Mexico’s Hydra-headed Crime War
Mexico’s Hydra-headed Crime War
Posing next to his infant brother, a 22-year-old sicario holds a German-made assault rifle with grenade thrower attached. Michoacán, 14 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/ Falko Ernst
Our Journeys / Latin America & Caribbean 13 minutes

Mexico’s Hydra-headed Crime War

It may seem that Mexico’s crime war, which has left over 100,000 dead in its wake, could not get any worse. But interviews with gunmen in deadly Tierra Caliente show that it can, as criminal organisations break into smaller and smaller parts, driving up the death toll.

The body, dumped under a highway overpass, is charred beyond recognition. At the morgue, it takes four days to identify it. A day longer, and authorities would have laid the corpse to rest in a mass grave, alongside dozens, maybe hundreds, of others that no one ever claimed. But the parents of Josefina, 19, suspect that the body might be their missing daughter. The flames have spared a small patch of the inner lower lip. The tissue is enough for a positive match with a sister’s DNA. Now, at least, Josefina will get a proper wake and funeral.

Finding who killed her is another and more vexing matter. The vast majority of murders in Mexico are not investigated, much less solved: the impunity rate sticks stubbornly above 95 per cent. An inquiry is even less likely if, as in this case, everything points to a narco-style execution. For the authorities, that would have been the end of it.

Not so for Josefina’s family. Word gets around about the killers and their motives. She was a puntera – a lookout – for one of more than twenty criminal groups battling it out over Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, in the central Mexican state of Michoacán. It’s a common career choice among youngsters of this semi-arid region measuring 120 by 50 km, but it alone does not explain her fate.

The Bull, a lieutenant in one of Tierra Caliente’s armed groups, shares his story with Crisis Group analyst Falko Ernst. He called the perpetual conflict “a moronic war”. CRISISGROUP/ Falko Ernst

Josefina’s father was in it, too, earning his daily bread as a sicario, or foot soldier, for some contras, as rival criminal groups call each other. For that fact alone, her bosses started to suspect that she might be leaking information. Out of paranoia they killed her and – to send a message – burned the body and placed it where they knew it would be found. The father’s bid for revenge leads, shortly afterward, to his own death. He pleads with his commander to send him into battle against Josefina’s bosses and catches a bullet. Only a small entry hole is visible on his chest, his neighbours tell me, but his lungs fill up with fluid until he can no longer breathe.

Ground Zero

More than 100,000 people have died violent deaths in Mexico since the government declared war on organised crime in 2006, portraying it as a battle of good versus evil. The death toll is indeed reminiscent of a war zone, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet says, while visiting the country in April. And, it appears, the war is getting worse. Thus far, 2019 is on track to become the third consecutive year in which Mexico will record the highest number of homicides in its history.

Tierra Caliente is ground zero. It’s the first place where the army deployed en masse against the narcos, a laboratory for the myriad methods that successive governments have said would root the drug lords out.

Thousands of first degree homicides in Mexico 2006 -2018 Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security, Secretariat of the Interior Mexico.

A single cartel, the Knights Templar, once reigned supreme in Tierra Caliente. It had a reputation for ruthlessness, justifying the dismemberment of bodies by saying God had sent its soldiers to instil order in Tierra Caliente. Back in 2012, when they received me for interviews, the cartel’s leaders would assert: “Here, we are the law”. But twelve years of attrition took their toll. The state wore down the Templars with tactics ranging from targeted killings of kingpins to frontal military assaults and then broke the cartel with vigilantes.

Made up of ordinary citizens fed up with the cartel’s abuses but also Templars attempting a coup d’état against their leaders, these so-called autodefensas were like a Trojan horse. Working hand in hand with the federal government, they fractured the Templars. The kingdom crumbled, leaving a trail of warring fiefdoms mostly led by former mid-level Templar commanders. To this day, not a single one of them has been able to impose overall control. Narco-feuds have turned into full-throttle combat. Ambushes and hours-long shootouts have become the stuff of everyday life, along with displacement of countless residents from their homes.

Perpetual Disorder

According to the Bull, a heavily built fighter whose two-decade trajectory has elevated him to lieutenant, a new crisis of loyalty among the narcos has spawned a sense of perpetual disorder. “It’s become like [the top clubs in] soccer”, he says. “One day you play for América, the next day you put on the Monarcas’ shirt”. Local warlords will change their allegiance in the blink of an eye for the promise of territorial and financial gain. Trust, the glue of any cohesive enterprise, is all but gone.

It’s hard to track who’s who, and who’s fighting whom, much less who’s on top.

The remnants of the Knights Templar have switched sides three times in one major battle, going from mortal enemy to ally back to mortal enemy of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation, Mexico’s supposed new criminal powerhouse, which is looking to transform Michoacán into one of its satellites. In the same period, the Templars have bounced back and forth four times – enemy-ally-­enemy-ally – in their position vis-à-vis The Viagras, another of the region’s criminal protagonists.

And that’s just the Templars. Overall, there have been dozens of fractures in the Michoacán crime world over the past six years. The proliferation of warring sides confuses the combatants themselves, some say. The only thing that’s certain, somebody close to a longstanding family of traffickers tells me, is that “they are all narcos”.

