Drone Wars for Mexico’s Gold Mountains

I first learned about the self-governed community, or localidad, of Santa María de Ostula from one of Mexico’s posters for the disappeared. It showed two of Ostula’s anti-mining activists, Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca – a forty-one-year-old human rights lawyer from Mexico City – and his seventy-one-year-old collaborator, the indigenous leader and teacher, Antonio Díaz. Side by side, in two pictures, the men stared out somberly. Antonio wears a pale campesino’s cowboy hat, Ricardo a baseball cap and a Nike shirt. Posters like these are plastered across Mexican towns, and are constantly being shared on WhatsApp and social media. When I’m with my Mexican friends, a phone invariably dings; we look over, and discover another one. Usually it’s a woman’s smiling face, accompanied by a description of how she was last seen on her way home from a party or work. My friends receive dozens of these posters each month, mostly from families searching for people who are never seen or heard from again. Silently and instinctively, Mexicans come to know these faces. The posters are quiet signs of the low-grade war being waged across the country.

More than 111,000 people have gone missing in Mexico in the past six years. The rate of disappearances has accelerated sharply since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón began his war on drugs with the backing of Washington. It’s a war that, if anything, has been lost. During the five-year presidency of the current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador alone, more than 44,000 people have disappeared. Two hundred thousand have been murdered since 2007. And violence is on the rise – Amnesty International reports a 600 percent increase in torture by security forces across the first decade of the war. Though the Mexican government has arrested and killed hundreds of cartel capos, drug trafficking to the United States from Mexico continues to grow. There are now regions across the country where cartel authority is undisputed by the state.

In the wake of the government’s failure to maintain meaningful control, small communities in the heartlands of Michoacán and Guerrero, which were most affected by the cartels, began to form autodefensas, or vigilante groups, to defend themselves. The first municipality to receive widespread attention for defending itself was Cherán, which in 2011 used fireworks to fight off illegal loggers linked to the Familia Michoacana Cartel. These autodefensas grew increasingly powerful, and their leaders have committed atrocious killings in their own right, sometimes allying with cartels or even joining them. ‘The government tolerates certain autodefensas, it sustains some of them, and also combats some of them,’ I was told by Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, an organized crime expert who for the past decade has been conducting fieldwork in Mexico, most recently for the Global Initiative Network. ‘It lets them operate when they serve the government’s interests.’

Ostula, on the Pacific Coast of Michoacán, declared their right to self-defense back in 2009. Its population of only a thousand people mostly earned their livelihood through agriculture, fishing and tourism. The two men in the poster I saw, Ricardo and Antonio, had emerged as leaders in the town more recently, as locals banded together to oppose the company Ternium, which owns a mining concession for gold, silver, iron and other minerals – reportedly as large as 5,000 hectares – in Ostula, including a mountain in the Sierra Mancira that is laden with gold.

Ostula and its neighbors managed to block the transfer of over 200 hectares of land to the mining company. Ternium estimated that the loss of access to this land would reduce its projected iron output in the area by 80 percent. Community members in Ostula told me that royalty payments meant for the community had been illegally siphoned off to a group of local residents that offered public support for Ternium’s mining operation, and who fraudulently claimed to represent the entire community. Antonio and Ricardo called a meeting to investigate this alleged corruption, and to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Ternium. On 15 January 2023, after the meeting, Ricardo and Antonio were driving north, halfway to Colima, near the town of Cerro de Ortego in the municipality of Tecomán, when they were ambushed and abducted from their white Honda pickup truck. The pickup was found by the side of the highway, full of bullet holes, but strangely, without a trace of blood in or around the vehicle. This was the work, the townsfolk seemed to agree, of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. The week before, three members of Ostula’s autodefensa had been killed by fighters from this cartel.


For several years now, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, one of the world’s most powerful and heavily armed criminal organizations, has been attacking the borders of Ostula, working to open up the community and the Sierra Mancira to the mining companies. Despite the dangers involved, Ostula has managed to mount a formidable response to the cartels. Firefights rage in the mountains almost daily.

