A deadly war has engulfed Mexico’s southern state of Michoacan, where cartels fight over both drugs and the lucrative avocado market
Mexico has been no stranger to grim scenes in recent years, but on Thursday its cartel wars hit a fresh low as numerous bodies were found hanging from an overpass in the southern state of Michoacan, and others were found chopped up on a road nearby.
In total, 19 bodies were found in the city of Uruapan — seven men and two women dangling from the bridge at 5.30 a.m.; six men and a woman left lying in various states of dismemberment on the street below; and more male bodies found in a separate neighbourhood.
Photos in Mexican outlets showed human heads, arms and legs scattered about, as if arranged in a display. The bodies hanging from the bridge were in various states of undress, some with their pants pulled down.
On the bridge was a banner, a warning from one cartel to others, which read in part: “Lovely people, carry on with your routines. Be a patriot, kill a Viagra.”
The Viagras are the local rivals of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG.
The CJNG is led by a drug-trafficking former policeman named Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, or “El Mencho.” In Uruapan El Mencho, who controls most of Mexico’s methamphetamine trade, is battling both the Viagras and another cartel, the Knights Templar.
Since a government war on cartels was launched in 2006, more than 200,000 lives have been lost in Mexico. With Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sentenced to life in prison in the U.S., it is El Mencho, who was once allied with El Chapo but later turned against him, who now dominates. U.S. authorities have put a $10 million price on the ex-cop’s head.
“This kind of public, theatrical violence, where you don’t just kill, but you brag about killing, is meant to intimidate rivals and send a message to the authorities,” security expert Alejandro Hope told the Associated Press.
“There is a turf war between the (local) cells of different criminal groups. They are fighting for territorial control over the production, distribution and consumption of drugs,” Al Jazeera quoted the Michoacan attorney general Adrian Lopez as saying.
“That leads to this type of incident, which alarms the population, and rightfully so.”
Although the slaughter is being blamed by state officials on Michoacan’s drug trade, the region is also rich in avocados, a multi-million dollar industry that cartels use to line their pockets via extortion of farmers and control of growing areas. Eight-in-ten avocados eaten in North America come from Michoacan. Sales to the U.S. hit $2.5 billion in 2018, El Pais reports.
“The big magnet here is avocados,” Falko Ernst, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the Guardian. The outlet previously reported that as many as four trucks carrying avocados are robbed in Michoacan per day.
The crisis has become so bad in recent years that locals have set up armed self-defence groups to combat the cartels. But some of these groups, known as autodefensas, have themselves been linked to the drug gangs. Indeed the Viagras group, long known for trafficking and extortion, initially gained legitimacy as a government-backed self-defence outfit.
The new president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, has sworn to tackle the escalating violence, yet 2019 could be Mexico’s bloodiest year yet. Al Jazeera reports that 14,603 murders were registered between January and June alone.
El Mencho’s latest act has evoked memories of one of Uruapan’s darkest episodes — the night in 2006 when 20 men stormed into a city bar and rolled five severed heads across the dance floor.
“He’s public enemy number one,” Paul Craine, who led the DEA in Mexico at the time of El Chapo’s arrest, told the Mirror of El Mencho earlier this year. “And he’s got an army of thousands of bad guys.”
Unlike El Chapo — whose prison escapes turned him into a pantomime character — El Mencho is relatively unknown internationally. His cartel is said to be worth up to $20 billion, according to a 2017 profile in Rolling Stone. It’s a fortune El Mencho built up from trafficking routes spanning six continents, while getting cartel underlings to do his bidding.
“Over 25 years of working in Mexico, you’d run into guys who had met Chapo, who would talk about him,” an ex-DEA agent told the magazine. “But with Mencho, you don’t hear that. He’s kind of a ghost.”
Yet despite its leader’s invisibility, the CJNG’s crimes rank alongside anything Mexico has ever seen.
In 2013 the CJNG reportedly raped a 10-year-old girl, murdered her, then set fire to her. They thought she was the daughter of a drug rival. She wasn’t.
“This is a guy who’ll execute your whole family based on not much more than a rumour,” one source told Rolling Stone.