Vigilante Armies Are Fighting Mexican Drug Cartels, but Whose Side Are They Really on?
Locals love to be liberated from the savage rule of organized crime, but who’s footing the bill for these cartel wars?
FILO DE CABALLOS, Mexico—The assault force rolls through this small mountain town not long after dark. Traveling in a fleet of pick-ups with about 15 men in each truck, they are dressed in pixelated camouflage uniforms and ballistic vests and at first glance they look like official army units, but their weapons give them away. Many of these commandos carry AK-47 model assault rifles, which aren’t used by the Mexican armed forces.
The logo stamped on the doors of the trucks shows a figure from the Mexican Revolution wearing a sombrero and brandishing a rifle astride a charging horse. Below that are the words Policia Comunitaria, or community police, and a phrase which, roughly translated from Spanish, reads: “Death before surrender or humiliation.”
The men in the trucks are members of the United Front of Community Police of Guerrero State, better known by its Spanish acronym of FUPCEG. Tonight FUPCEG’s shock troops are on their way to assault the nearby town of El Naranjo, which is currently held by the forces of an organized crime group called the Cartel del Sur.
“We fight to free communities that have been isolated by the criminals,” says a squad leader who asks to be identified only as “El Burro” in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Everyone has a right to security. And to economic freedom. Campesinos [small farmers] and their children shouldn’t suffer under the rule of bandits,” Burro says. “The people of this town have asked us for help, and so that’s what we’re going to do.”
El Burro says he got his nickname, which means “the donkey,” because he can bear heavy loads a great distance despite his slight stature. In his backpack he carries several cans of tuna and crackers and canteens of water. His battle harness holds some 300 rounds of ammunition for his AK-47.
Later tonight he’ll lead his squad on foot through the dense pine forests that surround El Naranjo, until they reach the pre-assigned rendezvous point. From there the coordinated strike force will crawl on their bellies until they’re in sight of the cartel stronghold, then wait for dawn to attack.
Burro is a veteran of a dozen such engagements with the comunitarios and says he’s personally registered 20 confirmed kills of sicarios, the cartels’ contract killers. A former farmer, he joined the movement “because I was tired of hearing the people’s cries for help go unanswered.”
The Cartel del Sur is known for its brutal tactics, including torturing prisoners, and for that reason Burro says he prefers death on the battlefield to being captured by los contras, as he calls members of the Cartel del Sur.
“Will I come back from where I go tonight?” he asks rhetorically. “And if I don’t,” he says, “will my family understand what I died for?”
FUPCEG is an alliance of civilian autodefensas, or self-defense groups, that boasts about 11,700 fighters across 39 municipalities in Guerrero, meaning they’re now present in about half the state. Similar communitario movements have sprung up across Mexico over the last decade, but FUPCEG is by far the largest of its kind.
The spike in vigilante militias has polarized public opinion. Some observers see them as noble freedom fighters who succeed where traditional law enforcement has failed. Critics claim the autodefensas and comunitarios (the words are often used interchangeably in Mexico) are at best undisciplined mobs and at worst cartel patsies who do the criminals’ grunt work for them.
Either way, their power is growing. A new study by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission suggests vigilante activity is up by more than 300 percent since the start of 2018, and blames the increase on “insecurity, violence, and impunity.”
In fact, violence in Mexico has reached historic levels this year, with the country averaging an all-time high of 94 killings a day through the first half of 2019. Both 2017 and 2018 also broke previous murder records. As one autodefensa fighter put it, repeating what has become a kind of mantra, "If the government can't protect us, then we have no choice left but to protect ourselves."
FUPCEG’s founder and leader is 40-year-old Salvador Alanis. A Guerrero native, Alanis is something of a polymath. An economist by training, he’s also worked as an electrical engineer in North Carolina, and at one time owned several successful fruit and cattle ranches in his home state. Those ranches are gone now. Some were sold off to help fund Alanis’s crime-fighting endeavors, while others have been seized by the mafia groups he opposes.
“I spent 12 years working in the U.S.,” Alanis says during an interview in the FUPCEG base in the strategically vital town of Filo de Caballos, high in the sierra of central Guerrero. “In the States I came to know a better life, a better world. I came to take safety for granted,” he says, “but there’s no security like that in Mexico.”
