MEXICO CITY – Burnt-out vehicles. Road blockades. A raging gun battle between armored marines and gang members that left eight dead.
Such scenes have been common in border cities like Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo during Mexico’s decade-old drug war, but residents of the capital were stunned this week to see that kind of mayhem in their own city, long considered something of an oasis from the violence wreaking havoc elsewhere.
Together with the recent emergence in a working class neighborhood of an apparent group of “vigilantes,” styled after self-defense militias that rose up against a drug cartel in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico City authorities have been left scrambling to maintain their long-held claims that there are no drug cartels operating in the capital.
Eight dead in a Mexico City shootout and narcobloqueos follow. The mayor tweets weather warnings for the affected area pic.twitter.com/kzJcRHpvin
— David Agren (@el_reportero) 20 de julio de 2017
Thursday’s shootout saw some 1,300 police and marines deployed on the streets of Tláhuac, a poor borough on the southeastern outskirts that was a rural area until a few years ago. Photos from the scene showed the slain suspects were carrying assault rifles instead of the pistols usually used in most armed crimes in Mexico City.
Perhaps most shocking was the appearance of organized roadblocks put up by gang members or sympathizers to impede the movements of police. City officials said gang members hijacked about five buses or trucks, and video images showed teams of motorcyclists parking their vehicles to shut down an expressway and then setting fire to a bus after the passengers fled.
“The narco-blockades come to Mexico City,” the newspaper El Universal wrote in a front-page headline Friday.
Swarms of motorcycle rickshaws, a form of taxi with a canopied metal seating unit towed behind the vehicle, were used for the blockades. Police hauled off 47 of them and arrested 16 suspects, many of them carrying their helmets.
Operators of the unregulated rickshaws “apparently maintained links with drug dealing, involving distribution,” Mexico City police said in a statement.
Officials estimate there are about 5,000 of the unofficial cabs in the borough and have tried to eliminate then in the past. But in outlying areas where roads are rough, the rickshaws remain the transportation of choice for many residents who can’t afford to own a car or pay a regular taxi fare.
Raúl Benítez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the gang, led by man nicknamed “The Eyes,” employed a network of those drivers to distribute drugs and act as lookouts.
“They were using high-powered rifles, not pistols, which justified the government’s decision to use the marines,” Benítez said.
The marines, considered Mexico’s most elite troops, have been deployed in other urban settings before, using helicopter-mounted machine guns against drug suspects. But outside of occasional patrols or other operations, they are seldom seen in the capital such numbers.
Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera denied that the eight men killed in the shootout were members of a cartel, instead claiming that “a big gang of street-level drug dealers” was involved.
However he acknowledged “they had control” of the area and used some cartel-style tactics such as moving in armed convoys and putting up signs similar to those seen in cartel strongholds.
“We will neither tolerate vigilantes nor criminal groups in Mexico City,” Mancera said at a news conference Friday.
The worrying creep of harder edge of Mexico’s drug war into capital with Thursday’s marine killings and blockades. https://t.co/tF8OXaEFw7
— Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) 21 de julio de 2017
Traditionally authorities have said the city’s traffic is too congested, and there are too many police officers — over 80,000 — for drug traffickers to move in convoys as they do other states.
The official line has been that while the gangs may have laundered money and sold drugs in the capital, they avoided the kind of unchecked violence seen elsewhere so as to not disrupt urban life and attract attention to themselves.
But the gang run by “The Eyes” evidently took on some trappings of the cartels, such as territorial control of drug dealing, wide-spread extortion of businesses, the use of assault rifles and the elimination of rival traffickers.
“This type of gang … generally doesn’t operate in Mexico City’s main districts. They operate in poorer outlying areas,” Benítez noted, saying that by contrast, gangs in the city center are more sophisticated and keep a lid on the violence.
Thursday’s shootout “doesn’t cause panic in the whole city because it occurred in an outlying area,” Benítez said. “But it should be a wake-up call, because if it isn’t stopped quickly, drug cartels could enter the city.”