Pubdate: Thu, 13 Aug 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: William Neuman


CHILAPA, Mexico - For nearly a week, gun-toting masked men loyal to a 
local drug gang overran this small city along a key smuggling route. 
Police officers and soldiers stood by as the gunmen patrolled the 
streets, searching for rivals and hauling off at least 14 men who 
have not been seen since.

"They're fighting over the route through Chilapa," said Virgilio 
Nava, whose 21-year-old son, a truck driver for the family 
construction supply business, was one of the men seized in May, 
though he had no apparent links to either gang. "But we're the ones 
who are affected."

For years, the United States has pushed countries battling powerful 
drug cartels, like Mexico, to decapitate the groups by killing or 
arresting their leaders. The pinnacle of that strategy was the 
capture of Mexico's most powerful trafficker, Joaquin Guzman Loera, 
better known as El Chapo, who escaped in spectacular fashion last 
month from a maximum-security prison.

And while the arrests of kingpins make for splashy headlines, the 
result has been a fragmenting of the cartels and spikes in violence 
in places like Chilapa, a city of about 31,000, as smaller groups 
fight for control. Like a hydra, it seems that each time the 
government cuts down a cartel, multiple other groups, sometimes even 
more vicious, spring up to take its place.

"In Mexico, this has been a copy of the American antiterrorism 
strategy of high-value targets," said Raul Benitez Manaut, a 
professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who 
specializes in security issues. "What we have seen with the strategy 
of high-value targets is that Al Qaeda has been diminished, but a 
monster appeared called the Islamic State. With the cartels, it has 
been similar."

While the large cartels are like monopolies involved in the 
production, transportation, distribution and sale of drugs, experts 
say, the smaller groups often lack international reach and control 
only a portion of the drug supply chain.

They also frequently resort to other criminal activities to boost 
their income, like kidnapping, car theft, protection rackets and 
human trafficking. And while the big cartels have the resources to 
buy off government officials at the national level, the smaller gangs 
generally focus on the local and state levels, often with disastrous 
consequences for communities.

That was abundantly clear in a case that stunned the nation last 
year, when 43 students disappeared in Iguala, a city a short distance 
from Chilapa.

Government investigators say that the mayor and the police in Iguala 
were allied with a local drug gang, which murdered the students and 
burned their bodies. Like here, the disappearances took place amid a 
fight over territory between local traffickers.

The fracturing of the cartels into smaller gangs requires a very 
different approach from what is being pursued at the national level, 
analysts say.

But even after the disappearance of the students made it obvious that 
fundamental changes were needed, the violence and abductions here in 
Chilapa have again laid bare the government's inability or 
unwillingness to come up with an effective response.

"It's as if nothing ever happened, as if there hadn't been any 
precedent," said Jose Reveles, an author of books on drug trafficking.

Successive governments have talked about a vast reform of the 
country's police, but their efforts failed to weed out corruption and 
create professional security forces. President Enrique Pena Nieto 
proposed a series of changes last November, including centralizing 
control of the local police in each state, but that has not been carried out.

All these problems are on agonizing display here in Chilapa.

Residents and government officials say that Chilapa sits astride a 
route for smuggling marijuana and opium paste that is contested by 
two gangs. They ascended after the government succeeded in jailing or 
killing the leaders of the Beltran Leyva cartel, which had previously 
dominated the region.

A group known as the Rojos, or Reds, now controls the city, residents 
and officials said. But the rural towns nearby are controlled by the 
Ardillos, whose name is derived from the word for squirrel. Residents 
have openly accused the mayor of ties to the Rojos, which he denies.

Violence between the groups has been accelerating for months. A 
candidate for mayor was assassinated in May, a few days after a 
candidate for governor was menaced by heavily armed men manning a roadblock.

It is common for bodies to be found, sometimes beheaded or with signs 
of torture. Last month, a beheaded body was left with a note: "Here's 
your garbage, possums with tails." Two days later, seven bodies were 
found. One was decapitated, with a message cut into the torso: 
"Sincerely, Rojos."

