Violence in the town of Jerez, in Mexico's central state of Zacatecas, has surged in 2021, as criminal groups fight for control of key drug transit and production zones.
The Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) – the two strongest drug trafficking groups in Mexico – have engaged in violent shootouts throughout January and February in an ongoing effort to cement their presence in the state of Zacatecas.
The town of Jerez, located in the southwest part of the state, has become an increasing focal point for conflict, related to both drug production and trafficking, due to its proximity to marijuana and poppy cultivation zones and its numerous connections to highways and ports useful for moving drug shipments.
In mid-February, the town suffered a seven-day blitz of shootouts, grenade attacks and burning vehicles, forcing state police and the National Guard to initiate a near-statewide response to contain the violence.
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Armed civilians, likely associated with one of the cartels, have also reportedly engaged in direct attacks on the police patrolling the town.
Jerez has been dubbed a "pueblo mágico," or a magical town," a designation given to small towns in Mexico with special cultural and historical value. They have traditionally been considered safe tourist destinations.
The violence appears to be extending throughout the municipality of Jerez, which contains the town of the same name. At the end of February, two plastic bags with body parts were found in the village of El Duraznillo. They were so mangled that the parts had to be sent to a lab to confirm the sex of the victims.
Since the start of the year, over 200 people in the state have been killed because of the cartel rivalries, according to local outlets. The state’s Secretary of Security told InSight Crime many of the victims have been low- and mid-range dealers, distributors, lookouts and assassins, among other collaborators that a cartel needs to stabilize operations.
“It’s a situation that hasn’t stopped and I think won’t stop until one of them takes out the other,” Zacatecas’ security secretary Arturo López Bazán said.
The Jalisco Cartel New Generation has used the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown to push further into Zacatecas. Last April, CJNG members released a video declaring that the state belonged to El Mencho, the group’s leader. It also hung banners in 17 municipalities declaring control.
The current wave of violence started gaining momentum around August, with the state's smaller criminal organizations becoming increasingly involved. The Talibanes and Northeastern Cartel have alliances with the Sinaloa Cartel, while CJNG is working with the Gulf Cartel.
Since the start of the year, more pamphlets and other forms of propaganda have been circulated by the Sinaloa Cartel, suggesting that it currently has more control, López said.
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Jerez has become a target for violence due to its strategic location.
The town sits at the crossroads of two cross-country highway routes that connect ports, major urban centers, like Monterrey, and the United States border. Not only does that facilitate the movement of fentanyl and other drugs, but it is ideal for human and arms trafficking – two other important criminal economies in the state, López said.
Jerez is also near the mountainous areas of Jalpa and Tlaltenango, which serve as rural strongholds for the cartels, as well as prominent marijuana and poppy cultivation zones.
Like much of the state, police presence is weak in Jerez. Because Zacatecas is so large, and the violence is occurring across different municipalities that are far apart, it can be difficult for officers to respond quickly, López said.
“You can have a strong presence in the cities, and in mountain areas things continue the same. If you orient resources to the mountains, then the situation comes to the cities. It has been complicated.”
He also said that the various law enforcement agencies in the state are working to improve their coordination, so that response times improve and fewer crimes occur with impunity. At the end of February, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered an increased National Guard presence in the state to assist with the effort.