Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded

Offensive against cartels and vigilantes hits a wall

Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded
Mexican troops. Secretariat of national defense photo Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded Offensive against cartels and vigilantes hits a wall Two months... Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded
Mexican troops. Secretariat of national defense photo

Mexico’s War Against the Cartels Just Exploded

Offensive against cartels and vigilantes hits a wall

Two months ago the Mexican military sent thousands of troops into a state torn apart by warring cartels and a thriving militia movement. It’s a damned quagmire.

The west-central state of Michoacan has long been a haven for drug traffickers. It’s where Mexico’s modern drug war began in 2006 when then-president Felipe Calderon sent troops to quell the cartels.

But instead of quelling the violence, the Mexican government has been forced to launch another offensive. More than six years after the initial push into Michoacan, new president Enrique Pena Nieto has mobilized an impressive force of 6,000 troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters and led by a veteran special forces commander.

“We will go with the full force of the state to provide protection to employers and families that have very serious security problems,” said Interior Minister Miguel Osorio.

The operation in Michoacan, which began in May, is the first major anti-drug campaign of Pena’s term. And earlier this week, Michoacan exploded.

Knights Templar. Screencap via YouTube

Drug-trafficking ‘knights’

The latest spate of violence began Tuesday night as gunmen hidden in hillsides and armed with rifles and grenades carried out six coordinated attacks on the military and police in at least three villages in the state of Michoacan. Roads were blocked by burning trucks. An unconfirmed Colima Noticias newspaper report stated a government helicopter was also forced to make a hard landing.

A military convoy was ambushed on Wednesday. The gunmen were allegedly from the Knights Templar, which took its name from the medieval order of Christian knights and combines drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion with a quasi-religious ideology. The group split from the La Familia cartel in 2011.

Mexico’s interior ministry claims the armed forces had killed 20 gunmen by the time the fighting ended. Two police officers died. Police in the state have had leave cancelled over the weekend, and the federal government has deployed at least 2,000 more police as reinforcements. “We know that for certain we are on the right path to regaining public safety, even though it’s quite clear that won’t be easy,” Michoacan Gov. Jesus Reyna told reporters.

Elsewhere in Tamaulipas, gunmen allegedly from the Gulf Cartel attacked communal farm and forced out the residents at gunpoint. Mexican media reports stated at least 10 people were killed but did not make it clear whether these killings targeted farmers or resulted from clashes between the gunmen and the military.

Nueva Generacion. Screencap via YouTube

Vigilantes on the loose

The drug war isn’t an easy one to win — if any war is ever easy. But Michoacan’s war is hard even by Mexico’s standards.

First, there’s the conflict between the Knights Templar and its rivals, and the conflict between the cartels and the government forces. Then there’s a growing vigilante movement: village self-defense squads that have risen up to battle the cartels, but are also increasingly coming into conflict with government and police forces that the vigilantes have decided are corrupt.

After emerging last year, the vigilantes began setting up checkpoints, taking police officers hostage and seizing police stations. The cops would typically be released after the vigilantes demanded concessions from Mexico City.

The government moved in. In a controversial decision, Pres. Pena ordered the soldiers and federal police into the state in May. Their mission: disarm the vigilantes and drive out the cartel gunmen. In command was Gen. Alberto Reyes Vaca, the former head of the elite Group Airmobile Special Forces High Command — and a veteran of fighting the Zetas in Mexico’s central highlands.

Some vigilantes were disarmed, initially. State officials praised the campaign. Other vigilantes believed they’d be slaughtered by the cartels, so they withdrew and reformed into smaller units while keeping their weapons.

Then things took a turn for the worse. On Monday, 200 armed vigilantes protested outside government buildings in the municipality of Los Reyes. A second armed group then arrived and fired on the crowd, killing five. The next morning, the Knights Templar unleashed its attacks.

“What’s happening in Michoacan clearly contradicts this talk of success, that they know how to do it, that they have the answer,” security expert Jorge Chabat told the Los Angeles Times. “The problem isn’t the strategy, the problem is the state, that the Mexican state doesn’t work.”

The Mexican state is still effective at capturing and killing cartel leaders. On July 18 Mexican federal troops arrested kingpin Victor Delgado, the boss of the Nueva Generacion cartel. The cartel has been fighting both the Knights Templar and the Zetas.

Delgado’s arrest also follows the capture — allegedly with assistance from U.S. intelligence — of Zetas boss Miguel Trevino. Despite promises from Pres. Pena to the contrary, “the detention also demonstrates that the armed forces, and particularly Mexico’s marines, continue to play a significant role in security policy,” stated Latin America crime monitoring group InSight. But that’s no guarantee the state will be able to reduce violence.