people, and indigenous community members receive up to 30,000 pesos (about $1,500) per month in royalties for permitting mining on their land. “We don’t need to sell cocaine, weed, crystal meth, or any other type of drug,” he says. “But we need security. What we ask from the government is to provide security.”

According to Chopo, CJNG’s local chieftain in Aquila once led the community’s autodefensa. But after ousting the Knights Templar cartel from the area in 2013, Chopo says, the militia became corrupted. The ex-leader was arrested and jailed, but Chopo says the man was freed and is now backed by CJNG, which constantly attacks their ramshackle police outpost. 

“I’ve been carrying a rifle around for seven years,” Chopo says. “I’m fed up and angry. But if I stopped, they’d kill me.”

Chopo says his force is supported entirely by voluntary donations from the community, though in 2014 there were allegations that the payments were coerced. Chopo says he receives no support from the Mexican military or government, and he grumbles about the National Guard troops showing up hours after the firefights with CJNG have ended.

Rubén Baltazar, a militia commander known as El Chopo, on patrol in Aquila, Michoacán. Photo by Keegan Hamilton.

El Chopo drives on a patrol. Photo by Keegan Hamilton.

“I don’t want to speak badly about the government, but they have the capacity, they have the money, they have the equipment, and they have the power,” Chopo says. “I don't understand why they haven't taken out this part of the Jalisco Cartel we have here. All we can do is wait. And if this band of criminals attacks us, well, we'll hit them back just as hard.”

***

Other places in Aquila have kept faith in the autodefensas even after seeing the movement break bad in the early years. Along the coast, the indigenous community of Ostula was among the first to take up arms and expel the Knights Templar cartel from their land, ending years of extortion, kidnappings, and illegal timber harvesting. It was a bloody, yearslong struggle punctuated, locals say, by their militia leader perpetrating the same misdeeds he’d fought to end.

Ostula's revived autodefensa is allied with Chopo’s outfit, but the indigenous community maintains its own ragtag security network. Barricades on the dirt roads into their land are manned by campesinos armed with shotguns and walkie-talkies. In the event of a cartel incursion, they radio for help from reinforcements equipped with heavier weapons.

“We don’t trust the government,” says Ezequiel Grageda, a community leader in Ostula. “We’re doing it all ourselves.”

Grageda and others said Ostula’s corrupted autodefensa leader is now allied with CJNG. As punishment, the man was banished from the community and his home was demolished. Since then, Grageda says, he and others have received death threats from the cartel.

“They’ve killed our community leaders and threaten that if they come inside, they’ll go all the way,” Grageda says. “Against authorities, guards — everyone.”

Ostula’s autodefensa has clashed with the Mexican military over their roadblocks in years past, including one incident where the militia comandante reportedly fled the scene after ramming a military truck. AMLO has publicly disapproved of the autodefensas, but for the most part they are tolerated. Cherán, an indigenous community allied with Ostula, became known as one of the safest places in Michoacán after their militia kicked out both the cartels and the local police.

The militia groups on the coast insist they have no relationship with the United Cartels. CJNG recently released a propaganda video accusing the local autodefensa leaders of trafficking drugs and running protection rackets. We never saw any evidence of that during our time in Ostula and Aquila.

Rumenigue Macías, an elementary school teacher, tells us Ostula finally feels safe again. It’s a tiny, tight-knit place, he says, and word would get around if there were issues with the autodefensa. He takes us to a beach where busloads of tourists have gathered to watch migrating sea turtles. Community police with assault rifles linger on the periphery, but otherwise it’s a picture of tranquility as turtles crawl up the beach to lay eggs.

“Cattle are not robbed anymore,” Macías says. “The farmer that grew papaya had to pay a good percentage of his profits [to the cartel] — there was one that was robbed and his family was killed — that doesn't happen now. There’s peace in the community.”

The question is how long that peace can last. Aquila and Ostula are roughly 100 miles west of the epicenter of the conflict in the Tierra Caliente, but their territory abuts CJNG strongholds to the north. In addition to holding precious natural resources, their land has important routes through the mountains and into the interior of Michoacán. 

CJNG has been on the offensive lately, reportedly retaking El Aguaje from the United Cartels, along with Aguililla. Rumor has it El Mencho himself rolled into the municipal capital in a convoy of over 30 armored vehicles to celebrate the victory, although a CJNG source disputed that claim.

There’s an infamous phrase in Mexico: Plata o plomo — silver or lead. It’s the binary choice offered to those who dare to stand in the way of the cartels: Take the bribe or suffer the consequences with bullets. When we ask Chopo whether he’s considered taking the path of least resistance with CJNG, he says never. He prefers lead.

“We aren’t people that can be bought,” Chopo says. “We don’t have the need. We’re here in our houses. We live as we please, with danger of course, but we’re going to defend ourselves.”

Srdjan Stojiljkovic and Juan José Estrada Serafín contributed reporting in Michoacán.