TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — It’s a scorching Friday afternoon in early February. In the sleepy town called Tlapehuala, the siesta hour is shattered when the local boss for the Familia Michoacana cartel rolls through on “personal business.”
The crime lord swoops along the dusty, sun-bleached streets in a gray, plateless Nissan pickup captained by his personal bodyguard. Many of the town’s residents appear to recognize the resident strongman, or at least his vehicle. But there’s not much they can do about el jefe’s presence here today.
That’s because the police station in Tlapehuala has been closed for over a year—so there’s no one to call, or file a report with, even if they wanted to.
A brave local introduces me to the capo on the steps of the economic secretary’s office—the town’s lone, remaining government outpost—after his “business” inside the building is finished.
“[La Familia] knows you are here in Tlapehuala, and will be watching over you at all times,” the cartel leader tells me, making it sound like both a promise and a threat. When I ask, he gives his name as El Comandante Equis. “Commander X.”
“This town is a crossroads for drug shipments, of course—but nothing worse than that happens around here,” says El Comandante, age 49, who’ s dressed today in leather sandals, loose jeans, and a sky-blue polo shirt with the Underarmor logo above his heart.
“Before we took over, the Tequileros [a rival gang] used to kidnap two or three people a day, and, eventually, 3,000 people were displaced,” says the cartel commander. “But now that La Familia is in charge, this community is very peaceful.”
In fact, Tlapehuala is eerily tranquil. Commerce is at a standstill here, and many streets are lined with half-finished homes, clinics, and office buildings covered with weeds and jutting rebar—projects abandoned because the owners could no longer afford to meet the payoffs demanded by the Familia.
For his part, El Comandante justifies such “cuotas” (bribes) as a kind of war tax. “The sicarios (hitmen) who guard the town have to be fed, and their salaries have to be paid, too,” he says.
“They’re not going to work for free.”
Tlapehuala sits deep within the long, chaparral-covered valley called Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), in Mexico’s southwest Guerrero state—which is, pound-for-pound, the nation’s deadliest region. It’s also the heroin production capital of the hemisphere, which is the grain of truth behind some of Donald Trump’s latest xenophobic bombast.
Tierra Caliente, then, is epicenter of the epicenter in the Mexican drug war. And the valley itself more than looks the part: like the blighted backdrop from some old spaghetti western. The region is home to at least a dozen small but brutal cartels, each with its own jealously guarded fiefs, or plazas.
Conflict over these fiefdoms has been particularly bloody of late in Tierra Caliente, leading to ghoulish murders and torture practices that rival those of ISIS kill zones. Individual gangs out to terrorize their rivals, and the communities that support them, increasingly attack civilians to get their message across.
A pair of mass kidnappings in Familia Michoacana territory saw 22 people abducted last month alone. At least one of the victims, a high school principal, was killed while being held prisoner—apparently to send a message to La Familia that its regional supremacy was being challenged. In another incident in January, nine people—including a nurse on her honeymoon—were massacred when unidentified gunmen opened fire at birthday party.
From the gangs’ point of view, these turf squabbles make total sense. Valuable and much-disputed plazas like Tlapehuala provide the cartels with live bodies for recruitment, as well as a steady stream of income from extortions and abductions for ransom. The fiefdoms also make useful packing, processing, and transportation points for narcotics like heroin and crystal meth. In return, the gangs promise the kind of safety—especially from predatory rival mobs—that Mexican security forces can no longer provide.
“When the people have a problem, like a fight with a neighbor, for example, or if someone steals their truck—they don’t go to the police. Instead, they come to La Familia,” El Comandante says.
“Everybody knows who runs this town.”
Mexico’s security forces have taken a beating in the press of late. The nation’s military, which has been deployed as a crime fighting force since 2006, stands accused of grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, both national and state police are famously corrupt, often acting in outright complicity with the cartels.
Perhaps the most grievous example of authorities colluding with criminals came with the announcement that municipal police played a part in the disappearance and probable murder of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero—just down the road from Tierra Caliente—in the fall of 2014.
“In Guerrero, police, both state and local, pose little obstacle to organized crime groups,” explains Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“In fact, organized crime groups will even fight each other for control of police forces,” Isacson writes.
Not surprisingly, a reputation for being in cahoots with the cartels further erodes public confidence in the authorities’ ability to safeguard communities.
“With Mexico’s heroin trade booming in Guerrero, you’re unlikely to expect cops making US$200/month, with a few months of training and usually no attendance at an academy, to be a match for well-funded, politically powerful trafficking groups,” Isacson adds.
In order to solve Mexico’s policing problem, President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a restructuring program called Mando Unico (Single Command) in 2014.
Because so many of Mexico’s state and municipal police are in league with drug traffickers, the Single Command strategy called for the closure of almost 2,000 local police offices throughout the nation. Those shuttered precincts are, at some point in the theoretical future, to be replaced by a centralized force of about 320 state-level departments.
