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Story Publication logo September 16, 2021

Ordinary People Are Taking the Law Into Their Own Hands to Counter Cartel Threat


A top player takes a "PBS NewsHour" crew inside the drug trade and its lawless culture of impunity.

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In the mountain top village of Ayahualtempa in Guerrero state Mexico, children are learning how to use firearms and preparing for an attack by a nearby drug cartel. In our third and final story on the ravages of the cross-border drug trade with Mexico, special correspondent Monica Villamizar and producer Zach Fannin report with support from the Pulitzer Center.

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Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Now our third and final story on the ravages of the cross-border drug trade with Mexico. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Monica Villamizar and producer Zach Fannin traveled to the mountaintop village of Ayahualtempa in Guerrero state, Mexico. They found children learning how to use firearms, preparing for an attack by a nearby cartel.

Monica Villamizar: After Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador saw images like these, of children as young as 6 learning how to shoot, he became enraged.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexican President (through translator): Children should not be used like this. I am emphatic about that.

Monica Villamizar: But despite the president's harsh reaction, the Nahua indigenous community are still preparing to defend themselves against a drug cartel known as Los Ardillos, or The Squirrels. The children are part of what's called a community guard that's made up of 96 adult men and a dozen children who defend this village, Ayahualtempa, where 600 people live. Mexican law allows some indigenous communities to establish their own police forces. So, children over 12 can have real guns, but all of the very small ones have toy guns. And the reason is, it gets them used to the idea that they have to defend themselves.

This self-defense group is filling the void left by the state. There are no armed Mexican security forces nearby to protect the besieged town. There is no medical facility, and no financial aid has been provided to these villagers so they can weather the crisis that has isolated them from the outside world. After decades of growing poppy plants, the raw material for heroin, this impoverished agricultural community stopped growing the illegal crop in 2015, cutting off all transactions with the local cartels and their intermediaries, fearing a takeover from the increasingly powerful and violent group.

In November of 2019, as the cartel gained more power, the murder rate started steadily increasing. In the past few months, nine people have been killed in this village and 34 others were slain in surrounding towns. The villagers believe the violence is a deadly message from the cartel that wants to take over this drug corridor and tax local businesses as a form of extortion. Today, this picturesque town has still not been invaded and occupied by the cartel, but the security situation is so bad, locals can't travel to the nearby farmers market. The local school shut down because it sits in a cartel-controlled area just past this chain that serves as a demarcation barrier.

Bernardino Sanchez, Nahua Indigenous Leader (through translator): We the farmers, our job is to work the land. But, since there's no security, well, we feel obligated to take up arms, prepare the kids, because we don't know when or at what hour they are going to kill us. So, if we don't prepare the kids, soon, they won't be able to defend themselves. The advantage that we have is that we prepare the community police for each shot they take, so they don't miss, that we don't waste bullets, because we don't have resources to purchase ammunition.

Monica Villamizar: Every time the leader, Bernardino Sanchez, is out on patrol, his bodyguards follow him; 13-year-old Miguel is the youngest armed guard in the village. He says he misses school, and splits his time between herding goats and weapons training, preparing for a possible cartel invasion.

Miguel, 13 Years Old (through translator): They have attacked our families, they have kidnapped us, they have killed us. Since then, I have grabbed a weapon.

Monica Villamizar: Do you think it's normal that a kid your age is armed and has a rifle?

Miguel (through translator): No, but I use it to defend my village.

Monica Villamizar: This man, who preferred to keep his identity anonymous, says his brother, a community police commander, was murdered by the cartel. Afterward, this community wrote a letter to the Mexican government asking for help, but it fell on deaf ears. Now he has a warning.

Man (through translator): The government needs to listen. We are defending ourselves, yes, not because we like to carry weapons or because we want to kill. So long as our enemies don't provoke us, all is OK. But if they provoke us, who knows what will happen to us? Yes, I know they will kill us, but they will also die, so that's all.

Monica Villamizar: Citizens taking up arms to defend themselves from cartels is nothing new here in the states of Guerrero and neighboring Michoacan. The last civilian uprising in 2012 made the region one of the most volatile in the country. Writer Ioan Grillo explains that the militia movement is complicated.

Ioan Grillo, Author, "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency": With this self-defense movement, you then had very different things that was outside of indigenous communities, which is all kinds of groups of people creating armed squads. Some of them are genuine and really defend their community. Some of them are mixed, to look a bit dubious, that they might be defending the community, but there are suspect people. And some of them are full-on drug trafficking organizations that are using the autodefensas, self-defense, ... to just to do their other activities.

