MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Mexico: Fresnillo's drumbeats of death

Published by MAC on 2021-08-26
Source: NYT, AP, El País

Zacatecas State accounts for around half of the country’s silver production.

Zacatecas accounts for around 21 percent of Mexico’s gold production and 53.2 percent of its silver. Two of the largest silver mines in the world currently are operated in the State: former Peñoles subsidiary Fresnillo's Mina Proaño (also known as the Fresnillo Silver Mine) and the Peñasquito Polymetallic Mine.

Zacatecas also accounts for Mexico's status as the world's largest producer of silver, around 17% of the world's output. In Zacatecas, the owner of the mine claims to be the only person authorized to call himself a “minero”—a miner. Everybody else has another title: porters, carriers, water boys, smelters, etc.

Fresnillo PLC is the only Mexican company currently listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Related articles:

2016-09-30 Mexico: Protesters block access to Peñasquito gold mine

2012-11-25 Mexico: Canadian mining company "expelled" by landholder group

‘We’re Living in Hell’: Inside Mexico’s Most Terrified City

Fresnillo feels to residents overrun by violence and paralyzed by fear, a testament to the failure of Mexico’s government to tackle organized crime.

Oscar Lopez

New York Times

Aug. 3, 2021

FRESNILLO, Mexico — The violence was already terrifying, she said, when grenades exploded outside her church in broad daylight some five years ago. Then children in town were kidnapped, disappearing without a trace. Then the bodies of the executed were dumped in city streets.

And then came the day last month when armed men burst into her home, dragged her 15-year-old son and two of his friends outside and shot them to death, leaving Guadalupe — who didn’t want her full name published out of fear of the men — too terrified to leave the house.

“I do not want the night to come,” she said, through tears. “Living with fear is no life at all.”

For most of the population of Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, a fearful existence is the only one they know; 96 percent of residents say they feel unsafe, the highest percentage of any city in Mexico, according to a recent survey from Mexico’s national statistics agency.

The economy can boom and bust, presidents and parties and their promises can come and go, but for the city’s 140,000 people, as for many in Mexico, there is a growing sense that no matter what changes, the violence endures.

Ever since Mexico’s government began its war on the drug cartels nearly 15 years ago, murder statistics have climbed inexorably.

In 2018, during his run for president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a grand vision to remake Mexico — and a radically new way of tackling the violence. He would break with the failed tactics of his predecessors, he said. Instead of arresting and killing traffickers as previous leaders had done, he would focus on the causes of violence: “hugs not bullets,” he called it. He was swept to victory.

But three years after his landslide win, and with his Morena party in control of Congress, the drumbeat of death continues, suggesting that Mr. López Obrador’s approach has failed, fueling in many a paralyzing helplessness.

“We’re living in hell,” said Victor Piña, who ran for mayor of Fresnillo in the June elections and watched an aide gunned down beside him during a pre-campaign event.

Zacatecas, the state Fresnillo is in, has the country’s highest murder rate, with 122 deaths in June, according to the Mexican government. Lately, it has become a national horror show, with cadavers found dangling from bridges, stuffed into plastic bags or even tied to a cross.

Across Mexico, murders have dropped less than 1 percent since Mr. López Obrador took office, according to the country’s statistics agency. That was enough for the president to claim, in a speech last month, that there had been an improvement on a problem his administration inherited. “There is peace and calm,” he said in June.

Many in Fresnillo disagree.

“‘Hugs not bullets’ doesn’t work,” said Javier Torres Rodríguez, whose brother was shot and killed in 2018. “We’re losing the ability to be shocked.”

Among other strategies, Mr. López Obrador has focused on tackling what he sees as the root causes of violence, funding social programs to improve education and employment for young people. His government has also gone after the financing behind organized crime. In October, the authorities said they had frozen 1,352 bank accounts linked to 14 criminal groups, including powerful drug cartels.

But the collection of programs and law-enforcement actions never coalesced into a clear public policy, critics said.