Each fissure redraws the front lines, ushering in fresh spates of killings. And each split carries the conflict deeper into society. Friends and neighbours – or even families, as happened in Josefina’s case – suddenly find themselves on opposing sides. The violence becomes intimate, often driven by personal revenge rather than competition over illicit markets, making the cycle ever harder to break.


Furthermore, says the Bull, “you know who the kid is who brought the boss his soda”. That is, once you’ve been allied with another group, or pretended to be, you know its entire social base, including the civilians in its ambit. Or you know how to find out who they are. You have the information you need to make a list of targets should your former allies turn into enemies.

Everyone familiar with Tierra Caliente’s conflict is quick to lament the loss of values, the bygone days when ordinary people were off limits. But the region’s agrarian livelihoods are precarious, and the narcos’ activity helps sustain them. It’s in every farmer’s interest – indeed, it’s common sense – to stay in the narcos’ good books. You say yes when they ask you for “favours”, whether catering food, fetching medicine from town, hiding guns or bullets in houses, or even taking wounded fighters to the clinic. But saying yes also means courting the risk of ending up on their rivals’ list. Hence the houses burned down, the disappearances, the people uprooted from their homes.

The State’s Limit

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections largely thanks to his promises to swiftly end “the war” and the corruption that lubricates collusion between state officials and organised crime.

No one in Tierra Caliente got the memo, however. That becomes blatantly obvious after I pull off the highway connecting the region’s main hubs. The five blocks around the exit are paved and patrolled by state police. Their station is freshly painted, shining bright white-and-blue in the midday sun.

Josefina’s killers left her body in the station’s line of sight.

Just 50 metres on, the asphalt turns to dirt, and a puntero who looks about seventeen stands guard. He is smack in the middle of the road, holding a two-way radio, scanning traffic for anyone suspicious. “The police never enter here”, remarks the taxi driver, who was recommended to me as trustworthy. And for months, locals say, neither has the military.

The Bull poses with his AK-47 assault rifle before a crucifix hung in his patio. CRISISGROUP/ Falko Ernst

Another kilometre down the road, two white pickup trucks appear behind us. The menacing growl of their engines announces them, and they race past us to vanish in clouds of grey dust. We roll up the windows and continue dead-slow until the air clears. The pickups’ manoeuvre unnerves the driver. “But at least they didn’t stop us”, he says, explaining that this means they know who I am.

We stop at a shallow river. I need to wade across it on the last part of my journey to a tiny settlement, tucked away in the Sierra Madre del Sur’s foothills.

I’ve arranged to meet some Templars who are using the hamlet as an operational hub, along with their allies of the moment. Just over a year ago, it was impossible to take the road from the highway to the river. Everything south of the waterway, including the village where I’m headed, belongs to those still flying the Templar flag. Another group claims the 14 km stretch from the northern bank up to the highway. They used to be Templars, too, but when the autodefensas emerged in 2013 they saw a chance to expand their power, turning their coats.

The Templars and ex-Templars fought four years of battles over a handful of bridges and villages, a steady stream of death buying temporary advances. At times, the fighting cut off civilians south of the river from the outside world. Hoping to smoke out the enemy, contras were blocking roads to food, water, medicine and even the local priest.

“For What?”

Now the feuding warlords have teamed up again to confront a shared threat. The jaliscos, as members of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation are called here, are pushing in from the west. The Templar and ex-Templar foot soldiers have to forget past treason and pain. Or so the bosses ordain each time they rebrand contras as comrades in arms.

It can be hard to swallow for the ones doing the fighting, and the dying, down in the dirt. One warrior who’s seen his share – enough to say goodbye to the capos – is Ramón. When we last met, two years ago, he and seven young sicarios, as well as the former Mexican Army special forces sniper under his command, had been deployed to hold the southern river bank as the Templars’ last line of defence against the contras’ recurrent offensives.

A local shopowner stocks essentials. CRISISGROUP/ Falko Ernst

The battle gear he brandished then – an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a tactical vest holding additional magazines and a two-way radio – is gone. Instead, he wears a dressy shirt, designer jeans and shiny black Lacoste sneakers. “Things have changed since the last time you came here”, he tells me, having a young sicario pour me a cold beer by a local volleyball court we’d settled on as a meeting point.

Anger foams up as Ramón lays out his reasons for switching jobs to become the right-hand man to someone “dealing with the government” – a white-collared emissary from the criminal world to officialdom. “I never complained about life here”, he says. He spent nights hiding out in the bare hills that loom in the background, embracing his rifle, squatting under a blanket thrown over his head and shoulders, and drifting in and out of the light sleep of a sentry, even in the pounding rain.

“Initially, we were just taking back what was ours”, he recalls, “but then they [the bosses] wanted to take areas over from others. It was like Vietnam for the gabachos [here, meaning for the U.S.]. It wasn’t our people, we didn’t have their support, it couldn’t work. We suffered many, many losses. And for what? Ambition. Nothing”.

