Mexico’s Cops Had Their Bloodiest Day in Years
Drug cartel ambushed a police convoy on a mountain highway
Mexico’s police and paramilitary forces are taking horrific casualties in Jalisco, a southwestern state home to the country’s second largest city.
On April 6, a state police convoy traveled down a rural and mountainous highway between Guadalajara and the resort city of Puerto Vallarta. They encountered a roadblock of burning vehicles — when gunmen attacked with rifles and grenades.
Fifteen police officers died in the ambush and five others were wounded. That’s the largest single loss of life among Mexico’s security forces in at least five years.
Most likely, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel — known by its Spanish language acronym CJNG — is responsible. If so, it’s demonstration of the little-known cartel’s growing power, especially as other criminal groups have fragmented or declined.
It’s the second major ambush in Jalisco during the past few weeks. On the night of March 19, gunmen attacked a federal paramilitary patrol in Guadalajara, killing five soldiers.
Videos posted to social media picked up the sound of automatic weapons as gunmen in around 10 vehicles attacked from multiple directions. Three civilians equipped with “cartridge belts and tactical equipment” died in the clash, according to AFP.
It’s not easy determining who is responsible for attacks in Mexico with great certainty. The drug war involves a slew of opaque criminal organizations, crooked politicians, shifting alliances and cartel bosses with short lifespans.
Cartels splinter into factions, and criminal groups constantly create front organizations only to later dissolve them. But the CJNG is by far the largest and most dangerous drug cartel in Jalisco.
The Mexican press — and the state’s top law enforcement official — have alleged the CJNG carried out the attacks. It also fits a series of tit-for-tat shootouts and killings between the state and the cartel in recent weeks.
Four days after the ambush in Guadalajara, state police ran a truck carrying CJNG sub-boss Heriberto Acevedo off a road and shot him to death.
Acevedo and four cartel members had grenades, AR-15 and AK-47 rifles — and a Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle.
On March 30, the cartel attempted to assassinate Jalisco public security commissioner Alejandro Solorio during a roadside ambush, which included roadblocks and Barrett rifles. State police arrested 15 alleged accomplices. Then there was the ambush in April that killed 15 cops.
But why is the situation deteriorating this badly? It could be because the CJNG adapted to the drug war where other cartels fractured.
The cartel didn’t exist before 2010, when it splintered during a power struggle following the death of Ignacio Coronel, the Sinaloa Cartel’s top trafficker in Jalisco.
The group has since kept its power base largely within Jalisco and the neighboring state of Michoacan to the south. In other words, it’s stayed regional. It has access to ports, where it allegedly receives methamphetamine precursors from suppliers in East Asia.
The cartel manufactures, uses and sells its own AR-15-type rifles.
The CJNG pays attention to its public image. It has drawn comparisons to Colombian rebel groups for its blend of drug-trafficking and politicized propaganda videos — where cartel members dress up as balaclava-wearing insurgents. They broadcast messages aimed directly at the Mexican government and public.
The CJNG has publicly condemned the Zetas for using extreme violence against civilians — and positions itself as protectors of ordinary people. But the CJNG can be just as brutal as its rivals.
In 2011, the CJNG front-group Mata Zetas — or Zeta killers — dumped 35 bodies on a Veracruz highway during rush hour. The killers left a banner urging people to resist the Zetas.
It was cold-blooded but opportunistic. The same year, the Mexican government shifted its strategy toward the Zetas. This came after the cartel carried out a series of massacres in Tamaulipas, and killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata.
Right now, the cartel could be exploiting another opportunity. Its main rival, the Knights Templar in Michoacan, has faced serious losses to a government offensive and proliferating vigilante groups. It’s lost some of its strongholds and several dozen of its senior leaders.
All the while, the CJNG appears to have grown. Which is indicative of how the decline of one cartel can help embolden groups that are just as dangerous — if not worse.