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Between Bullets and the Gaze of the CJNG: The Visit of the Vatican's Representative to Aguililla, Michoacán

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“MX” for Borderland Beat

The Vatican’s representative in Mexico, Franco Coppola, walked through the streets of Aguililla, Michoacan. The town’s residents received him with a large celebration as he greeted families and walked to celebrate mass in downtown Aguililla (see video).

It’s Friday in Aguililla, one of the most dangerous municipalities in Michoacán. Vatican pontifical diplomat Franco Coppola parks his car between houses riddled with bullets. He gets out of the car and walks down a dead, dirty, and dark street.

For years, Coppola has walked and interacted with Mexico’s criminal underworld. He walks with his Bible and reaches territories that not even the police can reach.

The purpose of these visits is always the same: to uproot young people from drug trafficking and fill a void left by the authorities in regions ravaged by insecurity.

In Aguililla, many people are Catholic, but the faith of the faithful competes with the weapons, drugs, and power of organized crime. In the middle of the road where Coppola walks, a vehicle with the insignia of the CJNG (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación) transits by.

In previous days, alleged members of the CJNG launched explosive drones against state police. But Coppola goes on, walks, and enters. None of the men armed with rifles and tactical equipment seem to want to hear the word of God.

For 18 months, violence in the region has worsened without the authorities intuiting its size. The community bleeds to death with the worsening of armed confrontations and the serious economic crisis. Gas, water, and road connections are cut off by criminals.

This week, the diocese of Apatzingán, presided over by Cristóbal Ascencio García and of which Aguililla is a member, announced Coppola’s visit.

The priests have been the main support of the inhabitants in the Tierra Caliente region (where Aguililla is) and in the mountains of Michoacán. These communities are in the middle of the crossfire. The nuncio’s visit not only provides moral support, but also accentuates the absence of Mexican authorities who have abandoned thousands of Michoacan residents to their fate.

The fight in Aguililla is long overdue. The CJNG, whose presence has been identified in at least 23 states across Mexico, fights territories with criminal groups and remnants of La Familia Michoacan, the Knights Templar Cartel, and Los Viagras. When these groups were overwhelmed, they chose to unite forces and formed the criminal group known as Cárteles Unidos (CU).

In October 2019 in Aguililla, cartel members ambushed and killed at least 14 police officers. As reported by Borderland Beat, the attack was carried out by the CJNG.

A wake up call for Mexican bishops

Coppola has chastised the country’s bishops for being estranged from the faithful.

In an interview with the newspaper Milenio, Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist and religious expert in Mexico City, said that Coppola “read the riot act” to bishops at a recent meeting of Catholic Church leaders. Coppola told them that their administration of the church has become a disaster, Masferrer said.

The papal nuncio gave the bishops “a pull on their ears,” telling them that it’s not their job to be “comfortably seated” in their offices, he said.

Masferrer also said that Coppola has openly told Mexican bishops that they do nothing for the Catholic community. He recalled that Pope Francis also criticized Mexican bishops for being more concerned with worldly matters than their diocesan communities.

Masferrer said that Catholic Church in Mexico needs to commit itself more to the nation’s millions of believers and those who suffer the most. He advised church leaders to follow in the footsteps of Salvador Rangel, bishop of the Chilapa-Chilpancingo diocese in Guerrero, who is well known for facilitating dialogue and seeking truces between feuding narcos.

‘We are trapped here’. A Mexican town isolated by terror

The town of Aguililla made news this month when eight headless bodies were dumped there. Three weeks later, it is at war. Hardly anybody enters or leaves — at least not without the permission of rival gangs that have blocked the roads.

In telephone interviews and in social media postings, trapped residents described a community living in terror of armed thugs who stroll the streets and shoot at one another. Some shops remain open, residents said, but the food supply is dwindling and there is no access to hospitals.

“If the groups want to keep fighting among themselves, that’s their problem,” said Father Gilberto Vergara, the parish priest. “But this situation is suffocating us.”

The priest has publicly called on the gangs to let townsfolk travel to the nearest city — Apatzingán, a two-hour drive northeast — for food, medical care and gasoline, and to be able to sell their produce and cattle.

A convoy of vehicles from the Mexican Army patrol during the visit of Monsignor Franco Coppola in Aguililla community, state of Michoacan, Mexico on Friday. (ENRIQUE CASTRO / AFP / Getty Images)

At the root of the mayhem is a struggle for control of a large segment of the narcotics trade in strife-ridden Michoacán state, and a government that has been powerless to prevent cartels from taking over large swaths of the nation.

In recent years, Aguililla, population 15,000, branched out from tomato farming, cattle ranching and marijuana cultivation to become a strategic hub for the manufacture of methamphetamine bound for the booming U.S. market.

Authorities say that dozens of illicit production facilities scattered in the nearby countryside process precursor chemical smuggled from Asia into the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas, 175 miles to the southwest.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents have fled the violence, some to the United States but many more to other parts of Mexico.