Monica Villamizar: With this new uprising well underway, it's unclear if local militias like this one will help decrease or increase Mexico's sky-high homicide rate of 34,000 murders last year, many of which were drug-related. And just over the border from Mexico in Southern Arizona, these men are part of a training session given by the Arizona Border Recon. The group calls themselves an intelligence-gathering operation, but they're armed to interdict and capture. Their leader is this man, Tim Foley.

Tim Foley, Founder, Arizona Border Recon: We love our country. We have taken an oath. Most of us were in the military or law enforcement. And we took an oath to defend the country. And it doesn't end when you get out. It's a lifelong oath.

Monica Villamizar: Tim Foley traveled to the Capitol on January 6. Foley didn't enter the building but says he doesn't think the violence was initiated by Trump supporters.

Tim Foley: We were there, I would say, 45 minutes before Trump even ended his speech. And there were instigators already there harassing the police, and tear gas was already being shot. And I got gassed five times that day.

Monica Villamizar: This training is preparing Recon members for a hypothetical attack by smugglers illegally crossing into the U.S. Do you guys train with live ammo?

Tim Foley: No. It's a safety thing. We do carry rounds with us and we do have sidearms that are loaded just in case.

Monica Villamizar: Foley says he finances his militia through paid training and speaking engagements. The Recon also conducts armed patrols using loaded AR-15s, pistols, and shotguns, on one of the routes where drugs are smuggled on foot for the Sinaloa cartel. This militia patrols the area because they say the government has failed to. Groups of men crossing this public desert by foot with backpacks can be seen in footage that Foley captured on his hidden cameras. Foley calls them dope mules.

Tim Foley: The dope mules nowadays, they're packs. They're bigger. They're camouflaged, but every cubic centimeter in that pack is full. And, basically, it's fentanyl, meth, heroin, cocaine.

Monica Villamizar: Foley's cameras caught this man with an automatic weapon. And just over the border inside Mexico, one of Foley's drones captured this man pointing his gun at the camera. Foley believes he's a cartel lookout who feeds information to mules on foot. Foley says the Recon is in the business of combating the cartels' delivery service.

Tim Foley: Like any business, they have delivery schedules and everything else. So, when we come out, what we do is, we try to mess up their logistics. If we can get in front of them and deter them from coming in that way, and they have to move to go, say, two miles, but if we're sitting there also, then they have to move again. So they are burning up their food and logistics. So, that way, it makes it harder and harder for them, and they're not keeping their delivery schedule. So you're going to get some upset customers.

Monica Villamizar: Foley has stopped groups that he believed were illegally crossing into the U.S. He says he gives the border crossers water and immediately notifies the Border Patrol. It's nonetheless an armed private citizen taking law enforcement duties. So far, he hasn't gotten into a shoot-out. Customs and Border Protection would like Foley and his men to stand down. They provided this written statement: "CBP does not endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands, as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences." Mark Napier was the elected Republican sheriff of Pima County, where Foley conducts his patrols, from 2016 until last year. Today, Napier works for the neighboring Cochise County Sheriff's Department.

Mark Napier, Former Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff: How do you determine who a good guy and a bad guy is when people are carrying rifles and they are all cammied up? I am not interested in armed militia out there playing soldier of fortune. I think that's problematic.

Monica Villamizar: However, Sheriff David Hathaway, a Spanish-speaking elected Democrat of neighboring Santa Cruz County, points out that, since Arizona is an open-carry state, conducting training programs and patrols is not against the law.

David Hathaway, Santa Cruz County, Arizona, Sheriff: As sheriff, in my position, as long as they're not violating the laws, as long as they're not assaulting somebody, intimidating somebody, threatening somebody, you know, they are free to go on public lands. There is a lot of public government-owned land in Arizona.

Monica Villamizar: Tim Foley says he's been called a racist, but he points out that members of the recon are Latino.

Hugo, Arizona Border Recon: If we see somebody crossing, we will just notify the Border Patrol.

Monica Villamizar: Hugo owns a taxi service on the East Coast of the United States and spends his free time with the Recon. He didn't want to tell us his last name, due to fear of reprisals.

Hugo: I was born in Uruguay, and I first came to this country as an exchange student. A few years later, I became a U.S. citizen.

Monica Villamizar: Foley concedes, more drug mules get around him than the Recon can stop, but given the deadliness of fentanyl and other drugs, he's still dedicated to the pursuit.

Tim Foley: The way I look at it, every little bit helps. That load I stopped might have saved two people. That load I stopped might have saved one. I can walk away. When I look in the mirror and go, what didn't we try to stop?

Monica Villamizar: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in Pima County, Arizona.


Drug Crises


Drug Crises

Drug Crises

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