The plan has been met with heavy criticism both inside and outside Mexico. Even worse, the program remains bogged down by logistics and political infighting—meaning that many drug war hot zones like Tierra Caliente are now without any local police presence at all.
Soldiers and federal police patrol the highways in places like Guerrero, but have little contact with locals, and no way to identify cartel operatives. Living in secured hotels, or in heavily guarded barracks, the officers are utterly cut off, physically and emotionally, from the very communities they’re assigned to protect.
“We’re afraid to even go outside at night,” says a special operations officer with Mexico’s Federal Police, who’s stationed in Tierra Caliente.
“The internal vigilance of the cartels is incredible. Out on patrol, we’re always being monitored, always being tracked by their halcones (spies),” says the officer, who agrees to an interview with The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity, since he’s not authorized to speak to the press.
“At night we have to stay in the hotel because we fear for our lives,” says the special ops man.
I met this same officer the day before, during an operation near the town of Teloloapan, for which he was dressed in full Kevlar body armor and carrying a modified Galil assault rifle chambered for the high-powered 7.62 mm round. Today, when he shows up for our meeting in a small, outdoor restaurant, he’s wearing civvies and wraparound sunglasses, so that at first I don’t recognize him when he walks in.
“The narcos have halcones everywhere,” the federal officer says, after a long look at the surrounding tables. “And they’ve got the state security forces in the palm of their hand. We can’t trust our own people now,” says the federale who has more than 12 years on the force, and is a veteran of several firefights with the cartels.
According to this special ops officer, the lack of trust and communication between branches also includes the military.
“The army never shares intelligence reports with us—which makes us not want to share our [intel] with them, either. They have their information networks, and we have ours. But there’s no transparency,” the officer says. “There’s no cooperation—nothing.”
In another Tierra Caliente town called Coyuca de Catalán—within the same municipality where the birthday-party gun battle left nine dead—Mayor Abel Montúfar also complains about a lack of collaboration hindering security.
“I’d like to visit Cundán Grande,” the village where the birthday shooting happened, says Montúfar when we meet in his wood-paneled office, where decorative bottles of mescal line the bookshelves.
“But, well, Mando Unico took away our police force here. Now there’s no safe transport to conduct investigations like that,” the mayor says.
“Every time I want to go anywhere, I have to call up the federales and beg them for a ride,” he laments.
Since his own sheriff-like force of municipal officers was sacked, Montúfar says his only recourse is to hire out-of-pocket private guards to protect himself and his family.
“I’m only human—of course I’m afraid,” says Montúfar, who admits receiving cartel demands for extortion, but says he’s so far refused to pay up.
“All I want is peace for my town,” the mayor says, “but I won’t finance [the cartels] to get it.”
Back in Tlapehuala, Comandante X agrees to explain the inner workings and hierarchy of La Familia Michoacana cartel—and to break down the specific tactics the gang uses to thwart law enforcement.
Accompanied by his bodyguard, we walk out of earshot from the economic secretary’s office to stand in a desiccated, grassless soccer field. Above us, steep serrated foothills rise above the town on all sides, like so many rows of broken teeth.
Federal police are easy to bribe, says Comandante X. Many of them even approach the cartel to suggest it themselves, according to him. Military officers are better educated, he says, and harder to buy off. But, unlike the federales, the soldiers rarely leave their bases or checkpoints, so they’re easier to avoid.
“The army is generally honest,” the jefe tells me. “But nobody around here trusts the police.”
The organization and command structure of La Familia, as the commander describes them, reflect a rigid, almost corporate approach to power.
“Most new recruits start out as halcones,” he says, “and they earn about 4,000 pesos ($215) every 15 days.”
The halcones, literally falcons, are placed in various strategic points in a given town, or in the high foothills, where they can command a view of the roads and what moves on them. “Each halcon has his own radio and cell phone, and he’ll pass information along all day to the jefe de halcones,” the cartel commander says.
A pistolero, or gunman, receives about 6,000 pesos ($320) twice a month, and a chief pistolero, who commands murder squads of about 15-20 assassins, gets about 9,000 pesos ($480) for two weeks of work.
In order to advance up the ranks, each pistolero must pass an intense, almost religious initiation process that includes being bound, beaten, and forced to walk for days in the wilderness without food or shelter, according to the Tlapehuala boss.
In all, La Familia boasts a network of more than 3,500 spies, hitmen, and ranked commanders. Discipline in the ranks is severe—minor acts of disobedience frequently are punished by starving the offender for days on end.
Near the top of the cartel food chain are the “Chiefs of Comandantes,” like X himself. But even he has to answer to a higher power.
The head of the Guerrero wing of the Familia Michoacana is a super boss named Johnny Hurtado—aka “El Señor Pez” or Mr. Fish.
