Mexico’s drug war uses drones, human shields, gunships

“We would rather be killed by you than be killed by these criminals!” A protester shouted at soldiers during a tense hour-long standoff between protesters and a group of dozens of soldiers who had taken cover behind a tire barrier. Many protesters carried stones and powerful catapults, but did not use them.

Residents want the army to fight both cartels, or at least let the two gangs fight.

“Let them fight each other and kill each other,” shouted another protester. “Jalisco will defeat everyone!”

This opinion is widespread. “What we need is for one cartel to take control, stop the fighting and impose some semblance of calm,” said a local priest. “Everything indicates that this group is the Jalisco cartel.”

Above all, what the residents want is for the Viagra checkpoints to be removed and the road opened again. Because they sometimes had to pass through those barriers, none of the residents wanted to reveal their names for fear of reprisals.

But someone explained it this way to the army squad: “The only road to Aguililla is closed and cartel-controlled is only 500 yards from you, and you (the army) do nothing to protect our right to travel freely,” he said. “You don’t know how hard it is to pay a war tax that is used to kill us.”

This is actually a fairly accurate description of the government’s policy: to maintain the status quo, and to have each cartel remain in its own territory.

But Jalisco will not accept the government as arbiter of the drug cartel’s territorial divisions. The leader of the local Jalisco cartel says the military is only trying to protect the weakest of the two gangs, Viagra, for reasons of corruption.

Jalisco is ubiquitous in Aguililla, from pickup trucks and homemade armored cars bearing the initials of the Kartel’s name to mini gang-erected trampolines for children in every village.

Some residents say they are under too much pressure to participate in the protests, fearing that water or electricity will be cut off if they don’t. Others are tired of paying Viagra war taxes and being cut off from the outside world. One protester described how her father died in early 2020 because Viagra did not allow them to get to the hospital.

Dozens of cartel militants openly wear flak jackets emblazoned with the group’s Spanish initials, “CJNG” – Jalisco New Generation Cartel – on the back, and on the front, “FEM” – “Mencho’s Special Forces,” a reference to the cartel leader’s nickname, Nemesio Oseguera .

Jalisco is the only cartel in Mexico that does not hide what it is, and does not manipulate the politics of press relations or restraint.

“We are drugs,” said Jalisco’s unnamed local leader. “Everyone should take care of his own business.” His parlance with Viagra and the other local gangs he’s fighting is that they “want everything for themselves”.

Jalisco keeps its huge army of troops operating with a solid mixture of money – the cartel has plenty, from smuggling fentanyl and meth to the US – and cocaine, which is flown in from Costa Rica.

As the local chief stands at an impromptu command post on the street side, a pickup truck full of Jalisco gunmen with AR15 assault rifles is towed. “The Scorpion said he needed a few things,” the driver said, and the chief got into his own truck and handed the co-pilot a plastic bag with what appeared to be a kilogram of cocaine bricks, apparently to the “troops.”

Jalisco realizes brute force. At the moment, the inhabitants of Aguililla do not bother much, because he does not have to. But if you suspect that a resident is actively working or passing on information to Viagra, that person’s life expectancy is likely to be very short.

The local chief is ignoring government assurances that gangs like Jalisco are having trouble finding young recruits, due to the administration’s current programs to recruit and train youth.

“It depends on the type of youth,” he says. “Those who sleep under bridges, come here and think they are in Paris. There is food here.”

“I make it clear to my people that they come here to fight,” he adds.

In addition to food, regular pay, and unlimited drugs, the Jalisco cartel also offers its young soldiers a kind of family structure. Everyone, even the local chief, refers to their immediate superior with “Abba,” the way a child would say “Papa.”

Both cartels have developed drones that carry bombs, and the most feared warrior on these battlefields is the “dronero,” or drone operator. Although rudimentary and dangerous to load and operate — and still alarmingly random — drone warfare has improved, it is not unusual to see metal sheds or shed roofs popping open like tin cans from the impact of drone explosions.

Locals also claim – although there is little evidence other than a few potholes – that the cartels began using landmines.

To deal with the conflict’s increased firepower, the Mexican government resorted to playing a powerful card to defeat the Jalisco cartel: Black Hawk helicopters equipped with rotating drum electric machine guns that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute.

It is a weapon that roughly defines “random mass fire” and is prohibited in most countries in civil conflicts. It’s the kind of weapon President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he no longer wants.

But for now, that massive firepower is the only thing holding back Jalisco’s comeback.

“They shot two of our trucks and burned them,” the local gang leader said of the warplanes. “When the soldiers arrive by helicopter, there’s nothing you can do, you just need to get out of the way.”

It is not clear that this will be the case for long. Jalisco is known for two things: being the most heavily armed cartel in Mexico, and the only one to have shot down a military helicopter.

In 2015, militants from the Jalisco cartel shot down a Eurocopter transport helicopter with a rocket propelled grenade, killing eight soldiers and a police officer. While the choppers Jalisco is now facing is the Black Hawk, there is no doubt that the cartel could come up with something more stable.

El Universal published transcripts of intercepted cartel communications in which a commander can be heard training a sniper with a 50-caliber rifle to put armor-piercing rounds through a helicopter door. The Mexican military did not respond to a request for comment on this or other issues.

In the past, Jalisco acquired submachine guns, 50-caliber sniper rifles, 40-mm grenades and launchers.

The government fears the kind of bloodbath that began in 2018 when the Jalisco cartel moved into neighboring Guanajuato state and is now left with an impractical policy of defending the cartel’s territorial divisions, and an increasingly narrow military advantage.

An unnamed army captain tried to talk to the Aguila protesters about the ordeal.

“How can Mexicans kill other Mexicans?” The captain said. “That just can’t be.”

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