Facing little resistance from authorities, the Sierra Cartel consolidated and expanded its sphere of influence in Guerrero in 2021.
Based in Tlacotepec, the municipal seat of Heliodoro Castillo, the cartel forcibly took control of dozens of communities in Guerrero’s Sierra region in 2018, displacing thousands of people who are still too afraid to return home.
Since then, the Sierra Cartel – involved in the drug trade and a range of other illicit activities – has operated with impunity in the region, the newspaper El Universal reported, noting that authorities have not attempted to wrest back control of the communities they seized.
Last year, the crime group waged a war against rivals in Iguala, Guerrero’s third largest city, and moved into Huitzuico, a municipality in the state’s northern region that borders both Morelos and Puebla.
In Iguala, where there were 176 homicides in the first 11 months of last year, the Sierra Cartel’s main rival is a criminal organization called La Bandera (The Flag), according to the Guerrero Attorney General’s Office. That group is an offshoot of the Guerreros Unidos, a gang implicated in the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students who were abducted in Iguala in 2014.
While other criminal groups operate in Iguala, the Sierra Cartel is now the dominant one. Its sway is such that it controls tortilla, meat and soft drink prices in the city, El Universal said. The cartel has also attacked newspaper offices in Iguala and threatened local journalists, forcing at least nine to flee.
The group has boasted of its increased influence in the city known as the birthplace of the Mexican flag, and recently issued a threat to new Mayor David Gama Pérez, warning him there would be consequences if he didn’t collaborate with its members.
Although the Sierra Cartel is considered the principal instigator of violence in Iguala, “almost nothing has been done to stop it,” El Universal said.
In late 2021, the cartel also made its presence felt in Huitzuico. El Universal reported that the group moved into that city in October and imposed their rule with murders and abductions. In November, the cartel established a 6:00 p.m. curfew and warned that anyone who failed to abide by it would be killed.
The organization kept its word: the day after the curfew took effect three men were shot and killed as they looked for somewhere to buy dinner at 9:00 p.m. Huitzuico residents subsequently complied with the curfew to the letter, going home before sundown and staying there until morning. All businesses closed by 6:00 p.m. and public transit services ended at the same time, El Universal said.
The newspaper reported that the Sierra Cartel also controls the prices of tortillas, meat, beer and soft drinks in Huitzuico, a city of approximately 20,000 people. Guerrero Governor Evelyn Salgado, who took office last October, visited the municipality late last year to announce a joint police/military operation against crime, but residents’ fear of the cartel remains and most continue to abide by the curfew.
The Sierra Cartel is also considering moving into Juan R. Escudero, a municipality about 60 kilometers inland from Acapulco.
After the recent murder of the founder of a self defense umbrella group called the United Front for the Security and Development of Guerrero, the cartel said it could dispatch 1,000 of its men to “pacify” the municipality. The cartel’s presence in that municipality could facilitate its movement of drugs between Guerrero’s Sierra region and the state’s Pacific coast.
The Sierra Cartel’s successes in 2021 appears to have emboldened it. On December 22, about 100 of its members confronted state police on the Chichihualco-Chilpancingo highway and forced them to release two Sierra Cartel gangsters they had arrested. The state government has “remained silent” on the incident, El Universal said.
The Sierra Cartel is one of numerous criminal groups that operate in Guerrero. Among the others are Los Rojos and Los Ardillos, which have been engaged in a turf war for years.
The former group and the Guerreros Unidos were designated by the United States Department of the Treasury last month under an executive order – Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade – issued by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Criminal groups are largely responsible for the high levels of violence in Guerrero, where there were 1,130 homicides in the first 11 months of last year. That made the state Mexico’s ninth most violent after Guanajuato, Baja California, Michoacán, México state, Jalisco, Chihuahua, Sonora and Zacatecas.
With reports from El Universal