Little is known about Mr. Fish, who is also the most wanted man in Guerrero, with a half-million peso price on his head. As El Comandante tells it, the cartel’s ultimate honcho lives in a series of camps and safe houses in the high sierra.
Despite being ever on the move, the region’s fiercest warlord still maintains a tight rein on his vast fiefdom.
All the money made from extortions, ransom payments, and drugs by La Familia, goes “straight to El Pez,” X says. “And then he pays back everyone else.”
On the eastern edge of Tierra Caliente, in the town of Teloloapan, a new citizens’ vigilante group has formed—aiming to take security, and the law, into their own hands.
“The police don’t do anything—they don’t even know who the criminals are around here,” says Raul Baena, owner of a local taxi service, who joined the town’s 250-strong militia when it formed in early January. “We’ve done more to clean up this town in a month than the policia have done in years,” Baena says.
The 51-year-old Baena signed up with the vigilantes in part to get revenge against the Familia cartel for abducting himself, his wife, and his sister last year. Baena’s family was eventually able to pay off the collective ransom—but not before Baena underwent four days of torture at the hands of his kidnappers.
“They didn’t hurt me for information,” he says, pulling up his sleeve to show the deep handcuff scars on his wrists. “They had me down on the floor and kept kicking me, but they didn’t ask me any questions,” says Baena, who also suffered fractured ribs and dislocated vertebrae during his captivity.
“It was more like they were just enjoying it,” he says.
The following week, while Baena was still in the hospital, La Familia abducted his nephew, he says. His family again paid the demanded ransom, but, for unknown reasons, the cartel killed his nephew anyway.
“There’s no one else to count on, so we’ll have to protect our own town—even if it means we lose our lives doing it,” militia-man Baena says.
On a tour of the vigilantes’ base, I’m shown a cache of ramshackle .22s and birding shotguns—some of them apparently hand-forged together out of spare parts—that constitute the militia’s long-range armaments. For close fighting they can also field target pistols and a few old police .38s, and they all carry naked machetes stuck through their belts.
“We know we don’t have the firepower like the cartels do,” the vigilante says. “But if it means suicide—we’re ready to fight back. It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
The Mexican constitution allows for localized, all-volunteer “community police,” like the newly formed outfit in Teloloapan. And some of these groups have had spectacular success fighting back against the cartels, especially in the neighboring state of Michoacan.
Nevertheless, at the national level, federal forces remain concerned about the militias’ lack of discipline and oversight.
“The vigilantes mean well,” says The Daily Beast’s inside source with the special ops team of the federal police, “but the narcos know it’s very easy to infiltrate a group like that.”
One frequent tactic, used by various cartels in the region, is to co-opt well-intentioned self-defense groups by gifting them high-grade weapons, as a ploy to win their loyalty.
“Soon, instead of protecting the community, they become just another tool of the strongest gang,” the federal official says. “Then they can be used, as needed, to attack that gang’s other rivals.”
WOLA security chief Adamson agrees that there’s an immediate need for a professional police presence in places like Guerrero—but he also worries that President Nieto’s controversial Mando Unico maneuver, if it ever comes to fruition, might do more harm than good.
“In many Mexican states—including Guerrero—there’s little reason to believe that the State Police are necessarily better trained, better equipped, or less corrupt than municipal police forces,” Adamson writes.
“Also, an even halfway effective municipal force understands local criminal dynamics better: which street corners are the worst, which local criminals are most violent. In some municipalities the local police may be miles ahead of the state police.
“Mando Unico is a one-size-fits-all solution that just doesn’t make sense everywhere,” he writes.
“In a place like Guerrero, it’s like rearranging deck chairs.”
To curb the violence, Adamson instead advocates fundamental reforms to the policing system, such as increased officer pay, stronger punishments for corruption, and community development and education programs. He also admits these are all long-term fixes.
“In the immediate, emergency, short term, there’s not much that can be done to protect people,” he writes.
Before I say goodbye to La Familia’s Comandante X, I ask him about the challenges being made to his gang’s dominance by groups like the Tequileros (Tequila drinkers), the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) and the Jalisco Cartel: New Generation.
“Sure, those guys all try to make incursions against this plaza,” X admits, “but La Familia isn’t going anywhere.”
A few days after my interview with X, in the nearby town of Arcelia, hitmen from the Tequileros dragged three alleged Familia members from their homes and into the town square. There, in front of scores of witnesses, they slit the men’s throats one by one.
“This is what happens to anyone who supports those who are against us,” one of the Tequilero assassins told the crowd of shocked townsfolk.
At the close of our interview in Tlapehuala, the so-called Comandante X offered philosophical, if fatalistic, take on the local cartel power struggles:
“When a car is stolen, you get another,” said the cartel chieftain, gazing up at the parched hills looming over us.
“And when a commander dies, another one always comes along,” he said. “The fiesta must continue.”