Once the cartels enter a territory, they recruit young people and children as drug dealers. Usually narcotics are sold out of local alcohol shops. The youth are promised riches if they work their way up the cartels’ ranks. Local songs idolize the sicarios, or hitmen, and leaders of the plazas, the territories cartels control. Michoacán’s cartels, like criminal organizations around the world, think of themselves as heroes who defend the poor. Their principal recruits are underprivileged men who see little promise in modern Mexican society. The cartels offer a chance to get even with Mexico’s upper classes. Cartels see protection rackets and illegal trafficking as ways to siphon wealth from Mexico’s rich to its poor. The cartels’ profits allow their members to dine at Mexico’s fanciest restaurants, to cut deals with Mexico’s top politicians, and party with rock stars and actors.

Since Calderon’s war on drugs began, profits and power have only become more concentrated in the cartels as they operate more overtly and combatively on the ground. It is widely understood that many of the private companies working across Mexico pay cartels protection money so they can run their businesses without interference. Mexican cartels invariably intervened whenever community opposition threatened to block a megaproject – a dam, a new industrial park, sand mining from a riverbed, or gold mining. The cartels siphoned profits from these projects by charging derecho de piso, or ‘dues’. Companies paid to be protected from the cartels. Cartels now also support mining companies by displacing people from land those companies wish to explore, clearing the ground for megaprojects. The cartels have taken on a role similar to an ultra-violent local government, aiming to levy hefty taxes with force.

Government officials, too, are often on the take. A federal public security official told me that she had seen a long list of government officials in the state of Guerrero who had been bribed – with sums several times their salaries – by cartels who wanted their support. She had been investigating the disappearance of forty-three normalistas, or students, in Guerrero’s Ayotzinapa municipality. ‘The government was complicit in the students’ disappearances,’ she told me. The high-profile Ayotzinapa case, as it’s called, the subject of several books, remains officially unresolved. A reconstruction of the students’ disappearances by Forensic Architecture showed remarkable coordination between local, state and federal police forces, as well as armed units belonging to organized crime groups.

That so many public officials were being bribed in Guerrero is no surprise. In 2023, the former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, the highest ranking Mexican government official tasked with fighting Mexico’s war on drugs, was convicted in a New York court of trafficking drugs and receiving bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. The New York Times reports that American law officials have spent years looking into the possibility of payments in the past between drug cartels and President López Obrador. ProPublica alleges the Sinaloa Cartel helped finance the president’s 2006 election campaign, in exchange for support for the cartel’s operations. The leader of the Los Ardillos Cartel claimed in February 2024 that he also supported the president’s 2006 campaign.

The cartels’ aims run parallel with the Mexican government when it comes to promoting the development of industrial megaprojects that grow the government’s tax base. It also gives them the opportunity to expand their own derecho de piso. The cartels themselves have become a significant component of the Mexican economy. Last year Science magazine estimated that they employed 175,000 people, making the cartels Mexico’s fifth biggest employer – a giant of the country’s private sector, diversified over a range of legal and illegal businesses. In 2010, for example, the Knights Templar Cartel in Michoacán succeeded in taking over the coast’s entire iron ore mining business, exporting the iron ore from the port of Lázaro Cárdenas directly to China.


A few days after Antonio’s disappearance, he resurfaced in a cartel video, badly beaten up. The video spread through WhatsApp, sent by the cartels to terrorize Ostula. Local news organizations posted the video online and transcribed a fatigued Antonio’s words, as he told his cartel interlocutor in a forced ‘confession’ that he had colluded with a corrupt local official who had bought votes to get himself elected.

Antonio went on to denounce his former allies, the community militia leaders who fought the war against the cartels, trying to protect their land from being opened up for gold mining. Faced with attacks from the Cartél de Jalisco, the local communities had provided military training for their youth and sent them out to defend the community’s frontiers. Antonio now cited the leaders of Ostula’s guardia comunal, or its military division, by their noms de guerre, ‘El Chopo’, ‘El Teto’, and ‘El Toro’, claiming that these community militia leaders were actually in the pay of the cartels. It was a way for the cartels to divide Ostula, and wage psychological warfare by seeding mistrust.


