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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

War in the Hinterlands

An autodefensa militiaman in combat with attacking CJNG units (photo: Enrique Castro Sanchez)

Approaching the Front

In August of 2021, I traveled with an American friend and a Mexican photojournalist to the frontlines of an active war zone in a country without a war. Technically speaking, that is. Ten years earlier, there had been plenty of headlines about cartel-related violence in Mexico, and journalists made frequent references to this so-called “criminal insurgency” south of the US border. But that was then. Today, cartel violence in Mexico rarely makes international news at all, even though homicide counts have since doubled. Even though the cartel conflict looks a lot more like civil war than it ever did in the past.

As we approached Tepalcatepec, a town of around thirty thousand people in the heart of Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente region, our contact in the autodefensa militia, who we knew as Comandante Neto, sent us WhatsApp audio messages urging us to hurry. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) was attacking them at that very moment. We could hear the gunfire in the background.

Neto told us where to go. “We’re at the dump!” he barked.

It only took a few roadside inquiries as we drove through town to figure out how to get there. “The dump is that-a-way,” kind strangers indicated. It struck me just how calm and seemingly normal everyone and everything appeared in Tepalcatepec, despite the fighting that raged just up the road.

Enrique, driving my rental car to the frontlines (photo: Miguel Villalobos).

Maybe that was because you couldn’t actually hear the gunfire from town, at least not over the cacophony of car horns and banda music blaring from so many of the local businesses. Or maybe people were just used to it by now. Their town had been at war for years, after all. Today was just another day.

For me and my friend Matt, however, it was not just another day. Sure, when it comes to people who carry guns and kill each other, I’ve been around the block once or twice. From Albuquerque, New Mexico to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, I’ve run around with all sorts of violent people in violent contexts. It’s what I built my career on. But I had never so directly jumped into the middle of an active gun fight. Well, not one like this.

And the Bullets Fly

Enrique, our photojournalist, was driving the little white sedan I rented back in Mexico City. As he sped up the bumpy dirt road towards the municipal dump, I imagined the insurance claim I’d have to submit later on: “Vehicle damaged upon return, riddled with bullets.”

That seemed like a perfectly plausible outcome, in any case. When we arrived at the dump, we parked between a haphazard row of large pick-up trucks adorned with big white dove stickers and lettering that read “AUTODEFENSAS.” Some of them were plated with thick steel armor. Most had been hit with rifle rounds, but still looked like they might run.

Armored truck of the Autodefensas stationed at the battlefront (Photo: Miguel Villalobos)

What came next caused me to permanently lose my most trusted research partner.

For the previous three years, my friend Matt had been accompanying me on my yearly research adventures. My usual method of inquiry, and the only thing that sets me apart from other scholars studying criminal violence, has been to simply immerse myself in those underworlds of criminality and violence that saner folks would rather avoid. Traveling with Matt—a truly gentle, truly giant man with a fantastic intellect—made these adventures so much less scary and more enjoyable. But now as we huddled behind our little rental car and weighed the boisterous urgings of militiamen to make a mad dash across fifty yards of dirt and debris perfectly exposed to enemy fire, Matt began to rethink his life goals.

I was the first to run. I ran fast. I ran for my life, and it felt exhilarating and terrible. The sun was bright hot. Sweat poured down my face. When I made it to the shelter of the dump’s barrier, a concrete wall extra-fortified with earth-packed truck tires, one of the militiamen tossed me an ice-cold can of Coors Light. It was probably the best-tasting beer I ever had.

Looking back at the car, I saw that Matt had hesitated. Everyone was screaming at him to run, and finally he did. But his wits had left him. Overcome with terror, he collapsed into a heap of sand right in the middle of the exposed stretch of dirt. I watched him bear crawl the rest of the way.

Mexican journalists run across an exposed area to reach a fortified entrenchment (Photo: Miguel Villalobos).

That night, Matt called his girlfriend, who he had been dating for several months. “I think we should married,” he told her over the phone. “I’m done with this running around.”

I couldn’t blame him. I have a hard time justifying all this war tourism myself, even though my career depends on it. For him, however, nothing could justify that bullet his mind’s eye saw in the blinding light of the afternoon sun, the one with his name so clearly sketched into its casing.

