As if the southern Mexican state of Guerrero didn’t have enough troubles, an obscure force is stirring up a boiling cauldron even more. As the Holy Week/Easter holiday season that draws hundreds of thousands of Mexican tourists to Guerrero was picking up, a heretofore unknown group publicly unfurled three narcomantas, or narco banners, in the violence-wracked city of Iguala.
Signed by “The Spartans,” the author(s) of the March 24 message warned of a nighttime curfew in effect for the city and declared war against several organized crime groups competing for control of the opium poppy/heroin trade, including La Familia Michoacana, Los Rojos, Sierra Unida and Guerreros Unidos. The banners mentioned by name members of the Federal Police allegedly in cahoots with Guerreros Unidos.
Splashed with vigilante-like language and references to God, the message promised a “cleansing” of criminals in the northern tier of Guerrero, warning that The Spartans were also present in Mexico state, Mexico City, Puebla and Cuernavaca, Morelos.
Not long after the banners were rolled out, the family home of an individual denounced in the message had a grenade tossed at it by a man traveling on a motorcycle.
Guerreros Unidos, the underworld group blamed by the federal Mexican government for disappearing the 43 Ayotzinapa college students in September 2014, apparently wasted no time in replying to The Spartans. During the last week of March a narco message bearing the group’s name was left next to the body of a murdered municipal employee, boasting that if The Spartans “want war, it is war you will have.”
If the narco message from Guerreros Unidos was in fact authentic, the item provides further evidence that the organization is very much alive and well in spite of the Mexican government’s post-Ayotzinapa detentions of dozens of alleged members.
Violence remains persistent in Iguala, with perhaps the most prominent murder victim this year being Esther Orea Vargas, a 48-year-old former city council representative for the Mexican Green Party who was slain last month in a shooting that also left her 22-year-old daughter wounded. Orea had reportedly escaped an earlier incident in which two men were executed.
Shortly prior to the latest outbreak of mayhem, a spokesman for the Other Disappeared Ones, an activist group of relatives of approximately 300-400 people (other than the Ayotzinapa students) reported forcibly disappeared in northern Guerrero, described the terror shrouding the region.
“In Iguala, nothing has changed,” the spokesman said. “On the contrary, there are murdered people, disappearances. It is dangerous what we do.”
The Other Disappeared Ones uncovered this week dozens of bones and articles of clothing in Mexcaltepec, a place where state and federal investigators had previously searched and discounted the presence of clandestine graves of murder victims.
In the Guerrero coastal resort of Acapulco, meanwhile, violence linked to organized crime groups raged non-stop even as Mexican tourists streamed into the Bay of Santa Lucia for the Holy Week/Easter holidays.
In scores of bloody incidents that claimed an estimated 62 lives during the two-week holiday break, according to the daily El Sur newspaper, killers targeted nightclub personnel, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, street vendors and officials connected to the municipal government, especially the water utility department. As in previous years, narco banners or messages accompanying decapitated or dismembered victims defiled the greater urban area.
If the pace of homicides continues at its current rate, 2016 is on track to be an even worse year in Acapulco than 2015, when 902 victims were counted as murdered by the National Public Security System, according to El Sur. As of April 6, El Sur had tallied at least 262 suspected murder victims of organized crime in Acapulco since January 1. Statewide, the newspaper counted 527 gangland-style executions during the first three months of 2016-a whopping 51 percent increase over the comparable period of last year.
In a frank admission of the historic link between illicit drugs and tourism, Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo said the onset of the tourist season sparked violence between gangs over which group would control drug sales to thrill-seeking visitors. “There are a lot of drug sales,” Astudillo was quoted in the local press.
Besides drug business disputes, reports strongly indicated that violence was related to extortion and/or the failure of some victims, no matter the size of their enterprise, to fork over turf fees to criminals. In a much different era, extortion of businesses was almost unheard of in Acapulco.
Occurring at all hours of the day and evening, some shootings took place in front of tourists and locals either on or within a block or two of the Costera, Acapulco’s main tourist strip. Local press coverage emphasized how the violence was likewise unfolding right under the noses of nearly 4,600 military and law enforcement personnel ostensibly deployed to ensure order.