A month after the disappearances of Antonio and Ricardo, Ternium released an official statement, asserting their ‘good working relationship with the community’ and declaring they had ‘publicly denied and rejected any speculation that Ternium or Las Encinas had any involvement or connection with the disappearance of Messrs. Díaz Valencia and Lagunes Gasca’. When I contacted their offices in Luxembourg about this story, they declined to make any other comments.

Shortly after the Ternium statement was released, Lucía Lagunes Gasca, the sister of Ricardo, released her own statement about her missing brother, which emphasized that Ternium had ‘relations with different local groups and possibly with the perpetrators of this disappearance’. She called for a full investigation.

Lucía told me it was widely believed that Ternium, like many other mining companies across Mexico, was allied with cartels. ‘The company encourages violence against anti-mining activists. My brother’s disappearance benefited its business,’ she said. This confirmed much that I had already heard. In parts of Mexico – such as the northern state of Chihuahua, which is home to a series of lithium mines – Mexican reporters have told me that I would have to ask for the cartels’ permission before I traveled there for reporting, or risk not returning.

Officially, the state government is still looking for Ricardo and Antonio. But a year has passed, and no one has been arrested in connection with their disappearances.


I first met Braulio, a 27-year-old Mexican student of journalism, at a restaurant in Oaxaca City. A mutual friend introduced us. Braulio was studying journalism at Mexico’s prestigious Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM.

Braulio intrigued me. His parents, both lawyers, had educated him in a private school in Mexico City, and then at an international Italian high school. Braulio could have chosen any career, and he could have lived a comfortable life, but he had chosen to become a journalist in Mexico, a deadly profession. Eleven journalists were killed in Mexico in 2022, and five in 2023 – among the fifty-two journalists killed in Mexico over the past five years.

The two of us decided to report together, and it was with Braulio that I drove through the dawn fog toward Ostula. I was nervous. I had been watching videos that showed the cartels’ ruthlessness, their brutality against those who peddled drugs on their turf and cut into their profits. They were brutal to environmental defenders – shortly before Braulio and I departed, a news article declared that sixty environmental activists had been killed over the last twenty years while attempting to defend the forests of Michoacán. Journalists were being killed for investigating the cartels’ affairs, or for running into sicarios through bad luck. We spent the night in Morelia, Michoacán’s state capital, inside a fraccionamiento, a gated compound. High walls surrounded the condominium’s buildings. We entered the compound through an iron-grill gate guarded by a security officer in a closed kiosk who operated an iron barrier. It rose. Gated compounds were safer and preferred by Mexico’s upper class. We crossed the city in the morning to meet Keyvan Díaz, a journalist and the son of Antonio Díaz.

Keyvan lived in an apartment block with a large black garage door, which he opened to let us in, looking out at the street in both directions as we entered. He checked if we had been followed. Keyvan was lithe, and when he extended his hand, I noticed his slim wrists. He was also young – just graduated from a journalism program. Keyvan showed us into his father’s bedroom. Antonio’s campesino hats lay on a table; his photographs and notebooks, jackets and shirts still hung in his wardrobe. Keyvan had left them all in their places, nearly half a year after Antonio’s disappearance, hoping for his father’s return.

Since his father’s disappearance, Keyvan had been placed under military surveillance for his safety. He showed me a little white button kept on his work desk.

In theory, it summoned soldiers.

‘I’m not sure the button helps,’ Keyvan confessed. ‘The government doesn’t want me to speak out about my father, but I don’t think he’ll come back if I stay silent.’

The government was concerned that Keyvan would make himself a target for the sicarios if he spoke up about his disappeared father. A government spokesperson had promised Keyvan that they were quietly negotiating with the cartel. But Keyvan had grown frustrated. ‘Are they really negotiating? They don’t give me any updates.’ Many Mexicans professed little faith in the government’s ability to recover those who disappeared, with over a hundred thousand people still missing, and many of the perpetrators likely colluding with local public officials.