The lack of security is even more pronounced in Guerrero, which is Mexico’s leading exporter of opium and heroin, and perennially listed as one of the country’s most dangerous and politically corrupt regions. It doesn’t help that government law enforcement here is undermanned.
“We have an insufficient number of police officers to go around,” says Roberto Álvarez Heredia, the state’s security spokesperson. “We need about three times as many cops and public prosecutors as we have,” he says, “and the ones we do have need better salaries.”
Recently elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, has touted his newly created Guardia Nacional as a solution to peacekeeping efforts in places like Guerrero, but Alanis remains unimpressed:
“So they just sent 3,500 Guardias to Guerrero,” he says, when asked about the new policing initiative. “The last president sent 5,000 soldiers and they couldn’t do anything against the cartels, because the criminals just paid them off. Everyone has a price,” he adds.
Still, Alanis is willing to give the Guardia a chance.
“We’re going to let them in [to our territory] and see if they behave themselves. See if they’re corrupt, or if they abuse their power. In the past the soldiers used to enter and search any house they pleased, and that’s why we had to run them out. We’re glad to be friends [with the Guardia], but we won’t be their slaves.”
As protection against a cartel counter thrust, FUPCEG troops man fortified checkpoints at regular intervals all along State Road 196. Here in Filo, Alanis and his command crew are headquartered in what used to be the largest hotel in town. The long, two-story building was abandoned when FUPCEG occupied Filo after a prolonged firefight back in November of 2018. Pocked by bullet holes inside and out, the building no longer has running water, and electricity is intermittent, but the community kitchen in the lobby is always full of gossip and the smell of spicy cooking.
During this interview, Alanis sits in what was once the hotel’s main office. He’s stockily built, dressed in a sky-blue Oxford shirt left open at the throat and wearing square-rimmed photochromic glasses. Clear mountain sunshine drifts in through the shot-up windows. In one corner of the room stands a derelict arcade game titled, coincidentally enough, Streetfighter II.
When he came back in 2010, Alanis says he found his home town of Ocotito overrun by organized crime.
“Murder, kidnapping, extortion, theft. The cartels ruled the state and they’d packed the government and police forces with corrupt officials, so there was no one to challenge them,” he says. After surviving two kidnapping attempts, Alanis decided to take matters into his own hands to “restore justice” to Guerrero.
At first it was just himself and a handful of other ranchers, but slowly the movement gathered support. By 2015 their forces numbered several hundred comunitarios operating out of a string of liberated communities around the state capital of Chilpancingo. But he’d made a number of powerful enemies in the process, including capos from the Rojos, Tequileros, and Guerreros Unidos cartels. When those crime groups launched a series of counter-attacks aimed at taking back the newly freed townships, Alanis’ civilian militias were quickly overwhelmed.
“We had an army of shop owners and farm workers,” he says in the office of the ramshackle hotel. He unholsters a chrome-plated 10 mm pistol to make himself more comfortable and sets it on the desk before him.
“Many of our men didn’t really know how to use their weapons. Meanwhile, we were facing off against experienced and well-armed sicarios, and we couldn’t beat them in battle. It was a question of war, and we weren’t up to the task. We were weak and lacking strategy.”
Those factors—along with the defection of some of his most trusted officers, one of whom ran off with his wife—combined to spell defeat for Alanis. His forces scattered and, still hunted by the cartels, he fled to the mountains and went into hiding.
“They took everything from him,” says Jackie Pérez, an independent journalist based in Chilpancingo, and an expert on the state’s autodefensa groups. “Salvador lost his livestock, his farmland, even his wife,” she says. “But he’s very intelligent and very patient. He was able to persevere, and come back stronger than ever.”
Pérez goes on to compare Alanis to Mexican freedom fighters of the past like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, at least in terms of tactics. “He doesn’t want to overthrow the government,” she says. “But he is willing to go outside the system to fight for the people’s right to freedom from certain forms of oppression.”
In order to continue that fight after being drubbed by the contras, Alanis knew he’d have to change his game plan.