“I worked in Aguililla all my life. I have plots of tomatoes, corn, chile … But we had to leave it all behind out of fear,” said Victor Arnoldo Aguaje, 68, who left last June with 14 relatives for Uruapan, the second-largest city in Michoacán.

“In Aguililla, one lives with a constant fear that you may be killed or kidnapped at any moment,” he said.

The conflict demonstrates how gangs have infiltrated regional governance in much of Mexico. Authorities blame two cartels for the turmoil.

One, the CU, is a confederation of various mobs, including La Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templars and Los Viagras, that U.S. prosecutors say was led by Adalberto Fructoso Comparán Rodríguez, 57, a former mayor of Aguililla.

He was arrested in Guatemala last month at U.S. behest for his alleged part in a scheme to smuggle more than 1,100 pounds of Mexican methamphetamine into Florida hidden inside concrete tiles and dissolved in five-gallon buckets of house paint.

The competing group is the CJNG, one of Mexico’s largest syndicates, known for its expansionist bent and lurid social media displays of armored vehicles and military-grade weaponry.

Its leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes — who is called El Mencho and once peddled heroin in bars in San Francisco — is wanted in both Mexico and the United States. He is reportedly a native of Aguililla.

Many in Aguililla are calling on the Mexican government to intervene.

“Of course we want the military to come and fight the criminals,” Maribel López, 53, a nurse, said by telephone.

“Is it too much to ask that they at least open up the roads to Apatzingán?” Her diabetic aunt died a few weeks ago because the roadblocks prevented relatives from getting her to the hospital, López said. 

There is a widespread belief in Aguililla that security services and the military collaborate with the cartels. Footage on social media showed townsfolk jeering Mexican national guard units as they retreated from the town.

A bullet-riddled walls bears the initials of Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) at the entrance of the community of Aguililla, Mexico. (Enrique Castro / AFP / Getty Images)

A Mexican military base of 200 soldiers is situated in Aguililla, its troops re-supplied by helicopter, but forces have avoided direct conflict with the warring gangsters.

A Pentagon official recently estimated that cartels control about one-third of Mexican territory. President Andres Manuel López Obrador disputed that figure at a recent news conference but declined to provide his own.

For more than a decade, Mexico waged a “war on drugs” that led to tens of thousands of deaths but did little to weaken organized crime — an approach that López Obrador abandoned in favor of avoiding direct conflict while providing economic opportunities for poor youth to keep them out of gangs

But the strife in Aguililla is severely testing his strategy in the run-up the national mid-term elections in June.

“The approach of the current administration to insecurity, to the whole armed conflict, has been silence,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst in Mexico with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that researches conflict. “Their political calculation is that it’s better not to talk about it.”

López Obrador has defended his decision to hold back from a military assault on Aguililla.

“If we take towns and use force, invade with police, with soldiers, well that will lead to nothing good,” López Obrador told reporters this month . “We have to call to everyone for serenity, for tranquility, to look for peace. No to violence.”

In 2019, 14 state police officers were killed in an apparent cartel ambush in Aguililla. This past week state police dispatched to Aguililla were attacked by at least one cartel drone armed with explosives. Authorities said two officers suffered minor injuries.

The president backed dialogue in hopes of resolving the situation there. But Silvano Aureoles, the governor of Michoacán, said that a solution was elusive without the deployment of federal forces.

“One can dialogue with communities in conflict, with social groups, but to dialogue with criminals is another matter,” Aureoles told Mexico’s Milenio news outlet.

Not that his own efforts have fared any better.

The governor flew into Aguililla in a military helicopter last week in a much-hyped display to show that security had improved.

Accompanied by heavily armed body-guards, he was met by several protesters in the town’s central square who hoisted handwritten signs demanding that authorities restore the peace and open the roads.

“I want to live free in my pueblo,” read one placard.

“The people don’t believe in the government — we have no security or tranquility,” said Fernando Padilla, 43, a teacher in Aguililla, who brought his 10-year-old son to the protest.

“The government comes here to make a ‘show,’ says the situation is tranquil, but it’s not true. … We are at the mercy of the criminals, we are trapped here. This is not a life.”

Video footage from the scene showed the governor approaching the protesters and shoving Padilla as security guards grabbed two of the protesters’ signs.

After the shove went viral on social media, the governor asserted on Facebook that he had been confronted by hostile cartel “lookouts.”

Padilla, who has been a teacher for 20 years in Aguililla, denied any links to drug traffickers.

The governor’s characterization of the protesters as mob lookouts, he said, had put their lives in further danger. He said his salary was suspended after the incident — a move he viewed as retaliation for his protest — but was later restored when he complained to local press.

Ominously, Padilla said, armed men have been passing by his house.

“One doesn’t know anymore if this is normal or whether these delinquents are coming for me,” he said. “The people of Aguililla are stuck in a living hell, trapped and governed by criminality.”

Sources: Infobae; Milenio; MND; LAT


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