On Tuesday, unidentified gunmen reportedly shot down a Mexican government helicopter in the restive southwest state of Michoacan.
The downing came amid a series of gun battles between Mexican security forces and members of one of the many gangs operating in the region.
The possibility that these gunmen knocked a helicopter out of the sky not only demonstrates the firepower that these criminal groups have; it is also a sign that organized crime in Michoacan and the surrounding area has not been rooted out — and that violence related to it could get much worse.
The fighting broke out on Tuesday afternoon after the attempted kidnapping of a local businessman in Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente region. Local residents responded to fight off the would-be kidnappers, and the arrival of Mexican security forces initiated the gun battles that ultimately led to the helicopter’s downing, which killed five.
Since then, however, a confused picture of the groups involved has emerged, reflecting the fractured and uncertain state of the criminal underworld in Michoacan and the region around it.
Michoacan was the stomping ground of the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios, cartel from about 2010 until about 2014, when pushback from local civilian-defense groups and the heavy deployment of federal security forces fractured and weakened it.
What was left on the criminal landscape were remnants of the Knights Templar, regional groups, and a new entrant in the area: the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), which is now one of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations.
“In Michoacan, when the federal government came in and essentially put the state in a lockdown, it was to the benefit of, if not the explicit intended benefit of, the cartel de Jalisco de Nueva Generacion [CJNG] against the Templarios,” David Shirk, a professor at San Diego University, told Business Insider. “Massive federal deployments helped to take out the Templarios.”
A former civilian-self-defense force leader in the state told AFP that fighting among what remained of the Templarios was driving the violence. “It’s a fight among them,” he said. “They are divided, they are killing each other, they are still kidnapping, they are still extorting.”
In all, according to officials at the 43rd Military Zone of Apatzingán in Michoacan state, there are 12 criminal groups operating in the state, all them allied with either the Knights Templar or the CJNG.
According to a report from Vice, however, the two poles around which Michoacan’s criminal world revolve are the CJNG and the Sinaloa cartel, the powerful organization headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán prior to his capture.
Armed groups purporting to take up the anti-crime, anti-corruption mantle of civilian-self-defense groups — but likely tied to the legacy of the Templarios — have also emerged in recent months.
Michoacan is valuable to these groups because of its long history of marijuana and methamphetamine production, as well as the state’s extensive road networks and coastline that are amenable to smuggling activity. This is particularly true of the Tierra Caliente region, where the helicopter was downed.
Recent reports from Michoacan indicate that the Knights Templar, or elements thereof, have reappeared, and links between a Knights Templar leader and one of the men killed in Tuesday’s gunfights suggested that gunmen tied to the Templarios could have brought down the government’s helicopter.
While it remains unclear what criminal groups are committing what crimes in Michoacan, the affect this fighting has had on violence in the state is much more obvious.
The 771 homicides registered there through July this year are almost as many as the 943 recorded last year.
The 187 homicides that occurred in July this year were more than double the number in the same month last year and made the month Michoacan’s most violent since 2006.
That there are so many criminal groups so active in the area makes it likely that this violence will intensify before it diminishes.
“In general, violence drops when control of a state is uncontested (because either the state has control or a single criminal group dominates) while violence increases when two or more groups (criminal groups or the state) are fighting each other,” James Bosworth, the CEO of regional advisory firm Southern Pulse, told Business Insider.