There is “an unstoppable situation of violence and a tragic deterioration of public security in Mexico,” said Angelica Duran-Martinez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “There’s not a clear security policy.”

Mr. López Obrador has also doubled down on his support for the armed forces, embracing the militarization that also marked previous administrations.

One central pillar of his approach to fighting crime has been the creation of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong federal security force deployed across some 180 regional barracks nationwide. Last week Mr. López Obrador announced that the guard would receive an additional $2.5 billion in funding.

But security experts say the guard, which the president plans to incorporate into the armed forces, has proved ineffective. Without a clear mandate, it has focused more on tackling low-level crime than cartel violence. And as a security force made up of members of the federal police, the military and other security professionals, it has not found cohesion.

“It’s a force that comes out of trying to mix oil and water,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City security analyst. “There are a lot of internal struggles, and that has detracted from the performance of the Guard.”

In Fresnillo, the National Guard hasn’t done enough, according to the city’s mayor, Saúl Monreal, a member of the president’s Morena party.

“They’re here, they’re present, they do patrols, but what we really need right now is to be fighting organized crime,” Mr. Monreal said.

Mr. Monreal was re-elected during national midterms in June. This was one of Mexico’s most violent elections on record, with at least 102 people killed during the campaign, yet another sign of the country’s unraveling security.

His family is politically powerful. His brother, David, is governor-elect of Zacatecas. Another brother, Ricardo, leads the Morena party in the Senate and has said he intends to run for president in 2024. But not even the family’s political prominence has managed to rescue the city or the state.

Bordering eight other states, Zacatecas has long been central to the drug trade, a crossroads between the Pacific, where narcotics and drugmaking products are shipped in, and northern states along the United States border. Fresnillo, which sits in the center of important roads and highways, is strategically vital.

But for much of its recent history, residents say they were largely left alone. That began changing around 2007 and 2008 as the government’s assault on the cartels led them to splinter, evolve and spread.

In the last few years, the region has become embroiled in a battle between two of the country’s most powerful organized crime groups: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Caught in the middle of the fighting are residents like Guadalupe. She can remember sitting on the stoop with neighbors until midnight as a young girl. Now, the city lies desolate after dark.

Guadalupe does not let her children play outside unsupervised, but even that couldn’t stop the violence from tearing her family apart. On the night her son was killed, in mid-July, four armed men stormed into her home, dragging out her son, Henry, and two friends who were sleeping over. There was a burst of gunfire, and then the assailants were gone.

It was Guadalupe who found the teenagers’ bodies.

Now she and her family live in terror. Too scared to stay in the same house, they moved in with Guadalupe’s parents in a different part of town. But the fear remained. Her 10-year-old daughter can barely sleep, she said, and Guadalupe keeps dreaming of her son’s killing. The motive, and the identity of the killers, remain unknown.

Guadalupe has thought about leaving town or even taking her own life. But for now, she sits in her parents’ small, cinder-block house, the curtains drawn, the shadows broken by the candles of a little altar to Henry and his fallen friends.

“There’s nothing here,” she said. “The fear has overwhelmed us.”


A Mexican state suffers bloody fallout of cartel rivalry

MARÍA VERZA

AP

July 26, 2021

VALPARAÍSO, Mexico — When they heard gunfire in the valley, residents locked their doors and cowered inside their homes. Some 200 armed men had just looted a gas station, according to a witness, and the shooting would continue for hours as an equal number from an opposing group confronted them.

The authorities didn’t arrive until the next day. When they did, they found 18 bodies in San Juan Capistrano, a small community in Valparaíso, Zacatecas. The north-central Mexican state holds strategic importance for drugs being shipped to the United States. Mexico’s two strongest cartels — Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation — are locked in a battle for control.

One month after the June 24 killings, there have been no arrests. The military has sent reinforcements, but killings continue across Zacatecas: a doctor here, a police officer there, a family hacked to pieces, eight killed at a party, two girls shot along with their parents.