A well publicized attack was reported March 25 just off the Costera at a branch of Los Buzos, a small restaurant chain popular with Acapulquenos and knowledgeable tourists, when two gunmen strolled in during business hours and shot and wounded two workers. The attack happened only days after another Los Buzos outlet was burned down in a mysterious fire.
In an unusual Facebook message, Los Buzos announced it was closing down all of its restaurants until further notice. Hinting at a problem with extortion, the business lamented making a decision that negatively affected 150 families of company employees.
But Los Buzos’ management later declared it was reopening two of its four eateries, and Mayor Evodio Velazquez Aguirre told a group of concerned business owners that the city government had granted the restaurant tax breaks and security guarantees so it could reopen.
However, Primos, a nearly ten-year-old bar/pizzeria that operates in the same vicinity as two of Los Buzos’ restaurants, announced April 2 it was turning off its ovens until additional notice.
The National Chamber of Commerce’s Javier Saldivar Rodriguez said Los Buzos’ tax breaks were a “temporary solution” that did not address the root of the problem. Salvidar called on the government to improve its policing and intelligence-gathering practices, contending it was “useless” for cops to stand around solely in a “dissuasive” manner.
Raul Alejandro Iracheta Montoya, representative of the Canaco-Servitur business association in Acapulco, told the press that although security conditions were worse in 2010-2011 because of kidnappings, between 200 and 250 businesses in Acapulco had nevertheless closed their doors this year, principally due to insecurity.
Insisting the latest wave of crime was not directed against tourists or the local public, representatives of the federal, state and municipal governments made nearly identical statements downplaying the violence.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, for instance, said authorities had the problematic zones pinpointed and the great majority of the crimes were happening in working-class neighborhoods (colonias) “very far from the (Costera), very far from the center of Acapulco.”
Daniel Meza, municipal secretary of government, even claimed that tourists “see a different Acapulco, one that is worried about security, about tranquility.” But business leaders and other residents of Acapulco and
Guerrero had a drastically different view of the circumstances under which they were living. At the end of March, business owners and citizens from Acapulco, Chilpancingo, Iguala, Taxco and Zihuatanejo organized in the Citizens Chat Council delivered a document to Governor Astudillo proclaiming that insecurity had reached unprecedented proportions.
“Violence is generating a collective fear that has touched all homes, and as a society we have not found answers to solve this reality,” the statement declared. “Violence is affecting everything, violence is paralyzing everything.”
Separately, Laura Caballero, president of the Association of Established Costera Merchants, publicly called on organized crime groups to agree to a truce.
“They have us on our knees,” Caballero was quoted. “We have never lived with such fear, even with more than 4,500 security elements.” Caballero said a mass public meeting on the public security crisis is planned for April 13 as part of “a call to stop this war,” which could later involve negotiations with narco groups.
A creeping fog of fear is even smothering migrants living in the United States, who are afraid of formally enrolling in an official registry for future assistance programs, according to Arturo Lopez Sugia, president of the Acapulco City Council’s migrant attention commission.
Lopez said migrants originally from the city send home $40 million every three months in a flow of money that is second only in importance to tourism as a source of (legal) income for Acapulco.
Mexican authorities have long had plenty of foreknowledge about the escalating violence in Acapulco. An FNS story published in early 2013 noted the persistence of murder and impunity in Acapulco’s colonias.
At the time the Mexican government had the touristy Costera cordoned off with thick convoys of police, soldiers and marines, but criminal activities only ballooned and spread across the city, including the Costera.
In the weeks immediately prior to the 2016 spring holiday season, numerous shootings and killings took place in the colonias as well as at places frequented by tourists, including the downtown Zocalo, La Quebrada, and Dominguillo, Papagayo and Condesa beaches along the Costera.
In March a narco message and a batch of funeral flowers were left at Acapulco City Hall by a group of armed men. Threatening Manuel Flores Sonduk, the temporary director of municipal public safety, the message warned Mayor Velazquez to get rid of the official as well as Velazquez’s own personal head of security. Velazquez attributed the threats to a credentialing process underway designed to weed out corrupt cops.