It was in the first forty-eight hours after someone disappeared that they were most likely to turn up. After that, the chance of reappearance decreased drastically.

‘I’ll do whatever they want,’ Keyvan said. ‘I’m prepared to pledge my silence, to not pursue justice. I just want my father to come home.’


Braulio was sleeping in the next morning, a cold day, when I heard from an NGO worker at Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz (SERAPAZ), our liaison with the community of Ostula. León Pérez called me up.

‘You had better turn back,’ he said.

The cartels had attacked Ostula again, ambushing its frontline bases. The community was fighting back – mostly through guardia comunal fighters, who had been sent as reinforcements to the small community’s borders, where they were preventing the cartel fighters from infiltrating their mountainous territory. There was no way they could receive a pair of journalists or show us around. It would be too risky. The cartels could ambush us. And yet, this was exactly what we wanted to do. This was the fighting we wanted to document.

Ostula is almost entirely indigenous, and governed using usos y costumbres, literally ‘customs and habits’, a constitutionally protected indigenous mode of governance through local assemblies where unanimity is required on major decisions. Ostula’s local assembly, incorporating all its community members, was its highest decision-making body. They were the ones who had asked us not to come, and that was a decision we had to respect.

Dr Orlando, a constitutional lawyer, who helped the indigenous city of Cherán negotiate legal self-governing status, talked me through how it all worked. Chéran approached Mexico’s electoral tribunal in 2011, which canceled municipal elections and permitted the city a form of traditional autonomy. Dr Orlando pointed me to a score of local communities that had successfully claimed autonomy from the central government, and proceeded to evict the cartels and preserve their forests and rivers. The stories from each of these towns was similar: the cartels arrived, killed children and the elderly, sometimes backed by the state’s police and army. Communities then evicted the police, the army, and the cartels in one go, trusting only in their neighbors.


The next day Braulio and I stopped in a lakeside town called Pátzcuaro, the site of a former utopian project modeled on Thomas More’s ideas, where a sixteenth-century Spanish archbishop had tried to provide shelter for persecuted indigenous populations in so-called ‘hospital towns’, or Republicas de Indios. That the indigenous could co-exist in peace with their Spanish colonizers was considered by the bishop as a utopian project. Pátzcuaro was now overrun with tourists, who also visited the picturesque island Janitzio.

The radio reported nothing about the outbreak of fighting in Ostula.

‘Surely someone is covering the attack?’ I said. Braulio knew a reporter named Beto in Pátzcuaro. Braulio said he had only met Beto once, in Oaxaca, but that he might be able to update us on the cartel’s latest incursions.

Pátzcuaro had once been the capital of the Purépecha Empire, founded in the fourteenth century and conquered by the Spanish around 200 years later. Fiercely independent, it was an adversary of the powerful Aztec Empire, and known as one of the first Mesoamerican civilizations to master metalwork for weapons and art. Now, it was one of Mexico’s 111 Pueblos Mágicos, or magical cities. Its name meant ‘happy place’, ‘place of bullrushes’, or ‘place dyed in black’, depending on the translation.

At a cafe, Beto, eating chilaquiles, nodded when we mentioned the attacks on Ostula. A tall man, he arrived at lunch with his girlfriend, a Texan woman, whose neck he caressed as he listened to Braulio and me present ourselves. There was a force to the way Beto spoke. He had reported on Michoacán’s coast for years, and straightaway called up a member of Ostula’s council, a senior officer named El Goyo. El Goyo said any friend of Beto’s was a friend of his. We would be welcome to visit Ostula, but we would have to wait until there was a pause in the fighting. El Goyo guaranteed our protection.

‘I will prepare our visit,’ Beto said. ‘We will have access to all of Ostula.’


