Drone Wars for Mexico’s Gold Mountains | Anjan Sundaram | Granta

Drone Wars for Mexico’s Gold Mountains

Anjan Sundaram

I first learned about the self-governed community, or localidad, of Santa María de Ostula from one of Mexico’s posters for the disappeared. It showed two of Ostula’s anti-mining activists, Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca – a forty-one-year-old human rights lawyer from Mexico City – and his seventy-one-year-old collaborator, the indigenous leader and teacher, Antonio Díaz. Side by side, in two pictures, the men stared out somberly. Antonio wears a pale campesino’s cowboy hat, Ricardo a baseball cap and a Nike shirt. Posters like these are plastered across Mexican towns, and are constantly being shared on WhatsApp and social media. When I’m with my Mexican friends, a phone invariably dings; we look over, and discover another one. Usually it’s a woman’s smiling face, accompanied by a description of how she was last seen on her way home from a party or work. My friends receive dozens of these posters each month, mostly from families searching for people who are never seen or heard from again. Silently and instinctively, Mexicans come to know these faces. The posters are quiet signs of the low-grade war being waged across the country.

More than 111,000 people have gone missing in Mexico in the past six years. The rate of disappearances has accelerated sharply since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón began his war on drugs with the backing of Washington. It’s a war that, if anything, has been lost. During the five-year presidency of the current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador alone, more than 44,000 people have disappeared. Two hundred thousand have been murdered since 2007. And violence is on the rise – Amnesty International reports a 600 percent increase in torture by security forces across the first decade of the war. Though the Mexican government has arrested and killed hundreds of cartel capos, drug trafficking to the United States from Mexico continues to grow. There are now regions across the country where cartel authority is undisputed by the state.

In the wake of the government’s failure to maintain meaningful control, small communities in the heartlands of Michoacán and Guerrero, which were most affected by the cartels, began to form autodefensas, or vigilante groups, to defend themselves. The first municipality to receive widespread attention for defending itself was Cherán, which in 2011 used fireworks to fight off illegal loggers linked to the Familia Michoacana Cartel. These autodefensas grew increasingly powerful, and their leaders have committed atrocious killings in their own right, sometimes allying with cartels or even joining them. ‘The government tolerates certain autodefensas, it sustains some of them, and also combats some of them,’ I was told by Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, an organized crime expert who for the past decade has been conducting fieldwork in Mexico, most recently for the Global Initiative Network. ‘It lets them operate when they serve the government’s interests.’

Ostula, on the Pacific Coast of Michoacán, declared their right to self-defense back in 2009. Its population of only a thousand people mostly earned their livelihood through agriculture, fishing and tourism. The two men in the poster I saw, Ricardo and Antonio, had emerged as leaders in the town more recently, as locals banded together to oppose the company Ternium, which owns a mining concession for gold, silver, iron and other minerals – reportedly as large as 5,000 hectares – in Ostula, including a mountain in the Sierra Mancira that is laden with gold.

Ostula and its neighbors managed to block the transfer of over 200 hectares of land to the mining company. Ternium estimated that the loss of access to this land would reduce its projected iron output in the area by 80 percent. Community members in Ostula told me that royalty payments meant for the community had been illegally siphoned off to a group of local residents that offered public support for Ternium’s mining operation, and who fraudulently claimed to represent the entire community. Antonio and Ricardo called a meeting to investigate this alleged corruption, and to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Ternium. On 15 January 2023, after the meeting, Ricardo and Antonio were driving north, halfway to Colima, near the town of Cerro de Ortego in the municipality of Tecomán, when they were ambushed and abducted from their white Honda pickup truck. The pickup was found by the side of the highway, full of bullet holes, but strangely, without a trace of blood in or around the vehicle. This was the work, the townsfolk seemed to agree, of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. The week before, three members of Ostula’s autodefensa had been killed by fighters from this cartel.

For several years now, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, one of the world’s most powerful and heavily armed criminal organizations, has been attacking the borders of Ostula, working to open up the community and the Sierra Mancira to the mining companies. Despite the dangers involved, Ostula has managed to mount a formidable response to the cartels. Firefights rage in the mountains almost daily.

Once the cartels enter a territory, they recruit young people and children as drug dealers. Usually narcotics are sold out of local alcohol shops. The youth are promised riches if they work their way up the cartels’ ranks. Local songs idolize the sicarios, or hitmen, and leaders of the plazas, the territories cartels control. Michoacán’s cartels, like criminal organizations around the world, think of themselves as heroes who defend the poor. Their principal recruits are underprivileged men who see little promise in modern Mexican society. The cartels offer a chance to get even with Mexico’s upper classes. Cartels see protection rackets and illegal trafficking as ways to siphon wealth from Mexico’s rich to its poor. The cartels’ profits allow their members to dine at Mexico’s fanciest restaurants, to cut deals with Mexico’s top politicians, and party with rock stars and actors.