Residents say that the gunmen who overran the town on May 9 were led 
by the Ardillos. The invaders disarmed the local police and began 
hauling men off.

"They said, 'Bring us the mayor, bring us El Chaparro,' " said 
Matilde Abarca, 44, referring to the nickname of the head of the 
Rojos. Ms. Abarca's 25-year-old son, a fruit seller, was grabbed by a 
group of masked gunmen, beaten and driven off in a pickup truck.

She said that the gunmen said they would return the abducted 
residents if the townspeople turned over the Rojos leader. At one 
point, some residents held a protest march, which the gunmen 
confronted in a tense standoff.

The occupation occurred even though soldiers and elite federal police 
officers were stationed in Chilapa because of the rising violence. 
But instead of forcing out the invaders, witnesses said the 
authorities simply stood by while the masked gunmen seized and 
intimidated residents, a contention supported by photographs and 
cellphone videos.

Some say that the authorities held back because the invaders claimed 
to be a community defense force, like those that have sprung up 
elsewhere to confront traffickers in the absence of government action.

The government has been criticized for repressing similar community 
defense groups, and the paralysis in Chilapa showed its lack of a 
coherent strategy for dealing with them. Other residents viewed the 
government's passivity as outright complicity with the gangs.

"When they took the people away, there were police and soldiers 
there, and they did nothing," said Victoria Salmeron, whose brother, 
a clothing seller, disappeared during the takeover. "It was as if 
they were on their side."

Since the occupation ended on May 14, federal and state police have 
stayed on hand to keep order, and officials have pledged to 
investigate the disappearances. But there is virtually no sign of progress.

Aldy Esteban, the administrator for the municipal government, said 
that no leaders of either gang had been arrested since the May invasion.

"There's clear evidence who took them, but we've had no answer" from 
the authorities, said Bernardo Carreto, a farmer who watched his 
three sons be taken away when they arrived in Chilapa to sell a calf. 
"They're ignoring us. No one's been arrested. Nothing has happened."

The relatives of the 14 missing men meet daily in a restaurant near 
the tree-shaded town square. A government human rights official said 
that 10 more men may have disappeared during the takeover, but that 
the relatives are too scared to come forward.

Many of them cling to the hope that their loved ones may still be 
alive, perhaps forced to work on poppy or marijuana farms.

"They took them alive and they must return them alive," said Mr. 
Carreto, echoing a slogan used by the relatives of the students who 
disappeared last year.

In that case, the National Human Rights Commission issued a report in 
July saying that the investigation into the students' disappearance 
was deeply flawed and that vital leads were not pursued.

Jose Diaz, 52, a spokesman for the families here in Chilapa, said 
that about 100 people in the area have disappeared since the middle 
of last year, including his two brothers and a cousin.

He said his relatives had no connection to the gangs and were 
kidnapped simply because they were from Chilapa and entered Ardillo 
territory. Five headless bodies were later found, which he believes 
included those of his relatives, but he said that the government has 
not revealed results of DNA testing that could identify the corpses.

Rene Hernandez, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general's 
office, said in an email that investigators have withheld some 
information from residents "to continue moving forward with the 
identification and location of the criminal groups in order to take 
definitive action without putting the residents at risk."

Recent government data shows that the national murder rate has been 
steadily declining since its peak in 2011, which the government cites 
as evidence that its approach is working.

Despite the decline, many areas of the country continue to be shaken 
by violence as smaller groups of traffickers battle to fill the 
vacuum left by the deterioration of the large cartels.

Experts believe that even the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which is run 
by Mr. Guzman, will eventually go the way of other large trafficking 
organizations and break into pieces, even with its leader once again at large.

"For Mexican organized crime, El Chapo is not the future," said 
Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official. "El Chapo is 
a remnant, a powerful remnant, but a remnant of the past all the same."

Referring to the violence-convulsed state where Chilapa is, he added, 
"The future is Guerrero."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom