Mexican avocado producers are arming themselves to fend off cartels

Avocado farmers Tacambaro Michoacan Mexico
Farm workers carry freshly picked avocados to a truck at a farm in Tacambaro, in Michoacan state, June 7, 2017.

  • Avocado and blackberry producers in southwest Mexico have formed an armed group to keep out cartels.
  • Farmers and farmhands in Michoacán state were motivated to act by frequent kidnappings and extortion demands.
  • “It’s cheaper to buy a rifle than to pay extortion,” one member of the group said.
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Fed up with being besieged by criminal organizations, avocado and blackberry producers in Michoacán formed their own armed group that is successfully keeping cartel members out of four municipalities.

Some 3,000 farmers and farmhands from Salvador Escalante, Ario de Rosales, Nuevo Urecho and Taretán have taken up arms over the past eight months to defend themselves and their land from attacks by criminal organizations. A spate of kidnappings in the area and frequent demands for extortion money motivated them to act.

Now, according to a report by the newspaper Milenio, an armed private security force – “a parallel authority” – operates in the four neighboring municipalities, located approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Morelia.

“With high-powered weapons, they have shut off access to their communities for drug traffickers and hitmen, choosing who comes in and who doesn’t,” the report said.

Although the armed group – called Pueblos Unidos, or United Towns – has similarities to self-defense groups that have emerged in Michoacán and some other parts of Mexico in recent years, its members reject the autodefensas tag.

“We want to be very emphatic: we’re not autodefensas; we’re not a criminal group. Here in our lives, the only things we knew how to use were machetes. … Recently there has been the need to purchase some weapons, even though we’re afraid of not knowing how to use them correctly,” one of the men told Milenio.

Mexico Michoacan autodefensa self-defence force militia vigilante
Vigilantes (in white shirts) pass weapons into the cabin of a pick-up truck in Nueva Italia, Michoacan, January 14, 2014.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and Los Viagras posed the main threat as both criminal groups have sought to establish themselves in the region in recent years and have engaged in a turf war with each other.

But with their 54 roadblocks across all four municipalities the avocado and blackberry producers have kept the criminal groups out. One roadblock on the road to La Huacana, a municipality controlled by the CJNG that neighbors Ario and Nuevo Urecho to the south, is manned night and day by up to 150 heavily armed men.

Among the Pueblos Unidos members are men who have been hired by avocado producers to bolster the ranks of the fledgling security force.

“It’s cheaper to buy a rifle than to pay extortion,” one member said, referring to payments demanded of avocado producers by criminal groups, including Los Viagaras, whose members were reportedly asking for a 50,000-peso (about US $2,500) per hectare “protection” fee.

In the eight months that it has been protecting the four Michoacán municipalities, the Pueblos Unidos group has achieved good results, members say. It has driven criminals out of the area, and homicides, kidnappings and extortion have all declined.

One commander of the armed group told Milenio that there is no longer any trace of Los Viagras in Los Ates, a community in Ario.

“We had to follow them [the criminals] wherever they were. We combed the hills, walking – something that the government hasn’t done. We came together in groups of 20 to 60 to comb the hills, and we frightened them away,” he said.

The commander said that he and the other members of Pueblos Unidos don’t want to live “on the margin of the law” but have no choice due to authorities’ inaction. If municipal, state and federal forces were able to guarantee their security, the farmers would return to full-time work on their land, he said.

If the authorities don’t do that, he said, the avocado and blackberry producers should be allowed to set up their own government in the region and be given permission to legally bear arms, as has occurred in some other parts of Michoacán.

“They should give us permission to defend ourselves,” the commander said. “We also don’t want to be disarmed, and we want to be respected. … They should do the work we’re doing, and maybe we’ll withdraw.”

Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rally campaign
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, then a presidential candidate, at a campaign rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, May 31, 2018.

President López Obrador on Friday made his views clear about the formation of the armed group.

“My opinion is that … autodefensas shouldn’t exist, because the responsibility for security corresponds to the state. I’m not in favor of people arming themselves and forming groups to confront crime because that doesn’t yield results,” he said at his regular news conference.

The president also said that self-defense groups are used to hide or shelter criminals. He said “they disguise themselves as people fed up with violence.”

He called on Pueblo Unidos to trust authorities, including official security forces, claiming that they no longer collude with criminals, as occurred during past governments.

However, the federal government, which officially inaugurated a new security force – the National Guard – in 2019, was unable to reduce Mexico’s high levels of violent crime in its first two years in office, with homicide numbers reaching an all-time high of more than 34,000 in 2019 and decreasing just 0.4% last year.

López Obrador asserted Friday that his administration is now making progress in the fight against violence, a claim supported to some extent by data that shows that homicides fell 2.9% in the first five months of 2021.

“We’re advancing little by little but we’re making progress,” he said before acknowledging that the security situation had “broken down a lot.”

With reports from Milenio.

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Mexico’s air force has a new mission: seeding clouds to combat drought

Mexico air force
Mexican air force aircraft release smoke with the colors of the Mexican flag as they fly over the Independence Day military parade in Mexico City, September 16, 2013.

  • Areas of Mexico facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions have increased due to lack of rain.
  • To combat the prolonged drought, Mexico’s air force has been assigned a new mission: seeding clouds.
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The Mexican air force has been assigned a new mission: seeding clouds in an effort to combat the prolonged drought.

The drought has affected as much as 85% of Mexico’s territory since July last year, leaving large reservoirs at exceptionally low levels, straining water resources for drinking, farming, and irrigation.

As of May 31 the area affected had declined to 72% due to rainfall in many parts of the country. However, areas facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions – located in Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Nayarit, Colima and Michoacán – increased due to a shortage of rain.