In a country that has suffered more than a decade of violence at the hands of powerful drug cartels, the situation in Zacatecas, as well as violence-plagued states like Michoacán and Tamaulipas, shows that neither the head-on drug war launched by former President Felipe Calderón in 2006, nor the softer “hugs not bullets” approach of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have managed to break Mexico’s cycle of violence.

Zacatecas’ 746 murders in the first half of the year, compared to 1,065 for all of 2020, give it the highest murder rate per 100,000 residents in the country through June, according to the Mexican government.

“The day they (soldiers) leave, we know from experience that quickly the criminal groups are going to fight over territory,” said Eleuterio Ramos, Valparaíso’s worried mayor.

What makes Zacatecas worth fighting for is its location. It borders eight other states. Among other things, the cartels are battling to control the most lucrative drug: fentanyl. Zacatecas sits between the drug’s production and its consumers.

After the chemical precursors enter the Pacific ports, they are finished into fentanyl pills in labs in Nayarit, Jalisco and Sinaloa to the west of Zacatecas, said Oscar Santiago Quintos, head of the analysis and intelligence department of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office. To the east sits San Luis Potosi, a logistics hub filled with shipping companies that can move the tiny pills north. Highways running north to key border cities pass through Zacatecas, providing a direct route for northbound drugs and southbound guns.

“The battle for Zacatecas is part of the larger war to dominate the fentanyl market, which is the largest source of money for the cartels in the United States,” said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2020, some 93,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses in the U.S., a record high.

When the shootouts rumble across the plains dotted with ranches, farmers often can’t go out to feed their livestock. Goods to stock store shelves and medical care frequently don’t arrive for fear of cartel roadblocks. Gunmen stop residents and demand their cell phones to look for information that could tie them to the other cartel. They sometimes beat people or tie them up regardless to instill fear.

If someone doesn’t stop, they open fire. Earlier this month, a doctor was killed in neighboring Jerez for not stopping. Two paramedics carrying a woman in an ambulance from neighboring Jalisco state to a hospital were killed a few days before passing through Valparaíso.

Last month, a priest was killed in crossfire on the highway. Residents said he had been helping them get electricity back after an armed group cut the power to some ranches.

“One town is controlled by Sinaloa, the next by Jalisco, the next Sinaloa again,” said a community leader, who like more than a dozen people interviewed requested anonymity to avoid repercussions. He said just sharing territory with one group makes residents complicit in the eyes of their enemies.

A rumor circulated that the cartels were forcing youth snatched from the communities to work for them.

“There was panic,” said a 21-year-old man, the oldest of five siblings. They stayed only because “there wasn’t any way to go, nor any place.”

Plenty of families left, some for other Mexican cities to wait for the situation to calm, others to the United States where some 1 ½ million Zacatecans — the same number as in Mexico — reside.

Others just stayed inside. “There were 15 days that we didn’t go out for anything,” said Claudina Betancourt, a nurse born in San Juan Capistrano. She continues working here, but recently moved her belongings to Fresnillo where her daughter and mother live in case she has to quickly leave one day for good.

There’s no cellular coverage and just two phone booths, isolation that adds to the uncertainty.

Days after the June 24 shootout, authorities found two more corpses, raising the death count to 20. Valparaíso’s mayor could not confirm or deny figures given by some residents that were double that. A detective who apparently was investigating the shootout and was pulled out of Valparaíso for his safety was later killed.

Similar violence is occurring in other states like Michoacán and Guerrero, where residents caught between competing gangs suffer extortion, abductions and killings.

For years, attention focused on violence along Mexico’s northern border in cities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. Zacatecas had it then too as cartels battled for control, but it was overshadowed. Now Zacatecans, including in the state capital of the same name, have awoken on several occasions to corpses dangling from overpasses.

