AGUILILLA, Mexico – The Mexican government is rapidly running out of tools to control the expansion of the feared Jalisco cartel on the front lines of Mexico's narco war in the western state of Michoacan, and the stalled ground effort is being supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated aerial conflict.
Jalisco, Mexico's most militarily powerful drug gang, has begun organizing townspeople to act as human shields against army troops, which now just try to keep rival cartels apart.
“If they try to come in here again, we'll put 2,000 people out here to stop them,” said Habacuc Solorzano, a 39-year-old farmer who leads the civilian movement associated with the cartel. His statement, like most of what comes out of the Jalisco side, is not mere boasting: He already had about 500 local residents marching last week – then wading across a river – to confront an army squad blocking a dirt road leading out of Jalisco territory.
Residents of Aguililla are fed up with the army's strategy of simply separating the Jalisco and the Michoacan-based Viagras gang. The army policy effectively allows the Viagras – best known for kidnapping and extorting money – to set up roadblocks and checkpoints that have choked off all commerce with Aguililla. Limes and cattle heading out, or supplies heading in, must pay a war tax to the Viagras.
“We'd rather be killed by you than killed by those criminals!” one demonstrator shouted at soldiers during a tense, hour-long confrontation between demonstrators and a squad of a dozen troops who took cover behind a barricade of car tires. Many demonstrators carried rocks and powerful slingshots but did not use them.
The residents want the army to either fight both cartels or let the two gangs battle.
“Let the two cartels fight it out and kill each other,” another demonstrator shouted. “Jalisco is going to beat everybody!”
That view 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 group is the Jalisco cartel.”
Above all, what residents want is for the Viagras' checkpoints to be cleared and the road opened again. Because they must occasionally pass through those roadblocks, none of the residents wanted to give their names for fear of reprisals.
But one explained it this way to the army squad: “The only road into Aguililla is blocked and controlled by a cartel that is only 500 yards away from you, and you (the army) are not doing anything to protect our right to travel freely,” he said. “You don't know how hard it is to be paying a war tax that is being used to kill us.”