Community protesters had forced Ternium’s iron mine in Aquila to shut down a week after Antonio and Ricardo disappeared in January, mounting roadblocks that prevented terrestrial access to the mine. Ternium said it had closed the mine, responding to ‘a request from community members’. But the cartel was still active, and, perhaps for revenge, perhaps to reopen the mine, it was continually attacking the community.

When we arrived in Ostula, we entered from the south. The Cártel de Jalisco attacked Ostula from the north, from the municipal capital, Aquila, where the iron mine was situated, and from the narco strongholds in the violent neighboring state of Colima. We drove in through the small town of La Ticla, ten kilometers away from Ostula, on the coast. Three species of turtles – the leatherback, Olive Ridley, and black – nest on this coast, swimming in the night beneath drug-laden lanchas, and landing on the beaches, where they crawl up the sand to bury their soft spherical eggs in luminescent white clusters. By day it’s the preserve of surfers, and we saw a group of young men watching the tide with their boards in hand. A beach shop sold surfing and swim gear, and at a restaurant on the sand we dined on divorced eggs and copper-colored mamey sapota smoothies. The strip by the shore was set up for tourists, the walls of the buildings painted in bright pastel colors, with roofs of fresh palm, a contrast to the faded brick and corrugated iron inland. Some of the surfers’ skin was worn by the sun; a tanned Quebecois man in his fifties told me he had taken a room at one of the beach hostels for a month of surfing. He and his local girlfriend made a conspicuous couple. It was hard to imagine this place as a site of violence.

Ostula itself is a small town up a winding road into the mountains. A white building with a courtyard at its center houses the locality’s political and military headquarters. The buildings are low, many of them windowless, though most of the houses have a porch graced by two chairs and a small table where visitors are welcomed by a jar of agua de jamaica: water distilled from a red hibiscus flower called roselle. From every part of the town you can see the surrounding lush green mountains. Children lounge in the shade, and the cracked paint on the houses is dotted with slogans and graffiti advertising local festivals, the opposition to Ternium, and health programs such as vasectomies.

We arrived to wide piles of tamarind at the home of El Goyo, the community’s communication officer. It was high season for the tamarind harvest, which he prepared for export to Guatemala. Part of his earnings he kept, and a part went to the community, as a communal contribution that provided services for Ostula’s residents. Such contributions are commonplace in indigenous communities like Ostula, where the land is not privately owned and residents are required to perform voluntary services for the community. I assumed that a part of El Goyo’s contribution funded the guardia comunal – and its weapons – though he wouldn’t explicitly say so. Although I was there under El Goyo’s protection, I was still an outsider. And the small community was reluctant to show off its weapons in case the Mexican government got wind of their bravado and sent in the Mexican army, whose base, along with marine bases, was located within two hours of Ostula.

At midnight people were still bringing in sacks of tamarind in the backs of their cars. Some arrived on motorbike, with the bags balanced across the pillion or a passenger’s lap. El Goyo weighed their loads, paid them a fixed rate, and disinfected and deseeded the fruit to extract the pulp.

From his last container of tamarind exports, El Goyo had bought his wife a new speaker. Beto turned on one of Peso Pluma’s tunes. It was a narcocorrido – a ballad praising the cartels, set to popular folk tunes, the kind that were so popular in Mexico. The music was catchy, and it was probably out of ignorance that Jimmy Fallon had just invited Peso Pluma onto The Tonight Show, to sing to US primetime audiences.

‘What is that?’ El Goyo asked, cocking his head.

‘Listen,’ Beto said. ‘It’s a corrido.’ Peso Pluma crooned about ‘little girls’ and crystal meth. El Goyo listened for all of thirty seconds before he brusquely said, ‘Change it.’

Beto scrambled.

‘I lost my brother to the narcos.’ El Goyo shook his head. ‘This younger generation doesn’t know what this kind of thing means. They’ll listen to anything.’


That night a haunting church vigil passed by the gates of El Goyo’s house, in solemn song. People carried effigies of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in smoke from tabernacles swinging from their arms. I followed the crowd to the road’s end, where I spotted three white crucifixes in the ground. The crucifixes carried no names. A woman standing by a tienda, a local shop, informed me that the crucifixes had been put up to remember three residents of Ostula who had turned into Knights Templar Cartel members. The community had executed them.