Murders occur daily in Fresnillo, a city that mixes the local offices of major mining companies with farmers working the bean fields. With 239 murders per 100,000 residents, Fresnillo has the highest perception of insecurity in Mexico: more than 96% of its population lives in fear, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

“There is anxiety and uncertainty not knowing where to find safety for your family,” said Ramos, Valparaíso’s mayor, who was just re-elected to a third term. He said he has not been directly threatened, but he has the same fear as everyone.

Mexico’s federal government defends its policy of targeting the root causes of violence — poverty, corruption, impunity — with social programs while deploying the National Guard and soldiers. There are more than 100,000 guardsmen deployed in the Mexico, plus the military, yet the violence continues apace.

Arturo Nahle, Zacatecas’ former attorney general and current state supreme court president, said those policies could be right, but will take years to bear fruit. “The strategies that the Mexican government has implemented over the last 15 years have not worked,” he said.

López Obrador’s party just won the governorship in Zacatecas, but it remains to be seen if coordination with federal authorities will improve.

“If we don’t manage to pacify Mexico, regardless of what has been done, we are not going to be able to historically prove our administration,” the president said earlier this month.

Last Wednesday, he announced a “special strategy” to address the cities with the most murders, among them Fresnillo: more military presence and more social development.

More troops would be welcome in Zacatecas, though the effectiveness of their patrols is debated.

“With the army the bad guys don’t move in,” said a 74-year-old farmer in San Juan Capistrano, who teared up talking about the situation in his community. “The government, if it pays attention, can put a stop to everything.”

But a resident from the same area had a different hope for peace: that one cartel wins soon.


Dodging bullets in Fresnillo, Mexico’s city of fear

Afflicted by drug violence, this mining town in the central state of Zacatecas leads national polls for citizens’ lack of confidence in the safety of their surroundings.

David Marcial Pérez

El País

31 Mar 2021

Sometimes Mariano Rosales has just enough time to lower his grocery store’s metal shutters and lock himself in the cellar with his wife. But there are moments when the bullets start firing so close that the couple just hit the aisle floor, their eyes trained on packs of Doritos. In his 12 years running his store in Fresnillo, in Mexico’s Zacatecas state, Rosales has never been more afraid. “We are scared to death. We spend all day praying to Christ,” said the shopkeeper.

His fears are hardly unfounded. Fresnillo recently received the unwelcome accolade of being named the least safe place in the country according to its own residents, in a survey for Mexico’s national statistics agency. Inter-cartel violence is the top of the city’s concerns as elections loom on June 6.Three weeks ago in front of Rosales’ store, a group of sicarios – hired cartel assassins killed the city’s deputy director of urban development while he was standing in the door of his own home. A few days earlier a lawyer was shot dead on the same street as he was leaving his office. And one week ago, three more neighbors were shot a couple of blocks down the street. The day the city official was shot dead, 14 other people were murdered in this city of 250,000 souls. Little surprise then that the survey found 95 percent of Fresnillo residents feel living in their city is unsafe.

Fresnillo offers a potent lens with which to understand the wave of violence sweeping the rural states of central Mexico. These areas were relatively calm until a few years ago, as they sit a long way from Mexico’s principal drug entry and production points on the coasts and in the mountains, and from the exits along the northern border with the United States. But in recent years, the area of Mexico’s map affected by organized crime has sprawled wider and wider. Like other central states including Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes, Zacatecas has witnessed a grisly rise in violence. In the last year alone, homicides have increased by more than 60%.

Fresnillo’s size and location on a corridor connecting Pacific ports to northern border states caught the eye of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The CJNG is now the most powerful cartel in Mexico, and has expanded as it seeks to control the distribution networks in the east. Four police officers guarding one of the routes north so coveted by the cartel were ambushed and found burned to death inside their patrol car last week.The city used to be better known for its wealth of gold and silver. Fresnillo has mined these precious metals since Spanish colonial times, and Fresnillo PLC is the only Mexican company currently listed on the London Stock Exchange. Silver is still being mined in the city, and with deposits in the towns of Sonora and Durango, Fresnillo PLC provides more than 10,000 jobs locally. The city is surrounded by desert, but elsewhere giant warehouses appear on its outskirts that house assembly plants for auto parts and other manufactured products.