Weighing more heavily on his mind was the decision from on high to forge a pact with precisely the people he had been previously tasked to wipe off the map. “I killed fifteen of them in an ambush”, Ramón states matter-of-factly, “but after that they fucked with my family, coming to my house, trying to take my young children. How’s that possible? You do not fuck with families!”

Due to his new position, he now makes only sporadic visits to the area. But by no means has he forgotten his grudges from the past. He references Josefina’s death, whose family he knows, as a case in point. “I’ll be frank with you”, he says, summing up. “The bosses may have forgiven them, but I never will. If I run into one of those sons of bitches, fuck it. Maybe they kill me, but not before I kill three of them. Minimum”. That’s why, he says as he points to the SUV in which he drove his family here, he keeps a handgun in a mount by his right leg at all times.

New Blood at the Ready

Ramón lasted eleven years as a sicario. Many others, wearying far more rapidly of the hardships and moral contradictions, simply don’t return from their four days of monthly leave. Desertions notwithstanding, Tierra Caliente’s illegal armed groups find it easy to replenish the ranks.

"Death can come tomorrow". A sicario from Mexico's Knights Templar cartel talks to Crisis Group.

One reason is the lack of decent legal alternatives, as the mother of twenty-two-year-old sicario Emilio tells me as she fries up a whole fish on her wood-fired stove for lunch in a village a stone’s throw from where I met Ramón. Emilio quit for a while, too. But when pay for half-days of harvesting limes under the scorching Tierra Caliente sun dropped below 200 pesos, or around ten dollars, he asked the local commander for another chance.

The monthly salary of 12,000 pesos, up from 8,000 now that he’s heading teams of sicarios, beats what a day labourer makes in the orchards. To Emilio, though, it’s always been about more than that. The first thing he points to as we sit down to talk shop are the papas, or “potatoes”, that go into the grenade launcher attached to his heavy, all-iron Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle. These 40mm projectiles, he says, have allowed him to blast his way out of more than one dicey situation after being cornered by the contras.

Emilio is exceedingly nervous. Time and again, his voice drops so low as to be nearly inaudible. Even so, his excitement about gathering intelligence on enemy operatives, safe houses and escape routes, not to mention carrying out attacks, shines through. He has a hero’s sense of purpose. “I know I might die on any given day”, he says, “but I’m doing this to defend our people … from the Jalisco Cartel, which comes to Michoacán to do bad things, to extort and kidnap”.

Una Guerra Pendeja

Youngsters like Emilio provide the fuel without which the bosses’ war machine would quickly grind to a halt. But, also due to the lack of discipline of some, many do not last long. That’s where mercenaries like José come into play. A Chinese-made AK-47 dangling on his back, he stops in a local shop on a day off from his duties 20 km to the north, where heavy fighting displaced one hundred civilians the previous week. He is here to drop off his laundry.

When José sees me, an outsider half-dozing in a hammock amid the day’s peak heat, his penetrating, light-blue eyes glint in contrast to his weathered skin. The shop, a shack of wooden planks stocking sugary soft drinks, Corona Lights and a handful of essentials, is run by a family that has granted me refuge. They have also helped quell doubts that I might be “someone sent by the North Americans”. He cracks open a beer and pulls up a chair, explaining that he’s enjoyed chatting with foreigners since doing time in a U.S. prison.

He wanted to retire long ago, following a good run in the States cooking “biker crank”, a methamphetamine, “by the ton” and distributing cocaine. But he got caught and lost it all, including six houses he says he’d purchased in Kansas. So he had to start out from scratch back home.

A piñata decorates a bedroom shared by four of nine siblings. CRISISGROUP/ Falko Ernst

José makes no bones about the fact that he’s in it for the money. He thinks the talk about loyalty-bound, cohesive cartels is overblown. “Don’t kid yourself”, he says. “There’s no such thing as free favours here”. His group, he goes on, might entertain “friendly relations” with some of their local counterparts. But the sole reason they’ve made the four-and-a-half-hour journey south west from the state of Querétaro to join the fighting is the buena feria, the lucrative deal, offered to them. For him, it brings in 50,000 pesos per month. For a package of vehicles and 30 fighters, he says, they charge the local boss a monthly sum of one million pesos, or $ 50,000. Wages are extra.

In the short term, the capo’s investment pays off. Shortly after our chat, José’s band wins a battle, pushing the jaliscos north. As he’d vowed to do, they take the fight to the state capital of Morelia and to Uruapan, a hub of Michoacán’s $ 1.5 billion avocado industry and a magnet for criminals looking to make big bucks from extortion. In both cities, in the following days, a series of attacks kill at least twenty people. Mutilated bodies lie in the streets, alongside handwritten threats to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation.

Most likely, it’s just another episode in the bloody perpetual battle over Michoacán. There are ways to foster peace here – local mediation, searches for disappeared persons, a halt to violence against civilians and deserters – but they’re probably a long way off.

Indeed, just a week later, the Bull writes to me. He says the jaliscos have reacted to José’s band’s victory by bringing in their own mercenaries from other states. The backlash appears but a matter of time.

Mexico’s crime war, he says, might be moronic – una guerra pendeja. At the moment, though, there’s no end in sight.

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