“We’d been outnumbered and defeated,” he says. “Now it was time to change strategies.” Part of that strategic shift involved developing a broad network of spies and informants, many of them women, to keep him informed of his enemies’ movements and activities.
“Know your enemy as you know yourself,” he quotes Sun Tzu from memory, “and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.”
Alanis isn’t the first comunitario leader forced to revamp his approach after an initial setback. Many other grassroots vigilante groups have cropped up in Mexico to oppose organized crime, only to find they lack the manpower and budget to keep up the fight over time. Unfortunately, that often leads to alliances with well-heeled drug lords, who then use the militias as proxy groups to wage war on their rivals.
Guerrero expert Chris Kyle, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that pattern has been in play for years.
“Since 2013 there’s been an explosion of community policing groups in Guerrero,” says Kyle in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. While villages with native indigenous populations that pre-date the Spanish conquest are legally allowed to form such units under Mexico’s constitution, the proliferation of non-indigenous figures “claiming to be community police has baffled authorities.”
The swift spread of the comunitarios is related directly to a lack of effective security measures, according to Kyle.
“If the state would provide security, many of these groups would likely stand down,” he says. In the absence of state power, however, and due to a lack of sufficient resources to operate long-term on their own, many vigilante squads become co-opted.
“The drug trafficking organizations take advantage of them,” Kyle says, because the community police provide the cartels with “a semi-legitimate wing that extends their reach.”
Alanis’s FUPCEG umbrella group includes both indigenous and mestizo, or mixed race, cells from all over the state, including the Regional Coordinator for Community Authorities (CRAC), the oldest and most respected such organization in Mexico.
Even so, Alanis admits that part of his revised strategy involved aligning with certain deep-pocketed backers. He claims that instead of working on behalf of a crime syndicate, he’s merely defending free enterprise.
This may strike drug enforcement authorities in the United States as a distinction without a difference, but here in Guerrero such distinctions matter.
Alanis says that in fact he is not opposed to campesinos growing poppies, since that's the only crop that pays enough to support many families in the sierra. What he's opposed to, as he puts it, is how the Cartel del Sur seeks to drive out competitors, keep prices low, and control poppy farmers through violence and intimidation.
"The people should be able to grow [poppies] if they want to. Or not, as they see fit. That's up to them. But nobody should be forced to sell [opium gum] at an unfair price to a single buyer. Nobody should be threatened or forced to worry about their family’s safety. All we want is for the people to live in peace,” he says, back in his bullet-riddled HQ.
“The Cartel del Sur wants to control the whole sierra,” he adds. “They want to own a monopoly on poppy gum and heroin production, and also extort from shop owners, taxi drivers, you name it. Other businessmen I know want an open market for poppies up here, and they understand that requires healthy local economies. So that’s why they help us fight the contras.”
To launch a full-scale assault like the one that liberated Filo would be impossible without outside financial support, according to Alanis. The Filo battle involved some 3,000 comunitarios and hundreds of trucks to ferry them, he explains. When the cost of ammunition, gas, and fighters’ salaries are factored in, a single campaign can cost about 300,000 pesos [about $15,700] per hour. And the Filo firefight alone last for more than seven hours.
“We need their help,” he says, referring to those independent opium gum buyers who help fund FUPCEG’s efforts, “but they need us too. If part of the money to liberate the people must come from opium, I’m willing to accept that equation,” the economist by training says.
During a series of independent interviews conducted in Filo de Caballos and surrounding communities it becomes clear that, prior to liberation by Alanis and his cohorts, local citizens had suffered greatly under rule by the Cartel del Sur.
Run by Isaac Navarette Celis, one of Mexico’s most wanted men, the Cartel del Sur specializes in the production and northbound transport of China White, a particularly potent form of heroin. Navarette is a relative newcomer to Guerrero’s populous criminal underworld, first announcing his arrival back in 2016. Younger drug lords like Navarette often are especially bloodthirsty as they attempt to carve out a competitive niche against established rivals.
Residents in the swath of towns and villages formerly under Navarette’s control describe a reign of terror that included kidnappings for ransom, forcing young people to work as sicarios under threat of death, mass killings, crippling extortion rates, and random violence that caused schools, clinics, and small businesses to be shuttered indefinitely.