The miners have not escaped Fresnillo’s wave of violence, though attacks on workers are often blamed on union disputes. “They say it’s the unions, but who knows,” said Miguel Macias, 32, wearing an orange helmet and fluorescent safety vest for work. When he was taking his dog for a walk one morning, he witnessed two men on a motorcycle shoot “a guy who was washing his car outside his house,” he said. That same afternoon, “they found another dead body on the soccer field,” he said grimly.

Saúl Monreal, the mayor of Fresnillo, openly acknowledges the scale of the problem: “The city is in the middle of an all-out war between the cartels,” he said, sitting in a temporary office. Fresnillo’s city council buildings have been closed since a violent protest over the murder of a young girl, which led to demonstrators storming the site and burning several rooms. “They were expressing their anger,” the mayor admitted. He said three cartels CJNG, Sinaloa and Noreste operate in the area, but singled out one: “the presence of Jalisco Nueva Generación in the last year is what has exacerbated the violence.”

Even cartel control isn’t new for Fresnillo. At the end of the 2000s, during Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs”, the city was taken over by the Zetas cartel. The regional cartel boss Iván Velázquez, alias Z-50, lived in Fresnillo, and boss Miguel Ángel Treviño, or Z-40, was also a regular. Their arrests in 2012 and 2013 respectively calmed the situation in Fresnillo until the current bloody spike in violence. The arrival of new cartels has also brought increased methamphetamine (meth) consumption, up more than 50% over the last year according to data from Fresnillo’s Juvenile Integration Center (CIJ).

The violence will not escape unnoticed in elections slated for June 6 that will select a new Mexican parliament and governors in 15 of the country’s 32 states, including Zacatecas. Mayor Monreal stressed that the problem of insecurity goes beyond his city’s limits. “The situation is very serious, not only in Fresnillo, but in the whole state. People know that the issue of organized crime goes beyond our jurisdiction. It is state and federal. I have let the president know that.”On February 27, the day that 15 murders were registered in the city, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited Fresnillo, and ordered security reinforcements be deployed to the state in the form of more than 300 members of the army and the National Guard. The president is hoping to unseat the governor from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and hand control to the party he founded, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena). Mayor Monreal belongs to the Morena party.’

Fresnillo is the cradle of the Monreal family, almost half of whose 14 siblings are in politics, giving birth to the term “Monrealismo”. The eldest, Ricardo Monreal, 60, is a senator and one of Morena’s heavyweights. “To do away with Monrealismo is to do away with society, with the butcher, with the shoe shiner, with the shopkeeper,” said Mayor Saúl Monreal. His brother David is Morena’s candidate for governor, after also serving as Fresnillo’s mayor.

The Monreal family’s political dominance has been criticized inside and outside Morena. The influential family promoted Catalina Monreal, daughter of Ricardo, as candidate for state president. Saúl, who is Catalina’s uncle, said: “They have their people, we have ours. We are trying to reconcile.”Their critics say the family doesn’t represent the social justice message that the president wants to emphasize. Before the creation of Morena, Benjamin Medrano was part of the Monreal team in Fresnillo. Today a lawmaker for PRI and also a former mayor, he said that the family’s brand “is not the same as that of Morena. “‘Monrealismo’ is disguised as a social movement, but it is not genuine like López Obrador’s.” He accuses the family of trying to rule the state as its own fiefdom, and believes the PRI can triumph over David Monreal for the governorship of the state. Medrano claims David Monreal was tainted by a cattle ranching corruption scandal in 2019, for which Medrano says he has not been forgiven. Whatever lies ahead for Zacatecas, its citizens want to know when they can stop feeling afraid.

 

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