Drug cartel violence drives Mexico's troops to once tranquil towns

The Mexican government has dispatched 15,000 troops, and some are headed to places that used to be considered a refuge from the drug-related violence wracking much of the country.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Colorful homes rise up the hillsides of Guanajuato, Mexico, in February.

It’s hard to imagine military convoys rolling over the cobblestone colonial streets of Guanajuato, a tranquil town in the Bajío region best known as a destination for university studies and tourism.

But this week, reacting to a spate of violence that has apparently spilled over from neighboring Michoacán state, Mexico’s federal government dispatched troops and federal police to Guanajuato – part of a dispatch of some 15,000 federal forces to seven states. That includes troops to Mexico's long volatile north, apparently due to infighting in the brutal Zetas organization.

After six years of drug-related violence in Mexico, fewer and fewer regions can claim to be "unaffected" by the violence.

Guanajuato has been one of these dwindling oases, a pristine town committed to more elevated pursuits: The city is dotted with theaters and hosts the annual Cervantino festival in October, which attracts thousands of people for a month of cultural activities. In the spring the pope visited this state. The highway between Guanajuato and Mexico City has been considered relatively safe – free of the cartels’ armed convoys that routinely patrol highways in northern states gripped by violence. When the Monitor recently did a cover story set in a rural outpost of Guanajuato about migrants returning to Mexico, no one cited crime as a top concern. There, residents walk freely after the sun has set, unconcerned about kidnappings or shootouts.

But is that going to change? Last week, at a gas station called the Green Shade on the highway to San Miguel Allende – a favorite vacation spot and home to Americans and Europeans – heavily armed thugs showed up, set fire to two vehicles, and shot up the station. No one was hurt. Then, in Guanajuato, in one of its emblematic tunnels – the city sits on a maze of stonewalled underground streets – a Mini Cooper was set ablaze. Gas stations in three other municipalities in the state were also attacked.

Cartel La Familia Michoacana and spinoff organization Caballeros Templarios have been fighting each other for the past 18 months, according to InSight, which analyzes organized crime in Mexico. Both organizations were born in Michoacán, the first state where President Felipe Calderón sent troops in his anti-narcotics fight after taking office in December 2006, and their battle is apparently spreading into neighboring Guanajuato.

The arrival of the military has rarely resulted in short-term security gains. Michoacán remains one of Mexico’s most violent regions.

Local reports say that federal police and the military arrived in troubled Guanajuato towns near the state border with Michoacan this week. Military vehicles were also reportedly patrolling Guanajuato, the state capital.

A US travel advisory from February, the most detailed of its kind to date, had no specific travel advisory in place for Guanajuato. But how long will that remain the case?

The receptionist at a small hostería where I often stay seemed eager to dispel any concerns about safety in the city. 

“It’s very calm here,” the receptionist says. “People walk around at night, no problem.”

Mexicans have a single word to express a sentiment that requires a whole sentence in English, and it’s the response that came to my mind: ¡Ojalá!

 We can only hope.

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