May 28, 2015

Pre-Election Day Violence Spikes in Mexico

Frontera NorteSur: Less than two weeks before Mexicans are scheduled to go to the polls in mid-term Congressional, municipal and state elections, violence is on the upswing. The most affected regions include the border city of Tijuana, the Chihuahua-Sinaloa borderlands, and the states of Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco.

Tijuana killings between groups of street-level drug dealers apparently connected to the Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) and Arellano Felix cartels, the last group repeatedly declared finished by U.S. and Mexican authorities, recalls the bloodletting of the past decade when the city was considered one of the most violent in the country.

Later touted for its presumed public safety, Tijuana recently has been replete with narco banners threatening individuals displayed in public, executions in broad daylight and the dumping of victims’ severed heads on public streets.

Among the victims was a 4-year-old boy, Jonathan Valdez, slain during a botched hit. On Saturday afternoon, May 23, Benjamin Gutierrez Quiroz was gunned down only yards from Tijuana’s city hall.  Gutierrez was the brother of a man linked to the Arellano Felix organization who was detained in 2013.

Anxious to preserve their city’s image, law enforcement officials and some leaders of the business community have downplayed the carnage, pointing to numerous detentions made by the police.

“The deaths are very concentrated among the same rival groups, whose objectives are very clear, but the citizenry and institutions are on the sidelines, except for three cases,” assured Jose Maria Gonzalez, state organized crime prosecutor.

Gonzalez said the violence was confined to the lower rungs of organized crime in the poorer neighborhoods and did not involve the middle and upper echelons of the underworld, unlike several years ago.

Wilfredo Ruiz, coordinator of the Tijuana Civic Forum, had a different take: “It is unacceptable that we don’t see (public safety) not only in Tijuana, but throughout the country.”

In April 54 people were murdered in Tijuana, with that month’s homicide toll surpassed well before the end of May.  

On the other side of the U.S-Mexico border, in the state of Tamaulipas, a “low level” war prevails in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros, Tampico and other localities where factions of the Gulf Cartel slug it out for control of a region vital not only for the illegal flow of drugs into the United States, but arms trafficking, immigrant smuggling, gas and oil robberies and other rackets as well.

Striking a positive note, President Pena Nieto delivered a May 21 speech in Reynosa praising Tamaulipas for representing more than just problems. “(Authorities) have been working as a team to combat organized crime,” the Mexican president was quoted.

Almost as soon as Pena Nieto departed the stage, attackers in Matamoros tossed grenades at installations of the Federal Police and the National Electoral Institute (INE), the official body responsible for organizing the June 7 elections.  

Only days earlier authorities in Reynosa dismantled dozens of “narco cameras,” or video cameras set up for spying on the military and government agencies -and the public- that were apparently run through the Internet. The surveillance cameras were discovered on utility posts outside federal security offices and commercial centers.

In Jalisco, meanwhile, violence has acquired proportions almost unimaginable not too long ago. Despite a parlay earlier this year between Jalisco Governor Jorge Aristoteles Sandoval and representatives of the state’s political parties precisely over questions of security and elections, subsequent developments have unsettled the scene as election day approaches.

Besides the April ambush and massacre of state policemen on the Guadalajara-Puerto Vallarta mountain highway, inter-state transportation disrupted and commercial businesses were attacked during a May Day narco-uprising attributed to the CJNG. Later, dozens of men were reported disappeared near Villa Purificacion, a town close to the spot where a military helicopter was shot down by gunmen on May 1.

On May 20, 67-year-old Eliado Avila Perez, the father-in-law of Nestora Salgado, an imprisoned community police commander from the state of Guerrero whose long hunger strike has attracted international attention and support, was shot dead by a man in Tomatlan, a municipality south of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast.

Reportedly, Salgado’s relatives in the U.S. had received telephoned threats to “lower” their protests in this country prior to the murder.  

According to La Jornada daily, the CJNG arose after the Mexican army killed capo Nacho Coronel in 2010. Coronel was a key associate of the Sinaloa Cartel in Guadalajara, and his death prompted orphaned gunmen to band together with members of La Familia Michoacana, the Valencia crime family and the Colima underworld in a powerful new organization. Five years later, the CJNG is regarded as or more powerful as the Sinaloa Cartel, now reportedly headed by “El Mayo” Zambada after the 2014 arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The CJNG is a big protagonist in neighboring Michoacan, where 42 presumed  gunmen from the group and one federal police officer were killed in a reported gun battle May 22 in Tanhuato.

The high death toll of alleged hit men combined with the very low number of police casualties, along with comments by family members who viewed the mangled bodies of the slain men, has sown doubts about the official version of the incident.

Tanhuato is part of a corridor encompassing several strategic municipalities in Michoacan and one in Jalisco, La Barca, where marijuana is shipped and laboratories manufacture synthetic drugs. In 2014, clandestine graves holding the remains of more than 40 murder victims were discovered in La Barca.

In Michoacan, Enrique Hernandez Saucedo, the mayoral candidate for Yurecaro postulated by Andres Lopez Orbrador’s new Morena party, was murdered on May 14. Hernandez was a former member of the self-defense forces that rose up against organized in 2013, and was reportedly opposed to alleged CJNG practices of extorting local businessmen.

