Low-Intensity War in Michoacán and Guerrero

from Frontera NorteSur

A glance at Mexico’s ongoing narco war reveals a low-intensity civil conflict that rises, subsides and then rears up again in various geographic locations. For example, the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo was torn by intense violence from 2003 to 2006 but is relatively quiet today in comparison with other places.

In 2009, one of the hottest zones is what might be termed the Southwestern Front covering the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, especially the Tierra Caliente and Costa Grande regions. Currently, three or four cartels are fighting for control of areas that encompass opium poppy production, cocaine shipment corridors, methamphetamine maquiladoras, and increasingly important local, retail drug markets. Almost daily, murders, kidnappings and shoot-outs disturb the peace of numerous towns.

On Feb. 28, the body of an official working for the municipal government of La Union, Guerrero, was found stuffed in the back of a stolen taxi. So-called “narco-messages” were spray-painted on the exterior of the vehicle and left inside the car.

A former member of the center-left PRD party, Rolando Landa Hernández had bolted the organization last fall to run on the ticket of the rival PRI party in the October 2008 local elections. Reported kidnapped days earlier, Landa was found tortured and shot to death on the outskirts of La Union. The “narco-messages” were purportedly directed against “Los Pelones,” or the reputed gunslingers of the Beltran-Leyva brothers, and conveyed death threats against eight individuals.

On Feb. 25, travelers on the Acapulco-Zihuatenejo highway got a first-hand taste of the narco war at the junction to San Miguelito, a village located about 15 minutes from Zihuatanejo. Approaching the turn-off, bus travelers saw a truck in flames as heavily-armed police scoured a mango orchard off the highway.

Only minutes before the arrival of the passenger bus, witnesses reported seeing three SUVs carrying a many as 20 armed men ambush a patrol of the Zihuatanejo municipal police. Two grenade explosions and heavy automatic arms fire rattled the late afternoon quiet of the rural area, according to eye-witness accounts. Halted by police for more than two hours, travelers in both directions watched as the bodies of four slain officers burned in the truck’s wreckage.

“It feels like this is a real bad television program. I’m sitting here watching this, which has never happened to me in my life before and it just seems so unreal,” said Gail Robertson, a Canadian national who was traveling to Zihuatanejo by bus. “People are very calm and collected and watching this horrible tragedy that just happened. There are four men dead and their widows are going to be knowing shortly that their husbands have just been shot to death,” Robertson told Frontera NorteSur. The tourist said the incident wouldn’t immediately change her plans to stay in Zihuatanejo for one month.

The slain officers were identified as Mateo GutiĂ©rrez Vejar, Virginio Flores, Gregorio Villafuerte Hernández and Adrian MartĂ­nez Zarco. Like clockwork, the tabloid newspaper El Alarmante was back on the streets of Guerrero the next day. The sensationalistic publication featured gruesome images of the burned officers’ corpses. At presstime, no suspects in the San Miguelito attack had been reported arrested.

On the same day of the San Miguelito ambush, seven men were shot to death the Tierra Caliente region that straddles Guerrero and Michoacán.

The area between Zihuatanejo and the town of Petatlán about 30 minutes away was the scene of intense disputes between organized criminal gangs during 2006-07, but later calmed down to an extent. However, violence has been escalating since last spring, a period of time which coincides with the reported rupture within the Sinaloa cartel between Joaquin “El Chapo”
Guzmán and Arturo Beltran Leyva and his “pelones.” Policemen, many of whom are widely presumed to be on the take of one group or another, are frequently the target of attacks.

Last Dec. 23, Mexican soldiers arrested Zihuatanejo’s deputy police chief along with 22 other policemen and civilians at a cock fight in Zihuatanejo. The detainees were accused of providing protection to the Beltran Leyva group. Following a Christmas season break, Zihuatanejo heated up again in January after federal police and soldiers searched private businesses and confiscated property that included motor boats, a form of transportation popular with cocaine smugglers who use ocean routes. Since the late January raids, shoot-outs and murders have intensified in both Zihuatanejo and Petatlán.