Since Calderon’s war on drugs began, profits and power have only become more concentrated in the cartels as they operate more overtly and combatively on the ground. It is widely understood that many of the private companies working across Mexico pay cartels protection money so they can run their businesses without interference. Mexican cartels invariably intervened whenever community opposition threatened to block a megaproject – a dam, a new industrial park, sand mining from a riverbed, or gold mining. The cartels siphoned profits from these projects by charging derecho de piso, or ‘dues’. Companies paid to be protected from the cartels. Cartels now also support mining companies by displacing people from land those companies wish to explore, clearing the ground for megaprojects. The cartels have taken on a role similar to an ultra-violent local government, aiming to levy hefty taxes with force.

Government officials, too, are often on the take. A federal public security official told me that she had seen a long list of government officials in the state of Guerrero who had been bribed – with sums several times their salaries – by cartels who wanted their support. She had been investigating the disappearance of forty-three normalistas, or students, in Guerrero’s Ayotzinapa municipality. ‘The government was complicit in the students’ disappearances,’ she told me. The high-profile Ayotzinapa case, as it’s called, the subject of several books, remains officially unresolved. A reconstruction of the students’ disappearances by Forensic Architecture showed remarkable coordination between local, state and federal police forces, as well as armed units belonging to organized crime groups.

That so many public officials were being bribed in Guerrero is no surprise. In 2023, the former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, the highest ranking Mexican government official tasked with fighting Mexico’s war on drugs, was convicted in a New York court of trafficking drugs and receiving bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. The New York Times reports that American law officials have spent years looking into the possibility of payments in the past between drug cartels and President López Obrador. ProPublica alleges the Sinaloa Cartel helped finance the president’s 2006 election campaign, in exchange for support for the cartel’s operations. The leader of the Los Ardillos Cartel claimed in February 2024 that he also supported the president’s 2006 campaign.

The cartels’ aims run parallel with the Mexican government when it comes to promoting the development of industrial megaprojects that grow the government’s tax base. It also gives them the opportunity to expand their own derecho de piso. The cartels themselves have become a significant component of the Mexican economy. Last year Science magazine estimated that they employed 175,000 people, making the cartels Mexico’s fifth biggest employer – a giant of the country’s private sector, diversified over a range of legal and illegal businesses. In 2010, for example, the Knights Templar Cartel in Michoacán succeeded in taking over the coast’s entire iron ore mining business, exporting the iron ore from the port of Lázaro Cárdenas directly to China.

A few days after Antonio’s disappearance, he resurfaced in a cartel video, badly beaten up. The video spread through WhatsApp, sent by the cartels to terrorize Ostula. Local news organizations posted the video online and transcribed a fatigued Antonio’s words, as he told his cartel interlocutor in a forced ‘confession’ that he had colluded with a corrupt local official who had bought votes to get himself elected.

Antonio went on to denounce his former allies, the community militia leaders who fought the war against the cartels, trying to protect their land from being opened up for gold mining. Faced with attacks from the Cartél de Jalisco, the local communities had provided military training for their youth and sent them out to defend the community’s frontiers. Antonio now cited the leaders of Ostula’s guardia comunal, or its military division, by their noms de guerre, ‘El Chopo’, ‘El Teto’, and ‘El Toro’, claiming that these community militia leaders were actually in the pay of the cartels. It was a way for the cartels to divide Ostula, and wage psychological warfare by seeding mistrust.

A month after the disappearances of Antonio and Ricardo, Ternium released an official statement, asserting their ‘good working relationship with the community’ and declaring they had ‘publicly denied and rejected any speculation that Ternium or Las Encinas had any involvement or connection with the disappearance of Messrs. Díaz Valencia and Lagunes Gasca’. When I contacted their offices in Luxembourg about this story, they declined to make any other comments.

Shortly after the Ternium statement was released, Lucía Lagunes Gasca, the sister of Ricardo, released her own statement about her missing brother, which emphasized that Ternium had ‘relations with different local groups and possibly with the perpetrators of this disappearance’. She called for a full investigation.

Lucía told me it was widely believed that Ternium, like many other mining companies across Mexico, was allied with cartels. ‘The company encourages violence against anti-mining activists. My brother’s disappearance benefited its business,’ she said. This confirmed much that I had already heard. In parts of Mexico – such as the northern state of Chihuahua, which is home to a series of lithium mines – Mexican reporters have told me that I would have to ask for the cartels’ permission before I traveled there for reporting, or risk not returning.

Officially, the state government is still looking for Ricardo and Antonio. But a year has passed, and no one has been arrested in connection with their disappearances.

Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram is an author, journalist, academic and artivist. His books include Breakup: A Marriage in WartimeBad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. He has reported from Central Africa, Cambodia and Mexico for Granta, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian and the Associated Press, among others.

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