Semei Verdia, leader of indigenous Nahua self-defense forces on the Michoacan coast that  have remained mobilized and independent of the government, was ambushed May 25 in an attack that left him, a bodyguard and another man injured.  Subsequent clashes between the Nahua forces and suspected hit men left as many as 6 people dead on May 25 and 26.

Next door to Michoacan, violence in Guerrero rages unabated, especially in opium growing regions and the resort city of Acapulco, where three, four, five or more murders are reported practically every day.

On May 18, as many as 11 men were reported killed and 10 others injured in a gun battle in El Nuevo Naranjo, a settlement situated in one of the mountainous opium zones.  The outbreak of violence was attributed to the May 5 killing of Jose Carlos Moreno Flores, aka “La Calentura,” in a Guadajalara casino.

Moreno reputedly led  a group connected to the Sinaloa Cartel, and his death was viewed as the occasion for other groups to move in on a profitable territory.  Moreno’s band was involved in previous clashes in the Guerrero mountains during February and March that left at least 25 dead, homes destroyed and businesses sacked in the village of Izotepec, and residents displaced.

Another hot spot is around Chilapa, the scene of persistent violence since last year between two groups, Los Ardillos y Los Rojos, over control of a drug corridor. Most recently, at least 16 men were disappeared from Chilapa after hundreds of armed civilians allegedly linked to Los Ardillos stormed the town with the purported connivance of soldiers and police between May 9 and 14.  

Interviewed by El Diario de Juarez, Cesar Camacho, the head of President Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), denied that recent eruptions of violence were connected to the elections. Instead, the public was merely witnessing the “routine violence” afflicting the country, Camacho insisted.  

Violence, however, has hit political campaigns in Guerrero and elsewhere. Late last week, campaign committee members of the National Action Party’s gubernatorial candidate, Jorge Camacho, were shot at on the Costa Grande highway between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, but no injuries were reported.

Separately, Leticia Maganda, state legislative candidate for the Citizen Movement party, was briefly kidnapped, roughed up and had her truck stolen in the state capital of Chilpancingo.

In Puebla, the campaign coordinator for a PRI Congressional candidate was murdered the evening of May 25. Shot to death, Salvador Mendez also served as a councilman in the municipality of Chignahuapan.

The latest episodes of violence involving politicians follow the previous murders of two mayoral candidates in Guerrero, including the PRI candidate for Chilapa, as well as the disappearance of Silvia Romero Suarez, a Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) legislative candidate for the Tierra Caliente region of the southern state.  

In a twist, the daily El Sur accused an assistant of PRD state legislative candidate Lucina Victoriano Aguirre of threatening reporters outside an Acapulco building where the press got wind of alleged pre-election vote buying in progress on May 23.

Identified as “Jose,” the assistant ordered women who were filing in and out of the building to not talk to the press and began snapping photos of El Sur reporters.

When one of the newspaper’s photographers responded in kind, Jose got angry and blurted out,

“Be careful, I know where you are.” For her part, Victoriano denied she was buying copies of election credentials or threatening reporters.  Victoriano is a relative of former Governor Angel Aguirre, who was forced to resign amid the uproar over the forced disappearance by police of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college last year.

On May 18, two men struck a security guard with their guns outside El Sur’s Acapulco office after pointedly asking him for “the manager.”

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, El Sur’s Acapulco offices were attacked by gunmen who sprayed bullets and spread gasoline while workers were present; nobody was injured in that attack.  

Public doubts about various candidates hang over Guerrero’s elections.

As the spring campaign took shape, the Proceso/Apro news service reported possible drug trafficking links to PRI mayoral and state legislative candidates in Zihuatanejo, San Luis Acatlan, Coyuca de Catatlan and Tixtla, and other places.

At the municipal level, control of government means not only command of the local police force, but power over business permits, taxi services, public works contracts and the registration of properties.

In this context, the Ayotzinapa students and parents of the disappeared are spearheading a movement to block the elections, contending that the voting will only reshuffle and perpetuate a violent, corrupt and criminal political system.

Supported by teachers and some social movement organizations, the election boycotters vow to prevent polls from being installed on June 7. On Sunday, May 24, parents and students burned campaign propaganda in front of state government headquarters in Chilpancingo.  Groups in the neighboring states of Michoacan and Oaxaca are likewise pledging to impede the elections in some places.

Even as the fallout from the Ayotzinapa atrocity scars the political landscape, another crisis over forced disappearance is bubbling up in the face of Guerrero’s interim governor. At a May 24 meeting with relatives of Chilapa’s newly disappeared, Gov. Rogelio Ortega was given an ultimatum by parents.

“They haven’t kidnapped your children, mother or father,” one distraught father of three missing sons told Ortega. “I’ve already received threats and don’t care if they kill me. I give you 48 hours to resolve the disappearance of our sons, because they are not dogs.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing recovery of remains of other disappeared persons from the clandestine graves outside the Guerrero city of Iguala that were first exposed by the attack on the Ayotzinapa students last fall proceeds with more macabre finds. The number of individual sets of remains recuperated now tops 100, with the 101st victim discovered last week. So far, none of the missing Ayotzinapa students has been identified among the victims. Read more.

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