“We denounced the criminals to the police many times but they never did anything to help us,” says Reina Maldonado, 53. Maldonado was married to the comisario, or sheriff, of a village called Corralitos. Last June several sicarios from the Cartel del Sur kidnapped Reina’s husband from their home and brought him to a local safehouse.
“He wouldn’t back down from them. He defied their orders and bribes, so they took him,” she said. When Maldonado’s husband’s body was found, she explains, he showed signs of having been tortured and had been shot multiple times.
“They killed him to terrorize the village against resistance,” the sheriff's widow says, “but that didn’t work.” Hours after the comisario was reported missing, Alanis arrived with hundreds of comandos to battle it out with those responsible for his murder. Four cartel members were killed in the ensuing firefight, and the rest fled in armored vehicles. According to Maldonado, they haven’t been back to Corralitos since.
“Life here is much better now,” she says, as she walks around the ruins of the house where her husband’s body was found. Many of the families that had fled Corralitos under cartel rule have since returned, and the shops and fruit stands that line the small main street are again open for business.
“We’re still poor,” Maldonado says, “but at least now we’re safe.”
Ruperto Pacheco Vega, 44, the mayor of Filo de Caballo, agrees with Maldonado’s assessment:
“Many businesses were completely shut down under [Navarette’s] cartel,” he says. “There was no commerce, nobody could move. The store owners couldn’t make a profit due to extortion, and many people were out of work.”
Even worse, Vega says, was the cartel’s habit of impressing young men into its service. “They wanted our boys to join them, put on their colors, and fight against Salvador and the comunitarios.” To decline the cartel’s “invitation,” he says, was punishable by death.
In contrast, the mayor explains that Alanis has helped local communities diversify their economies. The financial backbone of the region has long been poppy cultivation to produce opium gum to sell to the cartels to make heroin. But a recent drop in the price of heroin (apparently due to U.S. users preferring synthetic opioids like Fentanyl) has caused a backlash among growers.
According to Vega, Alanis has been instrumental in helping the farmers develop detailed crop substitution plans in order to replace illicit poppy plots with legal alternatives like avocado, peaches, pears, and lemons.
“The government says we mustn’t grow poppies, and that’s fine with us. So we sent them precise and detailed petitions asking for basic subsidies until the [fruit] trees reach maturity,” says Vega, riffing through signed and stamped copies of the official documents addressed to various politicians in Mexico City, including President López Obrador.
As with local authorities who ignore cartel malfeasance, it seems the bid for federal assistance to produce legal crops has also fallen on deaf ears.
“Their offices acknowledged receipt of our requests,” Vega says, “but we never heard anything back from them.”
For all the careful planning put into it, El Burro’s assault on the cartel-held town of El Naranjo didn’t go as expected.
“Somebody must’ve talked because they were waiting for us,” says El Burro, in the aftermath of the failed offensive. “They had a damned mortar and belt-fed machine guns. We killed a few of them but we then we had to pull back.”
Now rumors are swirling around town that Navarette’s men are planning a counter-attack to retake Filo. Comunitarios run in and out of the lobby of the bombed-out hotel, fetching weapons and ammunition from stockpiles in the armory. Meanwhile Alanis sits surrounded by cell phones and a half-dozen radios, diligently coordinating with units in the field and his mysterious financial backers.
In answer to a question about the ethics of his current line of work, Alanis waxes philosophical.
“I used to have a different idea about ethics,” he says, putting down his phone. “I never accepted any drug money back when I first began to oppose [the cartels].” But, he adds, that’s also why he lost the first time around.
“You see suffering like this,” and he waves his hand as if to take in the whole sierra: “You see people without work. People without health care. Children starving. Kids with no future. And you ask me about ethics?”
In Alanis’s estimation, “Our worst enemy is the state, due to their alliance with organized crime. There is no democracy in Guerrero” because the cartels “rig elections” and “control the politicians,” he says.
“We came up with a plan to eliminate 65 percent of the poppy plants in our territories and replace them with legal orchards, but the politicians never even answered our letters.” Alanis picks up his phone again.
“Why don’t you ask them about ethics?” he says.