‘Their funerals were strangely lonely,’ she said. ‘One’s wife showed up to mourn, and the other man had only a chicken beside his coffin.’

That afternoon, as we drove to one of Ostula’s military bases up in the mountains, El Goyo pointed out the house of Semeí Verdía, the man who had preceded El Toro as the head of Ostula’s guardia comunal, and had served as the head of the combined autodefensa forces along Michoaocán’s coast.

Semeí had led the military operation that flushed the Knights Templar Cartel out of their communities. Armed with only basic weapons, compared to the Mexican army, they had succeeded. In the communities’ eyes, their victory had shown the army’s complicity with the cartels. Semeí had been celebrated as a hero.

But Semeí’s house was now only a shell. The roof had been destroyed, burned after Semeí had defected to the Cartél de Jalisco, probably lured by promises of quick wealth. After that, the cartel regained the upper hand against Ostula. Semeí was now the cartel’s number one officer in Colima, recruited to fight the very community whose security he had once ensured, and whose military secrets he had guarded.

The nameless white crucifixes and Semeí’s burned house showed Ostula’s complex relationship with the cartels. Brothers and cousins fought each other in battles that had long divided families. We traveled along the same road Antonio and Ricardo had taken after their anti-mining meeting, when they were abducted. El Goyo pointed out the branch of the Kiosko chain of convenience stores, colored red, blue and purple, where they had last been seen, recorded on CCTV cameras, buying snacks with a friend who, seemingly suspiciously, had decided to stop traveling with them at that dangerous point, though it was already dark. El Goyo showed us the spot by the bushes on the side of the highway where their white Honda pickup truck had been found, empty, riddled with bullets, and the cartel had snatched them.

Now, months after their disappearance, the case was cold. Though Keyvan and Lucía didn’t want to admit it, it was unlikely they would ever be found. Their bodies were probably in an unmarked mass grave, somewhere in the mountains. Family members of Mexico’s disappeared, called rastreadores, are constantly scouring the countryside – sometimes with soldiers as protection – searching the landscape for anomalies that might reveal their disappeared loved ones, or their remains.


El Goyo entrusted us with an escort and security detail: a young man named Pedro who was a member of Ostula’s consejo, or council, the small town’s executive body. Though Pedro was only in his twenties, he was among those tasked with guaranteeing Ostula’s security. This made Pedro a prime target to Ostula’s enemies.

Beto and I met Pedro on the sidelines of a local football match, when Braulio had gone to El Goyo’s home to sleep. Ostula’s chief of the guardia comunal, El Toro, whom Antonio had accused of being a cartel fighter in the video the cartels had released, was playing for Ostula against another indigenous community called El Coire. Black bulletproof pickup trucks stood around the football field, and beside them were armed fighters. Attacking the football match would be an easy way for the cartel to cripple Ostula.

Pedro was quiet. He wore Ray-Bans so I couldn’t read his eyes. I sipped from a beer; he offered me another. He was deciding if he could trust me enough to take me to Ostula’s frontline.


El Goyo had received a report that the Cártel de Jalisco had killed some of Ostula’s boys in a raid on a border checkpoint. He showed us the video the cartels had sent to Ostula afterwards. Ostula’s boys were half alive, in their jungle hammocks, already shot and bleeding. The cartel fighters then peppered them with bullets, so their bodies shook as they died. These were friends of El Goyo and Pedro.

Rosario, El Goyo’s wife, grew up in the northern city of Tijuana. She told me El Goyo had once fought on Ostula’s frontlines.

‘He left me with the kids and fought for days, and came home drunk. The fighting messed with his head. One morning when he returned at 5 a.m., he stood in our bedroom doorway and said “Sorry I brought you here.” I told him, “Then get your act together. I’m with you, and we’re in this together”.’

El Goyo quit Ostula’s guardia comunal, sobered up, and took on a council communications job.


