By “El Huaso” for Borderland Beat

Image created with Dall-E ai.

Last week, CJNG gunmen attempted to instigate a community uprising against Los Viagras, a rival criminal group in the town of La Ruana, in Michoacán state. These armed men went to the local church to ring the bells, against the parish priest’s wishes. This act has dual significance, and may offer insight into CJNG messaging strategy, which often uses revolutionary and populist themes.

On September 10, a group of La Ruana locals attempted to ring the parish bells and convene a town meeting to mobilize the community against the Los Viagras criminal group. Some of the men were identified by El Universal as La Ruana locals, but also members of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), not a community self defense force, or autodefensa, as they claimed. Days later, Michoacán state authorities arrested 26 armed men in La Ruana who they alleged were CJNG members posing as members of an autodefensa.

Use of church bells by auto defensa groups in Michoacán

The ringing of parish bells is a tactic used by autodefensas in Michoacán to quickly mobilize locals together to defend the town from a criminal threat. 

One such example occurred in 2011, when Purepecha townspeople of Cherán, Michoacán used the bells of the local parish to alert the community of the approach of a convoy of Knights Templar members, a criminal group who had been preying on the community. Hundreds of townspeople responded to the ringing, emerging from their homes armed with old hunting rifles and machetes to confront the Templar gunmen. The gangsters were captured and their vehicles were burned.

On some occasions, parish priests have even allowed armed groups purporting to defend the region to use their church bells. 

The church bells which sparked the Mexican revolution

Further, the significance of this act goes back hundreds of years in Mexico. The “Grito”, Mexico’s shout of independence in 1810, which signaled the start of the Mexican Revolution, was accompanied by Padre Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, ringing the bells of the church. 

CJNG use of populist themes

It is difficult to know if the CJNG gunmen had this connotation in mind when ringing the church bells, but the act fits with CJNG propaganda which often employs populist messaging themes, such as posing as a vigilante force protecting “el pueblo”, (the people) from other criminal groups, or denouncing corrupt officials who rob from the people. If this was intentional, by invoking this cultural motif, the CJNG compare their cause against Los Viagras as a revolutionary act, freeing the people from the yoke of an oppressive power.

The CJNG commonly appropriate vigilante rhetoric, attempting to paint themselves as a positive force in the region they operate in. CJNG narco communication videos often contain phrases assuring the general public that they will not interfere with civilians. For example, “The townspeople are not alone” (December 2019) or “our criminal enterprise doesn’t get involved in politics” (May 2021).

Sources: Catholic News Service 2014, Borderland Beat Archives 9/15/23, Insurgent Vigilantism and Drug War in Mexico 7/5/20, El Financiero 9/16/23, El Universal 9/10/23

Read more: Los Viagras Use Drone Bombs Against CJNG in La Ruana, Michoacán