On Feb. 21, a two-time municipal president of Petatlán was shot to death in broad daylight in front of scores of people. Only hours before his murder, former mayor Javier Rodríguez Aceves, who had represented both the PRI and PRD parties during his political career, had staged a press conference in Zihuatanejo in which he denounced the Mexican army for arresting his son, Ricardo Alejandro Rodríguez, for alleged involvement in the Beltran-Leyva crime underworld.

Also on the weekend of Feb. 21, two policemen and three civilians were injured after two grenades were tossed at the main Zihuatanejo police station. Two days later—the first Monday after the grenade attack—345 Zihuatanejo municipal police staged a 10-hour work stoppage for better protection, higher wages and improved working conditions. Days later, the police headquarters is sand-bagged and resembles a military outpost.

Although violence is on the upswing and many locals are unnerved, the narco-war has not significantly altered nightlife in the tourist destination of Zihuatanejo so far. Large numbers of people attend evening mass, turn out to nightclubs and restaurants, and show off at the Cultural Sundays program on the main beach.

A young man who returned to Mexico last year after working 10 years in the US construction industry, Rogelio Gabino lives near the scene of the San Miguelito ambush. Gabino said he and his neighbors were accustomed to the violence, but acknowledged residents were mulling over the idea of convening a meeting with authorities to demand better security.

“I think I hear so many incidents like [San Miguelito] in Mexico. I think it is part of this place. It is normal. You hear guns, people killed,” Gabino said. “But I kind of think about where I am living…”

As on the US-Mexico border, the narco-violence in Guerrero and Michoacán is providing a convenient cover for other types of crimes and human rights violations. On Feb. 13, Jean Paul Ibarra Ramírez, a photographer for El Correo newspaper, was shot to death in Iguala, Guerrero, in an incident that could involve a homicidal mixture of personal and professional motives. A reporter for the Diario 21 newspaper, Yenny Yulian Marchan Arroyo, was also seriously wounded in the shooting.

The international community was shocked by the February kidnapping and subsequent murder of two indigenous leaders, RaĂşl Lucas LucĂ­a and Manuel Ponce Rosas, in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero. Less than two months before the twin assassinations, Homero Lorenzo, a former mayor of the town of Ayutla and a 2008 candidate for the Guerrero state legislature, was murdered in the same region where Lucas and Ponce were active.

Leaders of the Organization for the Future of the Mixtec People (OPFM), Lucas and Ponce were detained in Ayutla Feb. 13 by three men claiming to be police officers. Despite an urgent appeal from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to the Mexican government, Lucas and Ponce were later found dead with signs of torture on their bodies.

The OPFM and Lucas, in particular, have had a long-running series of conflicts with the Mexican government and army. In 1998, members of the OPFM were among the 11 people killed in El Charco, Guerrero, when Mexican soldiers opened fire on a school where indigenous farmers were meeting with rebels from the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI).

In 2006, Lucas filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) after he was detained and interrogated by the Mexican army. In 2007, the Mixtec activist was wounded in a shooting he barely survived. Alleging new abuses in the Mixtec region, Lucas filed more human rights complaints last year against the Mexican army. Now, Lucas himself is the subject of a post-mortem investigation by the CNDH.

The murders of Lucas and Ponce were condemned by the Mexico office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Guerrero state and federal lawmakers, and numerous human rights advocates in Mexico and abroad. Hipolito Lugo Cortes, investigator for the official Guerrero State Human Rights Commission, called the kidnap-murders “a crime
against humanity.” Supporters of the slain activists suspect government complicity in the crimes.

Spurred on the chaos of the narco war, Guerrero could be rapidly slipping back into the brutality, impunity and repression characteristic of the 1970s Dirty War when the Mexican state disappeared hundreds of suspected guerrillas and dissidents, observers warn. More than thirty years later, a deadly combination of political and criminal violence threatens to put a damper on any meaningful movements toward democratic governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law.


This story first appeared March 1 on Frontera NorteSur.

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, AlterNet
World War 4 Report, March 2009

From our Daily Report:

Mexico: Zihuatanejo police chief busted for protecting Sinaloa Cartel
World War 4 Report, Dec. 26, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution