Death on a soccer field: La Familia Michoacana massacre leaves Texcaltitlán on edge

A battle between a group of farmers and the cartel, which left 14 dead, has led to fear of reprisals in the agricultural community where hundreds of National Guard troops have been deployed

Familia Michoacana en Texcaltitlán, Estado de México
The site where the confrontation between farmers and members of La Familia Michoacana occurred on December 8.Felipe Gutiérrez (EFE)
Beatriz Guillén

It was a large, sandy soccer field in front of an elementary school. Last Friday at noon, farmers and members of the La Familia Michoacana cartel met there. The meeting, in Texcaltitlán, in the south of the State of Mexico (Edomex), had been arranged the previous day. There was only one item on the agenda: extortion. The criminal group demanded that the community members pay a fee for each square meter of their bean and pea fields. They refused. This year’s harvest had been bad. What came next was a massacre: 14 dead and seven wounded — shot, beaten, chopped with machetes —, all of it recorded on cells phones showing the latest example of the violence that the Mexican government is unable to put an end to.

There is a long history preceding this battlefield. For years the town of Texcaltitlán, the gateway to the Tierra Caliente region, has lived under cartel rule. There the terror of the Familia Michoacana reigns, a long-lived criminal organization whose alleged leaders, the Hurtado Olascoaga brothers, top the most-wanted list at the Edomex Prosecutor’s Office, with which they are waging an all-out war.

Every year provides a reminder that there is no truce in this region. On March 18, 2021, the cartel killed 13 agents — eight from the Security Secretariat and five from the Attorney General’s Office — in an ambush in the neighboring municipality of Coatepec Harinas. No members of the detachment survived. In December 2022, a firefight in Texcaltitlán killed 11 alleged members of the criminal group. Amid the violence are the citizens.

Police officers work at a crime scene where gunmen killed at least 13 Mexican police officers in an ambush in Coatepec Harinas, March 2021.
Police officers work at a crime scene where gunmen killed at least 13 Mexican police officers in an ambush in Coatepec Harinas, March 2021.EDGARD GARRIDO (Reuters)

“The municipality of Texcaltitlán is tired of so much extortion, of having our rights violated, of just watching and remaining silent for fear that they will take our relatives, kill them or force them to work for them. All the farmers are tired of paying quotas, tired of seeing how crime, La Familia Michoacana and the one in charge of it [’El Payaso’], drives around with pickup trucks and armed men, intimidating the population,” says a recent statement by a group of local citizens. The investigations of the Attorney General’s Office acknowledge that since 2017 the cartel has been charging quotas “to smallholders, sawmills, butchers, mines and merchants” and, if they do not pay, “they are kidnapped and in many cases, executed.”

Against this backdrop, residents of Texcapilla, a community in Texcaltitlán, called a meeting with the organized crime group on Thursday night, in which they were charged for the annual floor rights. “They did not reach an agreement and they summoned them again on Friday at noon, at the soccer field,” a local resident told Foro TV. La Familia Michoacana wanted to charge one peso per meter, said the resident. The charge for one hectare is 10,000 pesos a year, (about $500); for three, it is 30,000 pesos ($1,500), in a poor region that relies on crop-planting.

Shortly before the massacre, farmers from several communities — Texcapilla, Palomillas, Llano Grande, and Santa Maria — banded together and decided they were not going to pay. At 12:14 p.m., the first call to the emergency services was registered. A local resident alerted the authorities that people in a pickup truck were firing guns in front of the Miguel Hidalgo elementary school, where the soccer field is located, in the center of a desolate municipality crisscrossed by fields of crops. What can be seen in a video recorded from a nearby house is a gathering of several dozen people. Some inside cars, many wearing hats. And then suddenly, gunfire.

Initial reports indicate that the cartel opened fire on the farmers in the middle of the argument. The farmers responded: some had shotguns, others sticks and machetes. The images show the farmers grabbing one of the hitmen — dressed in red and with blond hair — and beat him until he is motionless. A total of 10 alleged cartel members were killed, and four of the farmers.

An image shared on social networks of the confrontation between farmers from Texcaltitlán and members of La Familia Michoacana.
An image shared on social networks of the confrontation between farmers from Texcaltitlán and members of La Familia Michoacana.

At 2:50 p.m., the Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into the admission of five people with gunshot wounds to a hospital in Texcapilla. Two other wounded, apparently members of La Familia Michoacana, were taken from the hospital where they were being treated by an armed group, according to the investigation. At 3:20 p.m. security forces arrived at the soccer field, where they found a burned-out vehicle with three bodies inside. A few minutes later, paramedics arrived. At 7:00 p.m., the Edomex government initiated an emergency council.

According to State Prosecutor Jose Luis Cervantes, among the deceased is the alleged leader of La Familia Michoacana in Edomex, Rigoberto de la Sancha Santillán, alias El Payaso. The official did not provide any more names but said that two more of the were “high or medium-level hitmen.”

“This criminal cell has a direct antecedent with the action of March 18, 2021, in Coatepec de Harinas, where 13 security agents lost their lives,” said Cervantes, who accused El Payaso of directing the ambush against the agents. “There was an arrest warrant for him.”

One of the most respected community leaders in Texcaltitlán also died in the confrontation: Noé Olivares Alpízar, who was remembered on social networks: “Without a doubt you will be remembered as one of the great ones, you brought together the hard-working and honest people of your town, you fought shoulder to shoulder with your people with the little they had to defend themselves. Your death and the death of your comrades will not be in vain, you are our heroes!”

Inseguridad en México
Members of the National Guard patrol the town of Texcaltitlán, on December 11.Felipe Gutiérrez (EFE)

That same night of the battle, fear began to spread. At 9:51 p.m., a call alerted emergency services to the possibility that 30 cartel members were regrouping to launch an attack on the population. Cervantes has said that no “risk situation” was identified, but 600 members of the National Defense Secretariat and the National Guard have been deployed in the area.

Residents have reported that the cartel is trying to find those who rebelled and killed 10 of its members. On social networks, some residents of Texcaltitlán have suggested organizing themselves, as is already happening in other states such as Guerrero, to confront the threats of organized crime. However, Edomex Governor Delfina Gómez, who visited the municipality on Monday, said over the weekend that the town will not be abandoned: “I request the permanent presence of federal forces in the region. To the south of the State of Mexico, I tell you: you are not alone, we are with you.”

Meanwhile, Texcaltitlán resembles a ghost town. Stores are closed and families have left their homes until the situation calms down. And, on the soccer field on Monday, the bloodstains remained.

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