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Mexico arrested 2 cartel suspects.

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
July 12, 2023 at 06:25
Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
 Thousands besieged a state capital.
MEXICO CITY — Thousands of protesters, angered by the jailing of two alleged drug cartel members, besieged a state capital in southern Mexico, battling police and national guard troops, taking government employees hostage, and crashing an armored vehicle through the gates of the legislature.

The violence in Chilpancingo, the capital of the southern state of Guerrero, was an unusually stark challenge to the government by an organized-crime group. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has sought to break with the U.S.-backed “war on drugs,” establishing social programs to lure people away from narcotics-trafficking gangs. But the demonstrators’ ability to paralyze the city of about 300,000 people underscored the pervasive grip of crime gangs in many parts of the country.

 A police helicopter flies above the protest Monday. (Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A police helicopter flies above the protest Monday. (Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Two alleged leaders of Los Ardillos — the Squirrels — were arrested by state police last week and indicted on drug and weapons charges Monday. That triggered the massive march by residents of villages around Chilpancingo. Los Ardillos is one of 16 crime groups in Guerrero that battle over drug-trafficking, kidnapping and extortion rackets, according to Defense Ministry documents cited by the daily Milenio. The state is a top producer of opium poppy, the main ingredient of heroin.

Screenshot 2023 07 12 at 6 21 13 AM

After more than 24 hours of chaos, the Guerrero state government, led by López Obrador’s Morena party, defused the violence Tuesday afternoon. The demonstrators freed 13 hostages — state police officers, national guard troops and civilian government officials — and ended their blockade of the toll road from Mexico City to the tourist resort of Acapulco.

Images of thousands of demonstrators converging on the Guerrero state capital stunned even Mexicans accustomed to the extreme violence of organized-crime groups. News organizations estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 people from communities controlled by Los Ardillos swarmed Chilpancingo on Monday. Demonstrators seized an armored security vehicle known as a “Rhino” from state police and rammed it through the gates in front of the state legislature as panicked government workers fled.

Security forces hurled tear gas canisters at the protesters, who were armed with rocks, sticks and machetes. But the 500 police and national guard troops were forced to retreat.

No one was reported killed. But the images called to mind the 2019 seizure of the northwestern city of Culiacán by gunmen after authorities tried to arrest Ovidio Guzmán López, son of the famed drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Gun battle involving El Chapo's son highlights growing control of territory by organized crime

 Protesters clash with state police Monday in Chilpancingo. (Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Protesters clash with state police Monday in Chilpancingo. (Jose Luis De La Cruz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“Today criminals don’t benefit only from a frightening arsenal, but a terrifying capacity to bring people into the streets and confront security forces,” the left-wing daily La Jornada editorialized. It accused federal and state authorities of having abandoned the impoverished region, allowing crime groups to “create a social base.”

Mexico’s secretary of public security, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, said Tuesday that the demonstration was led by members of Los Ardillos. Officials said some villagers might have been forced to take part. López Obrador said the government opted for a low-key response to avoid bloodshed. “If they [the crime organization] threaten you and make you participate, act with prudence, with caution,” he urged residents in televised remarks Tuesday morning. “Don’t confront the leaders of these groups, stay quiet, but don’t let them manipulate you.”

Yet the siege showed how empowered crime groups have become in many parts of Mexico, where some command a significant following.

“What was different about this was the scope of the whole thing,” said Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. The protesters “took over not just a whole city, government installations and a major highway in Mexico, but they also took public officials hostage.”

State authorities said they won the release of the hostages in talks with the demonstrators in exchange for public works projects.

The war next door: Conflict in Mexico is displacing thousands

Chilpancingo’s mayor, Norma Otilia Hernández, is battling a scandal over her alleged ties to organized-crime figures. Mexican media recently aired a video of her having breakfast at a restaurant with an alleged leader of Los Ardillos, apparently after she took office in 2021. Last month, in front of a church in Chilpancingo, authorities found the remains of seven people — including five men’s heads in the trunk of a car.

The remains were accompanied by a note addressed to the mayor: “I am still waiting for that second breakfast you promised me when you sought me out.”

The mayor, a member of the president’s party, has urged the attorney general to investigate the video. “There wasn’t any deal with criminals,” she told reporters.

Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.

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