Another narco message, meanwhile, blamed ongoing violence on three individuals allegedly connected to the Beltran Leyva crime group and formerly associated with the state prison located in the Acapulco suburb of Las Cruces.
In many ways the current pattern of violence in Acapulco closely resembles the carnage that devastated Ciudad Juarez from 2008 to 2012, when upwards of 12,000 people were murdered. Far from decreasing violence, the deployment of federal troops and police in Juarez dovetailed with upticks in killings and other crimes. Like Acapulco, killings often happened in the border city during daylight hours even when police or military patrols were nearby.
More than a few cops and soldiers stationed in Juarez were subsequently implicated in crimes ranging from murder and forced disappearance to extortion, rape and theft.
Although violence flared amid the conflict between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, both of which (like groups in Acapulco) underwent their own metamorphoses as organizations following the killing or detentions of leaders, many crimes like extortions were actually committed by smaller, opportunistic groups that took advantage of the chaos, according to one knowledgeable border source.
In Acapulco and Guerrero, years of violence is stretching the social and political fabric to possibly the breaking point, leading some unexpected voices to call for radical solutions.
Recently appointed to head the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza staked out a controversial position in recent days by endorsing negotiations with narco groups as the way forward in curbing extortion and violent crime.
“The Church has always promoted dialogue, because there can be no peace without dialogue,” Rangel said. “That’s why it’s necessary to dialogue with people dedicated to drug trafficking, but without any concessions- a dialogue, not a pact.”
Rangel also supported the legalization of opium poppy cultivation and the scrapping of the eight-year-old Merida Initiative between Mexico and the United States, which he contended was putting Mexico in a subordinate, disadvantageous position as “a shield” serving the drug prohibition and geo-political interests of Washington.
“Why not take away the shield? Why not open the gates of the border and have the Americans fix it, or better yet, apply (Merida) but from the border northward,” Rangel said.
The bishop’s opinions invited differing responses, with Governor Astudillo departing from Rangel’s proposals and Silvano Blanco, former Zihuatanejo mayor and current state lawmaker, backing the idea of legalizing marijuana and opium for medicinal purposes.
In other comments this week in Acapulco, Astudillo sparked a new polemic, when he essentially urged the media to practice censorship in its reporting on the Acapulco violence and instead “speak well” about the city.
He called on news outlets to emulate the “pact of silence” he said is practiced in Zihuatanejo, for the benefit of tourism.
In Acapulco, the governor reiterated, violence involves delinquent against delinquent. For Astudillo, the most important news was that more than 800,000 tourists visited Guerrero during the recent holidays, filling up hotels.
But press reports noted a significant drop in hotel occupancy rates for Acapulco, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and Taxco during the last days of the vacation season
Some tourists were delayed for hours from returning home on the last day of vacation April 3 as hundreds of transport workers and residents blocked the Zihuatanejo-Acapulco highway in the Costa Grande region demanding the dismantlement of army checkpoints and the withdrawal of soldiers from mountain communities. The protesters alleged soldiers were unduly harassing residents and committing human rights violations.
Sources: Despertar de la Costa, April 4 and 5, 2016. Articles by Pedro Patricio Antolino and Crevel Mayo Garcia. Laplazadiario.com, April 2, 2016. Proceso, March 30, 2016; April 2 and 5, 2016. Articles by Rodrigo Vera and editorial staff. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), March 6, 27, 29, and 31, 2016; April 1, 4 and 6, 2016. Articles by Raymundo Ruiz Aviles, Citlal Giles Sanchez, Roberto Ramirez Bravo, Abby Perezcano, Salvador Cisneros Silva, and Rodolfo Valadez Luviano.
El Sur, March 2, 7, 16, 19, 20, 21 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 2016. April 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2016. Articles by Karla Galarce Sosa, Abel Salgado, Carlos Moreo A., Brenda Escobar, Aurora Harrison, Mariana Labastida, Zacarias Cervantes, Alfonso Marin, Luis Daniel Nava, Alejandro Guerrero, Anarsis Pacheco, Daniel Velazquez, Karina Contreras, Luis Blancas, Alfonso Marinm and editorial staff.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico