Battles, Tanks, Missiles, but no Insurgency in Mexico

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Refugees fleeing towns to escape the fighting, corpses strewn on the road after a battle between rival groups, and combat involving tanks, high-caliber guns, and anti-aircraft missiles — the events of one week have made parts of Mexico seem like full-fledged war zones.

On Wednesday, Mexican authorities came upon the aftermath of a battle that had taken place at a crossroads in Nayarit state, on the Pacific coast. At least 28 men lay dead, and four wounded, after what appears to have been a lengthy gun battle between rival factions. Adding to the sense of a country at war, many of the corpses looked like government soldiers, wearing combat uniforms complete with helmets. High-caliber weapons were found scattered around the scene. (See video footage).

In the same week, up to 2,500 people were reported to have fled their homes in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan state, after confrontations between drug gangs turned towns into battlegrounds. Rival gangs used burnt-out vehicles to block the roads, and residents in towns like Buenavista were advised not to leave their houses. The government sent in federal forces to restore order, including 400 marines.

On Tuesday, a police helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in the nearby Michoacan municipality of Apatzingan after it came under fire from groups on the ground using anti-aircraft weapons.

Days previously, authorities seized an armored truck in the state of Jalisco, just down the coast from the shootout, after a confrontation with a drug gang. According to reports, the vehicle looked like a tank: It had been covered in armor, with a rotating look-out turret and a battering ram on the front. The “narco-tank” is thought to belong to the Zetas drug gang, and was found in the north of the state, close to the border with Zacatecas. Eighteen died in combat in the days preceding the find, turning the region into a “real battleground,” according to local media.

The week’s events, while dramatic, are by no means unprecedented. Mexico has, in recent years, seen gang shootouts with dozens of casualties, the displacement of entire populations in large scale drug violence, and the use by gangs of sophisticated weaponry like anti-aircraft missiles and tanks. What is striking is the string of such warlike events happening so closely together.

The incidents do not appear to be connected. The shootout has been attributed to revenge after the recent murder of a local drug boss called Rogelio Magallanes, alias “El Chino,” who reportedly controlled the “plaza,” or drug territory, of Nayarit. Control over this area has been in dispute since federal troops killed Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, alias “Nacho Coronel,” in July 2010. The Sinaloa’s control over the region was broken, and the groups like the Zetas have moved in. Nayarit’s attorney general later announced that the confrontation was between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas.

The mass displacement and the attack on the helicopter in Michoacan appear to be part of clashes·between different branches of the Familia Michoacana drug gang. This group has also been in flux since the death of leader Nazario Moreno in December 2010, and announced its dissolution earlier this year. It still appears to be active, however, and a faction calling itself the Knights Templar announced that it had taken over the Familia’s operations.

The battles in Jalisco, meanwhile, are reportedly the product of confrontations involving the Zetas. First the Zetas faced off against the Carteles Unidas, a coalition of other traffickers formed to oppose them, and then they sparred with government security forces.

The week’s events seem, then, to be a string of separate incidents, but taken together they sum to a week of violence that makes Hillary Clinton’s much-criticized description of Mexico’s situation as similar to Colombia look not far off the mark. The cartel’s use of military style uniforms and insignias, heavy weaponry and engagment in open battles all make them seem more like private armies than like criminal gangs, albeit without any firm ideological underpinnings.

Clinton was derided for comparing Mexico to the situation Colombia faced 20 years ago, namely one of war, in which powerful groups jockeyed to overthrow the state. While recent circumstances cast her comments in a kinder light, Mexico is still far from that situation, and there is no evidence that the trafficking groups’ powerful weapons are being used for anything further than increasing revenue by defending their territory.

Despite their warlike trappings, in the absence of political ambitions these groups cannot be described as an insurgency. The drug gangs’ challenge to the Mexican state is a by-product of their wish to get their goods to market and collect the profits. In this sense, the state is a useful tool, rather than an obstacle.

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