Five years ago, the central-west states of Jalisco and Zacatecas were a relatively peaceful backwater in Mexico's battles with organized crime, but today the region is the site of growing violence as criminal groups compete for territory.
The region is appealing to drug traffickers for a number of reasons, but one in particular stands out: the two states offer a valuable passageway from the Pacific Coast, where two of the country's more important ports are located, to the northeast, home to several of the busiest U.S. border crossings.
It’s no surprise, then, that two of the main groups fighting for Zacatecas and Jalisco -- the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas -- are based in northeastern Mexico. While these two groups are locked into a battle for control of the remote sierra at the border between the two states, further south into Jalisco the competition is more complicated.
The Sinaloa Cartel has long been dominant in coastal region of Jalisco, but with the death of local Sinaloa boss Ignacio Coronel in 2010, the group’s monopoly has been challenged. The Zetas had been making inroads into the region since even before Coronel died, and in the months since, other groups -- some old, like the Milenio Cartel, others new, such as the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG) -- have also appeared in the state.
As a result of these tensions, the murder rate in the region has spiked. According to figures from the newspaper Reforma, the number of murders linked to organized crime in Zacatecas has jumped six-fold since 2010. In Jalisco, 690 people were killed in the first half of 2011, which puts it on track for a 50 percent rise in the year.
According to many analysts, the mayhem in the region is likely to worsen. In a piece reprinted by InSight Crime, Southern Pulse recently suggested that as the Zetas move further into Jalisco, they will come into contact with ever-greater resistance from the Sinaloa cells already entrenched there. Under this view, the recent spikes in violence are unlikely to level out.
To get a sense of life in the Jalisco-Zacatecas border region, reports from Grupo Imagen Media rode along with a Jalisco police unit operating in both states. The following is InSight Crime's translations of some sections of the report.
Between Jalisco and Zacatecas, every town that you pass through has a story of blood and fire; in San Cristobal de la Barranca, the police killed six gunmen; in Garcia de la Cadena, 3,000 bullets were seized; in Santa Maria de Los Angeles there was a gunfight in May; in Colotlan five agents were murdered...
This border region has turned into a war zone. The most recent episode occurred on September 23, in Huejucar: a midnight attack in which gunmen suffered various casualties, fled toward Jerez and kidnapped doctors so that they would treat their wounds.
Grupo Imagen Multimedia covered 240 kilometers in the region, in a convoy of rural police in Jalisco, known as Los Negros. “The zone is really hot,” explains a commander. “We can arrive tonight without any problem or suffer an attack at any moment,” another says. “What’s my name? I have no name. Nor do I have a face and you don’t know the number of the police cruisers nor of the police officers,” he declares.
The patrol begins in Jalisco’s Secretariat of Security. There there are 27 plaques with the names of the agents murdered this year. A bend in the road could be hiding anything. The tension is permanent. Suddently, a man abandons his truck, and the alert sounds: “He’s a lookout, he just got off the highway!” Time for action.
We are in San Cristobal de la Barranca. We are still in Guadalajara territory. The commander of the rural police signals toward the highway’s left, where the vegetation hides a mountain village.
“It is called La Lobera and the gunmen hide there.” It’s a village of less than 300 inhabitants in which there are 62 houses, the majority with just a single room and a dirty floor. It is a difficult place to patrol, because there are only narrow passageways and a path through which animals wander.
There was a clash there last June. The rural police had a confrontation with the Zetas, killing six and capturing 10 more. The gunmen were traveling to Zacatecas to attack the Gulf Cartel, and they ended up losing a battle that they weren’t expecting. Furthermore, that day they seized trucks, grenade-launchers, automatic weapons, and more than 500 cartridges.
Suddenly the face of Commander 2 get serious. “We are entering Zacatecas and here any curve we could bump into the Zetas,” he says, while the windows remain closed and the cruisers increase the distance between them.
Garcia de la Cadena is the first municipality in Zacatecas that we pass through, traveling at a good speed and with all five senses on alert. Though it has almost 3,000 residents, that morning there were just a few kids that gathered in the patio of an austere school, a pair of old men seated next to the solitary highway and two or three small cows, as skinny as dogs. The dirt fields remind you that at one point there were residents playing football there.
The police commander says that easy money makes many youths in Zacatecas -- both women and men -- allow themselves to be recruited by criminal groups. “Many have left town and those that have stayed don’t come out of their houses very often,” he said.
In July, "El Choche," an 18-year-old who had turned into a lookout for the Gulf for 5,000 pesos every two weeks, was detained. That afternoon the police also confiscated 3,000 bullets for an AK-47.
We travel over the route to Colotlan and the highway toward Lagos de Moreno. The commander signals toward the other side of the road and makes us turn around. A few meters from the road there was a niche in a wall with five crosses. It is the homage to the police murdered in October of 2008, when they stopped near a gas station to check a suspicious car, and were met with machine gun fire and two grenades coming from Suburban trucks. Three more police were wounded, but they survived to tell the tale.
Commander 3 grabs some CDs and plays some norteña music to lower the tension on the Zacatecas highway. The rest of the police remain alert.
The convoy passes through Teul, still enemy territory, when the police radio announces the presence of an “unsavory character.”
“That mother-----er is a lookout, he just left the highway!” The chase immediately begins, adrenaline for some and arrhythmia for others. Police run toward a suburban truck with California license plates that had just been abandoned on a dirt road, the uniformed men point their guns forward and others cover their rear.
No one who doesn’t belong appears. The informant is captured, without a shot, but the revision continues 100 meters away. The man confesses to being an RT (a leader of the lookouts), who says he is from Zacatecas and works for the Zetas because he can’t find work. He, together with his truck, is taken to Guadalajara. The group communicates with other teams and the return trip turns out to be stressful.
One of the officers gets into the armored car with a nervous laugh. It turns out that in the chase, the officer was himself chased by a bull that was loose on the grassland -- an anecdote to break the tension of the moment.