CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
In a video circulating around the Mexican internet, two dozen trucks and cars line up one behind the other on a country road, their engines revving. In the back of the pick-ups sit heavily armed men, their faces obscured with scarves adorned with skull prints. Other men holding long guns stand on the road, the doors of their cars open until the guy filming orders them to get in. Doors slam shut, tires spin on the gravel road, and someone shouts “Viva Nueva Generacion!”
On the sides of nearly every vehicle are imprinted the letters CJNG—Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, one of Mexico's two most powerful drug cartels. The blatant show of force and social media push is part of the cartel’s latest bid for new territory along Mexico’s southwestern coast. The cartel’s home state of Jalisco and other claimed territories are north of Michoacán, which it now wants to dominate too. As a result, gun battles between criminal factions and assaults on police and military patrols are breaking out nearly every day.
“This is a challenge to the new government [of Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador],” said Ricardo Rafael, an author, journalist and security analyst.
The video of the branded trucks emerged hours before a gunfight in the city of Zamora in the southern state of Michoacán. In the early hours of Sunday, May 26, four policemen were killed and further nine hospitalized when they were ambushed by what local media referred to as "armed civilians" in some 30 pickups marked CJNG. A month earlier, the local police chief was gunned down in the same town, and on May 22, some nine people were killed during a gunfight—allegedly between rival crime gangs—in the city of Uruapan, a two hour drive away. Further reports emerged this week of armed confrontations between the CJNG and a group called Las Viagras that left more dead on both sides.
In the same week, a group of soldiers came under fire from armed men in a town called La Huacana. Press reports said the armed aggressors (presumably drug gang members) fled after trying to repel the soldiers, but that villagers acting in defence of the gangsters detained the soldiers and their weapons for a few hours. The event was captured on cell phone video. The disarming of soldiers in Mexico is very rare, and the incident is an example of how embedded and supported organized crime is in some rural communities, as well as the lack of a rule of law.
Michoacán is one of Mexico’s most troubled states in the context of the country’s more than decade-long drug war. Avocado fields co-exist with clandestine poppy and marijuana plantations. Meth labs, and increasingly fentanyl labs, dot the hills in these humid lands. Civilian uprisings made headlines in 2013 and 2014, when self-defense groups took up arms in what they saw as an absence of adequate state protection to defend themselves against the violent, repressive drug cartels who were extorting, raping, pillaging and killing local people. Yet many cartel members often came from the same communities that rose up against them, which sometimes created shady alliances between the two sides.
The large-scale self-defense movement in Michoacán, which was one of the focuses of the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, eventually fell apart after it was co-opted by the government, but small auto-defensa groups continue to exist. Hipolito Mora, who founded one of the most prominent self-defense groups in 2013, said that many were co-opted and financed—these are humble, impoverished communities—by the cartels and functioned as armed wings of local criminal cells. The CJNG drug trafficking organization is in the process of intimidating and battling smaller local trafficking groups such as Las Viagras to take control, according to Mora, so wants as many armed allies as it can get. Alliances between different crime syndicates that existed during and up until this point in time are now being declared over by the latest assaults credited to the CJNG.
“We are living levels of violence that we have never seen,” Mora told VICE from his hometown of La Ruana in Michoacán. “More than anything, it’s due to the weakness of the government down here. They need to do more.”
Michoacán has long been contested territory in the country’s crime wars. In addition to being an important production and cultivation zone for drugs, the state is home to the international seaport of Lazaro Cardenas, a key arrival point for precursor chemicals sent from Asia to make methamphetamine and fentanyl. But recent events suggest that the CJNG, which the United States government declared a public enemy in October last year, is further expanding its organization across Mexico’s Western coast, where it already dominates in equally drug-productive states such as Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco. The criminal organization is considered by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to be as powerful a threat as Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.
“The message this week from the CJNG [to rival gangs] is that 'we’re much more powerful and have more control and weaponry so don’t mess with us,'" Rafael said. "The message is also to the federal government.”
Falco Ernst, head investigator for the International Crisis Group in Mexico, has spent time in Michoacán doing fieldwork on the cartels and their impact on civilians. He said that local, criminal cells may not be so willing to roll over when confronted by the CJNG, to whom Michoacán is not home.
"I wouldn’t like to die without seeing a government that is strong and intelligent and dedicated to giving us the peace we need"
“Local groups are deeply embedded in their own communities and have their own intelligence," Ernst said. "There have been attempts to take over territories and push into that zone, but both the geography of the state—it’s very rugged—and ties to local populations has made that impossible to pull that off.”
That may be, but the CJNG seems to be bedding in for a fight. Rafael anticipates the cartel achieving a hegemonic rule, rather than power share, over Michoacán and says the other smaller groups don’t possess the man or firepower to repel them. “CJNG wants to come to an agreement that they control the zone completely," he said. "They are experts in territorial control and this is their way of ejecting their rivals.”
The federal government did not provide an interview on the future of security in Michoacán when contacted by VICE. Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo has said publicly that the new elite police force, the National Guard, won’t be sent to the beleaguered Mexican state until July, leaving citizens feeling as though they have to fend for themselves, at least until then. State governor Silvano Aureoles announced a new security push in the city of Zamora after the violent standoff, but has also asked for more support from federal forces.
But whilst the government gets its act together, could the state see a resurgence of the civilian armed groups that marauded these lands five years ago? Security analyst Jaime Lopez hopes not: “Having people with guns outside the law roaming your community always leads to trouble eventually."
So far, Mora has no intention of regathering his civilian troops, although a small number of others have. This time, he’s putting his bets on the government, despite their delayed reaction to the new spike in violence.
“I wouldn’t like to die without seeing a government that is strong and intelligent and dedicated to giving us the peace we need,” said Mora.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.