Waiting for the Assault

The following morning, Matt stayed in town while Enrique and I returned to the frontlines, where a peculiar thing was happening. A patrol of Mexican Army troops had driven into the mountains in the direction of the Jalisco Cartel, and they were ambushed. Five soldiers were injured, we were informed, before their commander ordered a hasty retreat. Their battered trucks flew past us just as we arrived at the dump.

“You think they’ll come back?” I asked a group of autodefensa militiamen, incredulous that the Army would so readily capitulate to a cartel ambush.

“Doubt it,” one of the men said, and the rest snickered. Sure enough, the soldiers didn’t come back.

Worse still, within twenty minutes of their retreat, radio came in from a nearby mountaintop surveillance station that the Jalisco cartel was mounting another attack. About a mile away, just beyond the bend in the mountain valley, four camo-green armored trucks fitted with turret-mounted .50 Cal machine guns formed a line and were revving their engines.

I looked around me. The once jovial faces of the militiamen were now suddenly fierce, beastly even…just as lions squaring off for a no-quarter fight over a mate or the remnants of a catch. And as they ran up and down the 500-yard line of defense, a complex trench and bunker system designed to triangulate fire on the mountain valley below, I began to imagine the worst. There were far too few defenders, I thought. Far too many attackers. What would I do if our bases were overrun? If it happened, it would happen very quickly. Should I run? Should I pick up a gun and fight? Should I put my hands up and yell out, “Americano!”?

A militiaman aims his .50 Cal rifle at enemy lines (photo: Enrique Castro Sanchez)

Staring out the parapet of a bunker, I could hear my heart beating over the crackle of rifle fire in the distance. The whole of my mind was focused on the little dirt corridor running back behind the bend in the valley below, from whence I expected in any moment to see that caravan of armored trucks shooting up dust and moving towards us at raging speed. I hoped to God the defenders’ aim was good and quick, that their .50 Cal sniper rifles with armor-piercing rounds would penetrate the engine blocks of the enemy’s monstruos. I prayed that the enemy’s Kaibiles—special forces mercenaries from Guatemala—weren’t going to try to outflank us, or that the autodefensa’s own mercenaries from Colombia were going to stop them if they did.

After a half hour of such tension, radio came in that the armored trucks had dispersed, that the attack had been called off. Although it was a huge relief in the moment, news of an imminent attacks came in at irregular intervals throughout the rest of the day, always producing the same excitement and horror, and always ending the same way. By nightfall, I was exhausted. Having drank Coor’s Light all day under the hot sun and having eaten nothing, my fatigue was total, my mind near delirious. The militiamen were exhausted, too, and as the last light of day faded in the horizon, the majority of them got in their pick-up trucks and headed for home.

“You don’t think they’ll take advantage of the darkness and attack by night?” I asked one of the commanders.

“Nah, they’re afraid of the dark,” he said, and laughed.

A destroyed CJNG armored truck (photo: Enrique Castro Sanchez)

Resolution, For Now…

Two months after my little battlefront escapade, on 21 October 2021, Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla of the MORENA party became governor of Michoacán, thus creating a partisan alignment with the federal government, which has been controlled by the party’s founding father, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), since 2018. Shortly afterward, no fewer than six thousand Army and National Guard troops stepped into the fray in Michoacán.

Having failed to take Tepalcatepec before Bedolla’s inauguration, the CJNG lost the political war, and by the end of the year their leader, "El Mencho," had called off all major military operations in the Tierra Caliente region, slipping back over the border into their home state of Jalisco.

And so it is, the war in Michoacán has been put on pause. But it is far from over. Just two years from now, in 2024, Mexico will hold presidential elections once again, and since AMLO cannot be re-elected—and because he is the glue that holds his MORENA party together—we are likely to see that wondrous, peace-making federal-state partisan alignment in Michoacán break down yet again. If it does, the CJNG will almost surely come back with a vengeance, and when it does, the .50 Cal sniper rifles and drone bombs of today will start to look like the sticks and knives of yesteryear.

Such is the nature of war in a country without a war.

A militiaman shows off his head gear (photo: Enrique Castro Sanchez).

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