Drug Trafficking in Michoacán, Guerrero, and Jalisco: Cartels and the Autodefensas

By Alexandra Smith

Three states in south-central Mexico: Michoacán, Guerrero, and Jalisco are centers of drug-related violence and demonstrate the complicated nature of violence in Mexico’s war on drugs. A number of major cartels operate or have operated in this region, including the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG), La Familia Michoacána (LFM), the Knights Templar, Viagras, and Cartel del Abuelo.[1] From January to October 2019, at least 6,606 homicides occurred in the three states, making it one of the three most violent regions in Mexico.[2]

These three states, sometimes referred to as the Tierra Caliente, play an important role in drug trafficking and production, while also offering cartels additional revenue streams. In 2016, The Intercept reported that Guerrero was Mexico’s leading producer of opium paste, while Michoacán produced methamphetamine.[3] The region is also a leading grower of limes and avocados, and extortion of farmers provides income to cartels, threatening civilians with no connections to drug traffickers.

The drug conflict in Michoacán is complicated by the development of autodefensas, local resistance militias formed in communities to fight drug trafficking organizations. One lime farmer, Hipólito Mora Chávez, formed a militia in his community to fight the Knights Templar cartel after years of violence against people in all sectors of society.[4] His experienced, outlined in an Intercept report by Ryan Devereaux, captures the complicated nature of violence in the region: rival cartels and state forces quickly worked to co-opt the autodefensa movement for their own purposes. Groups like the CJNG sent their members to join autodefensas in order to fight their rivals in Michoacán under the guise of heroes protecting endangered communities. The Mexican state, forced to respond to rising violence in the region, responded by making autodefensas an official armed wing of the Mexican state in 2014, giving many cartel members official uniforms in the process.

The consequence of this process is that an individual facing violence in this region may be facing threats from a variety of sources. They could be threatened by a member of a cartel operating either as a cartel member or masquerading as a member of a popular defense militia. They could be attacked by a genuine member of the autodefensas in a vigilante attack. The official state response to this lawless violence between cartels and autodefensas is demonstrative: the Mexican state is either uninterested or incapable of addressing the violence in Michoacán and instead seeks to paint over legal problems through official certification of violent groups as wings of the state.

Meanwhile, traditional drug trafficking violence remains a problem across this region. The CJNG, which emerged from groups working as subcontractors for the Sinaloa Cartel, has become one of Mexico’s most notorious cartels.[5] In 2019, the CJNG demonstrated its strength by killing 14 police officers in an ambush, and in the past has used public displays of bodies and the shooting down of helicopters to display its power in the region.[6]

The situation in the region is dire, with murder rates rising and the state being either unable or unwilling to respond. Appeals to the state for help have led to the state recognizing vigilante forces instead of presenting any sort of program to actually address drug violence. Meanwhile, cartels continue to compete over the strategically important territory, and communities are caught in the crossfire. For normal residents of Michoacán, this means violence they face could come from cartel members or official security forces, which may or may not be directly involved in drug trafficking.  

Further Reading:

  1. The most highly recommended further reading for the topic of Autodefensas: https://theintercept.com/2016/06/29/lime-grower-uprising-against-mexico-drug-cartel/
  2. For information on the CJNG: https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/jalisco-cartel-new-generation/
  3. See the section on the “Tierra Caliente” for 2019 violence statistics: https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/gamechangers-2019-mexico-body-count-amlo/

[1] https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/gamechangers-2019-mexico-body-count-amlo/

[2] https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/gamechangers-2019-mexico-body-count-amlo/

[3] https://theintercept.com/2016/06/29/lime-grower-uprising-against-mexico-drug-cartel/

[4] https://theintercept.com/2016/06/29/lime-grower-uprising-against-mexico-drug-cartel/

[5] https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/jalisco-cartel-new-generation/

[6] https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/15/americas/mexico-police-ambush-scli-intl/index.html

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