Residents of Aguililla are fed up with the army’s strategy of simply separating the Jalisco and the Michoacan-based Viagras gang. The army policy effectively allows the Viagras — best known for kidnapping and extorting money — to set up roadblocks and checkpoints that have choked off all commerce with Aguililla. Limes and cattle heading out, or supplies heading in, must pay a war tax to the Viagras. “We’d rather be killed by you than killed by those criminals!” one demonstrator shouted at soldiers during a tense, hour-long confrontation between demonstrators and a squad of a dozen troops who took cover behind a barricade of car tires. Many of the demonstrators carried rocks and powerful slingshots, but did not use them.
Jalisco, Mexico’s most militarily powerful drug gang, has begun organizing townspeople to act as human shields against army troops, which now just try to keep rival cartels apart. “If they try to come in here again, we’ll put 2,000 people out here to stop them,” said Habacuc Solorzano, a 39-year-old farmer who leads the civilian movement associated with the cartel. His statement, like most of what comes out of the Jalisco side, is not mere boasting: He already had about 500 local residents marching last week— then wading across a river — to confront an army squad blocking a dirt road leading out of Jalisco territory. The residents want the army to either fight both cartels, or at least let the two gangs battle.
“Let the two cartels fight it out and kill each other,” another demonstrator shouted. “Jalisco is going to beat everybody!” That view is widespread. “What we need is for one cartel to take control, stop the fighting and impose some semblance of calm,” said a local priest. “Everything indicates that group is the Jalisco cartel.”
Above all, what residents want is for the Viagras’ checkpoints to be cleared and the road opened again. Because they must occasionally pass through those roadblocks, none of the residents wanted to give their names for fear of reprisals. But one explained it this way to the army squad: “The only road into Aguililla is blocked and controlled by a cartel that is only 500 yards away from you, and you (the army) are not doing anything to protect our right to travel freely,” he said. “You don’t know how hard it is to be paying a war tax that is being used to kill us.” That is actually a fairly accurate description of government policy: preserving the status quo, and making each cartel stay in its own territory.
But Jalisco won’t accept the government as arbiter of drug cartel territorial divisions; the local Jalisco cartel leader says the army is only trying to protect the weaker of the two gangs, the Viagras, for reasons of corruption. Jalisco is everywhere in Aguililla, from pickups and homemade armored cars bearing the cartel’s initials to the small trampolines the gang installed for children in every village. Some residents say they are strongly pressured to participate in the protests, fearing their water or electricity might be cut off if they don’t. Others are just tired of paying the Viagras’ war taxes and being cut off from the outside world. One female protester described how her father died in early 2020 because the Viagras wouldn’t allow them past to get to a hospital.
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