After four days in Ostula, I asked Pedro which mountain Ternium and the cartels wanted.

He pointed at a wide green mountain that rose to a point. ‘ Cerro de Mancira.’ It was in the Sierra Mancira Mountain range, whose ample gold Cortés had mined five hundred years before.

‘Ostula has decided the gold, titanium and whatever else is there will stay inside the mountain,’ Pedro said. ‘Our jaguars will continue to live peacefully. Ostula has decided, and we will keep our community’s pledge.’

The community wanted to avoid the arrival of cartels, and the prostitution and drug addiction they brought with them. That pattern has been repeated at the site of megaprojects across Mexico. El Goyo cited the case of the US–Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. When the NAFTA free trade agreement came into effect, Ciudad Juarez quickly industrialized, and turned into one of the world’s most dangerous cities, rife with narcotics and gangs of human traffickers.

Pedro told me Ostula was armed heavily enough to fight off the cartels. But Ostula’s residents were reluctant to tell me where they had bought the heavy weapons they were using to defend themselves. Some said they had stolen them from the cartels, which was likely true to an extent. But the lawyer Dr Orlando had told me that elements of the army were in the habit of selling high-powered rifles to both cartels and communities like Ostula, profiting from both sides of these wars.

Ostula had taken charge of its own defense, and so it operated largely autonomously and in isolation from the rest of the state, but from time to time it met with other self-governing indigenous communities in Michoacán at conferences in the state capital, Morelia, to build regional networks.

I asked Pedro, again, to take us to the frontline.


We left El Goyo’s home early the next day and headed to Aquila, the main urban center beside the mine. On the way we stopped at a beach called Xayakalan, overgrown with tall palm trees, where according to Ostula lore, its residents had once run at the sicarios of the Knights Templar Cartel, attacking them with only machetes and shotguns, spurred by a racial slur a sicario had used against Ostula’s indigenous townspeople.

The near-ruined streets of Aquila shocked me. Paint peeled off houses. Walls crumbled. The mine’s wealth was visible only in the cars: BMWs and Porsches roamed Aquila’s potholed streets. It showed the nature of the extraction from the next-door Ternium mine that the immense wealth in exported iron ore hardly reflected on the city’s facade. A woman blocked our road using a skipping rope and asked for our cooperación of five pesos, for Mother’s Day.

Pedro had us park outside an orange-walled compound that looked like an empty parking lot. The sun was harsh. We entered the premises and turned a corner, and as my eyes adjusted, I discerned a room. Two walls on either side of me were lined with anti-aircraft guns, assault rifles, drones and walkie-talkies.

The wall was built of brick. The bricks had not been laid sideways, as in a normal wall, but each brick presenting its smallest face to the world outside, to construct a thicker wall. This base, which had looked so ordinary at first glance, was built to withstand an attack. I looked up: the ceiling had three layers. A man in military fatigues sat in the sun, while a worker halfway up a ladder built another new multi-layered ceiling.

‘Reinforcements every day,’ the commander said.

He shook our hands and gave his nom de guerre as ‘El Chopo’. He too was among the Ostula commanders who Antonio had accused of being members of the cartels in his hostage video.

Braulio asked if he could take pictures. El Chopo shook his head uneasily. We sat at a long wooden table under the three-layer roof. ‘What would you like to know?’ El Chopo said, squinting at us.

‘Where does the cartel attack?’ I said.


‘You mean, where we are right now?’

He nodded. When he did speak he remained terse, and to the point, and I got the sense he was unhappy about our presence here on the frontline. El Chopo wiped his forehead, and looked about us nervously, as if burdened by our visit at this time of war. His men scanned the horizon and valley for any sign of attack.

But he grew animated when we asked about Ternium, and pulled out from a manila folder photocopies of documents that he said had been forged by the mining company’s agents. The documents stated that the community granted Ternium permission to mine these surrounding lands.

El Chopo smiled. ‘See what they do?’

I looked out into the valley, and at the forested mountain facing us, where the cartel fighters were presumably hiding. Maybe they watched us.

