MEXICO CITY -- Mexico’s Defense Department announced Wednesday that soldiers have rolled into a township dominated by the Jalisco cartel for the first time in months.
The army sent what appeared to be hundreds of troops and trucks into the township of Aguililla, in western Michoacan state, on Tuesday. It is an area where the Jalisco cartel is fighting a bloody turf war with the local Viagras gang.
The troops broke up a civilian blockade of a small army base in Aguililla that had blocked its entrances since last summer. For months, troops stationed there abandoned the base, but they never ventured out of it either.
The defense department said the government was starting “a dialogue for the pacification of Aguililla” and “freeing the areas of organized crime presence” in Aguililla and other towns nearby.
The department distributed photos of heaps of weapons, bulletproof vests and two homemade armored cars labelled with the initials of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.
The army accused many of the townspeople of Aguililla of acting as the “social base” of the Jalisco drug cartel, because they blockaded the base and confronted soldiers during protests.
But some residents of Aguililla in return accuse the army of only attacking the Jalisco cartel, while leaving the rival Viagras gang — which also goes by the "United Cartels"— free to set up highway checkpoints to extort money and threaten local residents.
The area raises limes and cattle, and the United Cartels have imposed a “war tax” on outbound shipments of those products and on inbound supplies. That has helped force up the price of limes nationwide.
Protesters in Aguililla have demanded the army open the roads and act with equal force against both cartels.
Aguililla resident José Francisco Helizondo, who had helped organize protests and the blockade of the army base, said locals had reacted “with fear, with distrust, thinking that things could happen like they did two years ago and that now the United Cartels will enter along with the government to take reprisals against the people.”
That was a reference to the number of times over the last few years that towns in the area have changed hands in the see-saw turf war.
The warring cartels have used trenches, sharpshooters and bombs dropped by drones in battling each other, and have increasingly put civilians on the front lines of the fighting.
In late January, evidence emerged the gangs have also begun using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roads to disable army vehicles.
The self-defense movement in the town of Tepalcatepec, near Aguililla, said improvised land mines severely damaged an army armored car late last week. It would be the first time IEDs have been successfully used by cartels in Mexico.
The Mexican Army did not respond to a request for specific comment on the IEDs. But the Defense Department did say army patrols were attacked in the area four times with explosives, homemade armored cars and gunfire that wounded 10 soldiers. The department did not specify what type of explosives were involved.