Cloud seeding thickens clouds and increases the probability of rain by up to 15%, using an acetone solution and silver iodide, which is commonly used as an antiseptic or in photography.

The chemical, prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture, is transported by plane to clouds at 5,000 meters high.
Air force pilot Guadalupe Rojas explained the method.

“When we arrive at the area, we do a preliminary reconnaissance before starting the seeding. The type of clouds is analyzed, and once safety is guaranteed, we take an entry point and enter below the cloud. We search for any ascending currents and spread the chemical,” he said.

The process was tested last March in the San Quintín Valley, Baja California, and later in Nuevo León and Coahuila to help battle fires resulting from the drought.

Air force meteorology expert Francisco Ramírez said the operation is weather dependent. “We always need adequate weather conditions. In the case of Nuevo León there was a fire, but a cold spell helped and … [the cloud seeding] worked,” he said.

He added that the operation will continue in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Sonora, where the drought remains prevalent.

With reports from Milenio.

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Mexico’s powerful Jalisco cartel is hunting down and killing members of an elite police force in their homes

Mexico oil refinery sign Salamanca Guanajuato
A sign at Mexican national oil company Pemex’s refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, September 19, 2017.

  • The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is targeting and killing police officers at their homes in Mexico’s most violent state.
  • The cartel has declared war on the Guanajuato state police’s elite Tactical Group, which it says treats its members unfairly.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) is targeting and killing police officers at their homes in Guanajuato, Mexico’s most violent state and the most dangerous for police.

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the cartel abducted several members of an elite police force in Guanajuato and tortured them to obtain names and addresses of other officers.

Now CJNG members are showing up at officers’ homes on their days off and murdering them in front of their families, the news agency said.

According to Poplab, a news cooperative in Guanajuato, at least seven officers have been murdered on their days off in 2021.

AP said the offensive against the state police officers – members of a force known as the Tactical Group – poses “the most direct challenge yet” to President López Obrador’s so-called “hugs, not bullets” policy, which is characterized by the desire to avoid conflict with cartels and instead focus on addressing the root causes of crime through government welfare and social programs.

However, the CJNG – generally considered Mexico’s most powerful and violent criminal organization – doesn’t share the desire to avoid conflict, having declared war on the Tactical Group, which it says has treated its members unfairly.

Mexico Guanajuato police
Police stand guard behind sandbags at the entrance to Santa Rosa de Lima, birthplace of a local cartel that goes by the same name, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, February 12, 2020.

“If you want war, you’ll get a war. We have already shown that we know where you are. We are coming for all of you,” read a professionally printed CJNG banner that was hung on a building in Guanajuato this month.

“For each member of [the CJNG] that you arrest, we are going to kill two of your Tacticals, wherever they are, at their homes, in their patrol vehicles,” the banner said.

AP said that officials in Guanajuato – where the CJNG is engaged in a turf war with the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and other local gangs supported by the Sinaloa Cartel – refused to comment on how many members of the Tactical Group have been killed.

State police did, however, publicly acknowledge the latest case in which an officer was kidnapped from his home last Thursday and killed. His body was dumped on a highway.

Without offering an exact figure, Guanajuato-based security analyst David Saucedo said there have been many cases of cartel violence against police.

“A lot of them [the elite police officers] have decided to desert. They took their families, abandoned their homes and they are fleeing and in hiding,” he told AP. “The CJNG is hunting the elite police force of Guanajuato. … This is an open war against the security forces of the state government.”

Cartel gunmen went to the home of a policewoman in January, where they kidnapped her and killed her husband. The female officer was subsequently tortured and shot dead.

Tactical Group officers are among the 262 police who have been killed in Guanajuato between 2018 and May 12. According to Poplab, more police have been killed in Guanajuato than in any other state since at least 2018.

The average since that year of about 75 killings of police per year in Guanajuato is higher than the annual average of officers killed in the entire United States, which has a population 50 times that of the Bajío region state.

Violence against police in Guanajuato, Mexico’s worst state for homicides in recent years, has become so bad that the state government published a special decree on May 17 in which it pledged to provide an unspecified amount of funding for mechanisms to protect police and prison officials.

Mexico Guanajuato police
A policeman drives past town hall in Apaseo El Alto, Guanajuato state, February 10, 2020.

“Unfortunately, organized crime groups have shown up at the homes of police officers, which poses a threat and a greater risk of loss of life, not just for them, but for members of their families,” said the decree issued by Gov. Diego Sinhue.

“They have been forced to quickly leave their homes and move so that organized crime groups cannot find them.”

AP said that state officials refused to describe the protection measures offered to police. They also declined to comment on whether officers would receive financial assistance to rent new homes or whether there were plans to build secure housing compounds for police and their families.

Federal security forces are deployed in Guanajuato but have failed to stem the violence or put any significant dent in criminal activity.

The federal government argues that its “hugs, not bullets” approach to security will result in a reduction in violence, but 2 1/2 years after it took office, homicide numbers remain extremely high, declining just 0.4% in 2020 from the record set in 2019 despite the coronavirus pandemic and the deployment of almost 100,000 National Guard troops.

Despite a campaign promise to withdraw the military from the nation’s streets, López Obrador has continued to use the armed forces for public security tasks but given them a clear directive to avoid direct confrontations with cartels wherever possible.

Former United States ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau said last month that the president sees combating cartels as a distraction from his political agenda and has adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward them.

“He sees the cartels … as a distraction from focusing on his agenda. So he has basically adopted a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards them, which is troubling to our government, obviously. I think it’s a big problem for Mexico,” he said.

Source: AP (en), Infobae (sp)

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