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Surviving the Narco-Blockades of Mexico's Jalisco State

'My skin goes cold when I see a pickup or heavy traffic,' says one resident of the state that has seen a dramatic spike in crime and violence since the emergence of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

by Duncan Tucker and Victor Hugo Ornelas
May 14 2015, 10:00pm

Imagen por Victor Hugo Ornelas/VICE News

Mickey Hernandez, a 24-year-old accountant from Guadalajara, was heading to a beach vacation for the three-day May Day weekend with his parents, sister, and nieces when danger struck.

"We were driving on the highway when a truck pulled up in front of us blocking the lane. I thought it was turning around, but then I saw armed men with bulletproof vests and machine guns up ahead," Hernandez told VICE News.

"They pointed and gestured for us to leave, and seconds later started shooting at the truck."

Dozens of similar narco-blockades occurred across the western region of Mexico on May 1, causing chaos and panic on highways leading out of the Guadalajara metropolitan zone just as families were hitting the road for the holiday.

The coordinated blockades set up by the increasingly powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel came in response to a government operation aimed at capturing the group's leaders. In all, 17 people died that day, including eight military personnel and a federal policewoman.

"We reversed as far as we could, and then started driving down the wrong side of the highway," Hernandez recalled.

In a panic, Hernandez and his family tried to return to Guadalajara, but found their way barred by another blockade. After two hours stuck in traffic, they were eventually able to continue to the coast in neighboring Colima state, he said, passing the burnt-out husks of a bus and another truck on the way.

"I was afraid for my family," he recalled. "I was worried that they would come after us."

Related: Mexico Raises Death Toll in Helicopter Attack, Warns of More Violence in Drive Against Cartel

"Ay Jalisco, no te rajes!" goes the famous ranchera song about the western Mexican state known worldwide for its tequila and mariachi musicians — "Oh Jalisco, don't back down!"

Those words have taken on added urgency for residents in recent weeks after Jalisco — proud of its identity and rich heritage — was hit with one of its worst waves of violence in recent memory.

The Jalisco cartel has carried out a string of deadly ambushes against municipal, state, and federal police forces. The result is a terrified population that for now seems to see no end to the violence and uncertainty.

On May 1, the CJNG, as the meth-producing cartel is known, shot down a military helicopter carrying an elite special forces unit with a rocket-propelled grenade. They also torched banks and gas stations, and in all blockaded 39 roads across the region in a well-orchestrated response to the government operation.

A state police officer and eight suspected gang members were also killed in the chaos.

Related: Jalisco's 'New Generation' Is Becoming One of Mexico's Most Powerful and Dangerous Drug Cartels

The federal government has since deployed 10,000 troops and 300 armored vehicles in a bid to safeguard the region, but the threat from the cartel remains ever-present.

Days after the blockades, the CJNG hung banners in the city of Autlán, close to where the helicopter was shot down, warning the army that it has until the end of May to withdraw from the state.

"We will kill every soldier we see in the street," read the narcomanta, as this form of cartel propaganda is known.

Over 1,000 residents of Guadalajara, the state capital and Mexico's second largest city, responded to the violence by holding a March for Peace through the city's upscale Providencia neighborhood last Saturday afternoon.

Dressed in white, and waving white flowers and balloons under the scorching sun, the mostly middle- and upper-class participants marched in near-silence to Guadalajara's iconic Minerva fountain, to demonstrate their indignation at the insecurity that has gripped their city.

Civil society must first "demand that the authorities put an end to the terrible corruption in Guadalajara," retiree Jose Ochoa said at the march.

Governor Aristóteles Sandoval dismissed the cartel blockades as "acts of vandalism" committed by drug addicts who were hired by the CJNG for just 500 to 1,000 pesos, or about $33 to $66.

Sandoval's comments drew immediate criticism.

Lourdes Bueno, a columnist for newspaper El Informador, slammed what she called his "failed attempt to deceive the citizens who witnessed with horror the effects of the narco-blockades, the fragility of the police, and above all the badly organized preventative and reactive strategies."

Despite the governor's dismissal of the severity of the situation, five suspects have been charged formally with terrorism, in addition to charges of organized crime, for their alleged role in the blockades.

'Please don't move. We don't have a problem with you.'

There were no civilian deaths reported in the May 1 attacks and the CJNG hung narcomantas in Guadalajara last month claiming that it does not target innocent people. However, surveys conducted by Mexico's statistics and geography institute, INEGI, highlight a sharp rise in crime in Jalisco since the cartel's emergence in 2010.

The officially estimated number of adult victims of any kind of crime in Jalisco rose by a staggering 43 percent — from 32,980 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, to 47,278 in 2013, the last year with complete figures.

Guadalupe Morfin, the former chief of the Jalisco Human Rights Commission, told VICE News in an interview that the state needs "honest and capable public officials" who are prepared to fight the socioeconomic inequality that fuels crime in the region.

Morfin called for authorities to be more open with the public about any threats to their security, to more thoroughly investigate money laundering, kidnappings and extortion, and to "prepare special teams to immediately counteract the damage of the blockades."

Related: How the Jalisco New Generation Cartel Is Terrorizing the People of Western Mexico

For those who have experienced previous narco-blockades in Jalisco, the latest wave intensified the sense of terror permeating the state.

Tania and Homero, a couple who live about 30 miles southwest of Guadalajara and provided only their first names, told VICE News they will never forget the events of August 25, 2012.

That day, the CJNG seized and set fire to 35 vehicles, including theirs, to blockade 28 roads across Jalisco, again in response to a federal security operation against the cartel.

The pair had just left work that afternoon when several pickups came speeding towards them and blocked their highway exit to Guadalajara.

Eight masked men disembarked and pointed their weapons at them before leading the couple to the side of the road. The assailants then poured gasoline on their car, and restrained the couple as they tried to escape.

"Please don't move. We don't have a problem with you," one of the armed men said, while the others set the vehicle ablaze.

The couple managed to sneak into a nearby house, where the inhabitants mistook them for the criminals. "They started shouting at us that they didn't want any problems," Tania said. "We told them [the men] had burned our car and we just wanted to hide."

The couple emerged safely half an hour later, after hearing police sirens, but others were not so lucky. A stray bullet struck 22-year-old Eugenio González Paz in the eye. He did not survive.

Tania and Homero said they were lucky to have only lost their vehicle that day. Authorities never reimbursed them for the destruction of their car and almost three years later they remain terrified of becoming caught up in another blockade.

"We've been traumatized ever since," Tania said.

"My skin goes cold when I see a pickup or heavy traffic," said Homero.

Related: 'People Are Fed Up': Jalisco Elections Could Upend Traditional Politics in Mexico

Follow Duncan Tucker and Víctor Hugo Ornelas on Twitter @DuncanTucker and @Hugo_Ornelas.