‘How often does the cartel attack?’

‘Every two days.’

‘And the last attack happened when?’

‘Jalisco sent four drones this morning, carrying C-4 explosives mounted on mortar heads. They didn’t drop them. But they’ll be back. Later today, probably.’

El Chopo let me tour the base and peer into its doorless rooms. In one room an immense black drone sat on the ground. It could carry a heavy payload. Beside it, on a naked mattress on the floor, lay an odd-looking gun with silver buttons along its sides showing different frequencies.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It brings down drones by overriding their control frequencies.’ El Chopo made his hands as if to point at a drone and bring it down to the earth, away from his base.


Pedro waited for us in one of the side rooms, sitting in a cloth easy chair, probably brought in from the beach, chatting with some of the fighters. He wore his Ray-Bans indoors, and I wondered if he was deliberately hiding his face. I sat beside a man whose long sniper rifle leaned against a wall, on a mattress on the floor. Another fighter scrolled on his phone.

I asked what he was looking at.

He smiled. ‘I’ll show you.’

He clicked on a video of Ostula’s fighters under fire and shooting at the cartels. One man yelled; machine guns fired, so you couldn’t hear them talk anymore; the men took cover behind a truck, evading the cartel fire; a man stood, fired while yelling incomprehensibly at the cartels; the video suddenly cut.

The fighter looked at me. I must have seemed sufficiently impressed.

He clicked on another video. It showed a souped-up armored truck bearing a giant red skull on its front. One of Cártel de Jalisco’s. Its driver had been shot and lay dead on the grass. The camera moved closer to show that the driver was only a boy, not older than fifteen. His head had been blown off. The cameraman kicked the boy, whose brain fell out of his head, spilling onto the grass.

‘Two weeks ago,’ he said. ‘That was two weeks ago.’

‘But I know the names and details of everyone killed here over the past two months. That boy didn’t show up on the list.’

‘He’s a narco,’ the fighter said, shaking his head.

I looked at him.

‘Narcos don’t count.’


One road leaving Aquila led directly to the Ternium mine. We took a second road that took us to a valley across from it. Beto had traveled here once before and deployed his small drone to obtain footage of the mine and the valley.

Pedro groaned in the car, seeming suddenly uneasy.

‘Are you okay?’ I said.


‘Should we turn around?’

‘Don’t turn around. Let’s go.’

Pedro had never visited the mine. He wanted to reach the place that had been the origin of such violence, the place for which the cartels had fired at those boys in their hammocks.

We wound our way through the valley, and then it came up on us. A giant hillside, of a sandy gray color, the color of the iron ore. The large-wheeled trucks, meant to carry earth, stood still. Mexicans say the mining companies work to licuar las montañas, or ‘blend the mountains down’.

I stood against the railings and looked into the valley beneath me. Before I could say anything, Beto had pulled out his telephoto lens from the back of our SUV. I moved to stop him: ‘Man, that’s dangerous.’

But Beto wasn’t listening. The cartels might mistake his long lens for a gun, and shoot at us. ‘Put it away, man!’

Pedro turned to face me and held his fingers close. ‘You are now one centimeter from the Cártel de Jalisco.’

‘Where are they?’

‘On the hill in front of you,’ he said. ‘On the Cerro la aguja.’ The hill of the needle.

‘It’s a well-known sicario base. They use it to guard the mine which makes them so much money.’

He waited while I looked.

‘They’re there in the mine?’

‘Yes. And behind you, too.’

I turned and scanned the mountain range. Off in the distance, barely perceptible, I noticed a small shack.

‘They’re inside there,’ Pedro said, adjusting his Ray-Bans. ‘Guarding the mine.’


Photograph © Adrián Iturriaga Aranda

postscript: A few months after Anjan Sundaram traveled to Ostula, in November 2023, the indigenous anti-mining activist Higinio Trinidad de la Cruz was found dead near Ternium’s other mine, the Conscorcio Peña Colorada, the ‘Red Rock Consortium’.


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