Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 23: Prison Riot and Massacre in Acapulco, Guerrero; Attack Allegedly During Santa Muerte Ritual

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 23: Prison Riot and Massacre in Acapulco, Guerrero; Attack Allegedly During Santa Muerte Ritual

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

On Thursday, 06 July 2017, a brutal prison riot at the Las Cruces prison near Acapulco, Guerrero left at least 28 inmates dead; some reports claim five were beheaded.[1][2] The killings allegedly occurred while certain inmates were participating in a ritual for the Santa Muerte cult.[3] The outbreak is attributed to tensions between rival cartels and gangs.

Key Information: “Balearon a reos en medio de ritual de la Santa Muerte.” El Diario. Sábado 08 July 2017,  http://diario.mx/Nacional/2017-07-08_87e78774/balean-a-reos-en-medio-de-ritual-de-la-santa-muerte/ (From “Balean a reclusos en medio de ritual.” Reforma, 08 July 2017):

Acapulco, Guerrero— La matanza de 28 reos en el penal de Acapulco fue con armas de fuego y contó con la complicidad de custodios.

Los presos fueron ejecutados en medio de un ritual de la Santa Muerte y habría sido comandado, de acuerdo a las primeras pesquisas, por Manuel García, 'El Meño', y Óscar Silva, del Cártel Independiente de Acapulco, según fuentes investigadoras estatales y federales.

Varios de los ejecutados tienen impactos de bala, de acuerdo con las fuentes consultadas.

Una denuncia anónima conocida por autoridades y a la que tuvo acceso Reforma indica que dentro del penal había armas e incluso artefactos explosivos y que, posteriormente al enfrentamiento, los custodios los ocultaron en las áreas de carpintería y sastrería.

El gobernador Héctor Astudillo dijo en un evento donde fue presentada la Fuerza Conago que uno de los reos lesionados tenía impactos de bala y que se encontraron tres casquillos, sin precisar el calibre.

"Ubicamos perfectamente quiénes lo hicieron. Hay una investigación donde tres custodios facilitaron la operación (sic)", aseveró.

Sin embargo, minimizó el uso de armas de fuego, pues aseguró que la mayoría de las muertes fue con armas punzocortantes.

Ayer, dos narcomensajes alusivos al motín fueron colocados en puntos céntricos de Acapulco.

En uno, firmado por el cártel La Barredora, se culpa a 'El Meño' de la masacre.

En otro punto, sicarios dispararon al aire justo en el momento en que una carroza fúnebre acudía por uno de los muertos del motín.

A tres cuadras de ese punto, Astudillo daba su parte en el Centro de Convenciones, vigilado por soldados y policías.

Key Information: Chivis (trans), “Prisoners in Acapulco massacre slaughtered during Santa Muerte ritual.” Borderland Beat. Saturday, 8 July 2017, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2017/07/prisoners-in-acapulco-slaughtered.html?spref=tw (Translation of “Balean a reclusos en medio de ritual.” Reforma, 08 July 2017):

In the massacre yesterday in an Acapulco Prison, 28 were murdered, and were executed during a Santa Muerte ritual.

According to initial investigations, it was commanded by Manuel Garcia, “The Meño”, and Óscar Silva, of the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, (Cártel Independiente de Acapulco or CIDA) according to state and federal investigating sources .

The bodies of several of the executed have bullet impacts, according to sources consulted.

Information known by authorities and to which REFORMA had access, indicates that there were weapons (as reported in BB original post of the massacre) and even explosive devices inside the prison and that, after the confrontation, guards had hid them in the areas of carpentry and tailoring.

Governor Héctor Astudillo said, “We found exactly who is responsible. And three guards facilitated the operation with weapons,” he said. However, he minimized the use of firearms, saying that most of the deaths were with sharp weapons.

Yesterday, two narcomensajes (narco messages) alluding to the mutiny were placed in downtown points of Acapulco.

In one, signed by the cartel La Barredora, it blamed “El Meño” of the massacre.

Key Information: “El narcotráfico detrás de la matanza: Asesinato de 28 reos ocurrió en medio de ritual a Santa Muerte.” ANSA Latina, 08 July 2017, http://www.ansalatina.com/americalatina/noticia/mexico/2017/07/08/atribuyen-a-cartel-de-acapulco-matanza-en-carcel_74472e49-2b5d-4c62-92a6-bfbe9d2ea31c.html:

La matanza de 28 reos en una prisión de Acapulco fue atribuida al cártel Independiente de Acapulco, que buscó cobrar venganza con reos que pertenecían a su acérrimo rival, La Barredora, de acuerdo con las primeras pesquisas de las autoridades.

Poco a poco comienzan a surgir los detalles escabrosos de este episodio sangriento ocurrido el jueves antes del amanecer que no sólo puso al desnudo la crisis carcelaria que afecta a México, sino también el grado de extremo de crueldad que suele enmarcar la disputa entre bandas criminales en el país….

Concretamente, fueron señalados como autores intelectuales de los asesinatos Manuel García "El Meño" y Oscar Silva, jefes del Cártel Independiente de Acapulco.

De acuerdo con las primeras investigaciones, las víctimas fueron asesinadas en medio de un ritual de la Santa Muerte, que no es reconocido por la Iglesia católica. Suele ser representada por una efigie en forma de osamenta humana a la que se le atavía con fastuosos ropajes y ricos ornamentos y se le colocan ofrendas.

Image of Decapitated Prisoners

Las Cruces Prison, Acapulco, 6 July 2017

http://media.breitbart.com/media/2017/07/Acapulco-Riot.jpg

Analysis

This prison riot and resulting massacre is one of the most serious disturbances in a Mexican prison since the February 2016 riot at Monterrey’s Topo Chico prison.  That incident, which involved a battle between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, left at least 52 dead and 12 injured.[4] Mexico’s prisons are volatile, plagued by corruption, and under minimal control by state authorities.[5] This lack of control leads to inmate self-governance (autogobierno).  According to one account, 60% of Mexican correctional facilities function under self-governance.[6] 

In this incident taking place at the Acapulco jail or Cereso (Centro de Readaptación Social),[7] rival gangs battling for control led to a massacre with several persons (up to five, depending upon reports) beheaded.[8] The guards reportedly did not intervene and may have participated in or facilitated the violence.[9] The massacre reportedly occurred during inmate rituals in veneration of Santa Muerte.[10] Prison officials have not confirmed those reports.[11] 

Guerrero’s governor supports the ritual aspect, noting that the majority of the dead were found in front of Santa Muerte coins which is indicative of ritual participation:

“Es difícil encontrar en los medios mexicanos más referencias concretas al aspecto ritual de la masacre. En Bajo Palabra leemos que el gobernador del estado de Guerrero, Héctor Astudillo Flores, ha descartado la riña como motivo, aunque fuera la primera línea de investigación, y ha afirmado que la mayoría de muertos fueron encontrados frente a una imagen de la Santa Muerte con monedas encima, por lo que consideran que se trataría de un ritual.”[12] 

Others criticize the government stance, pointing out that corrections, police, and judicial authorities have not corroborated the ritual aspects of the massacre.[13] The Cereso in Acapulco has a history of crime and impunity.[14]

The gangs involved include the Cártel Independiente de Acapulco (Cida) which allegedly attacked the rival Cártel la Barredora.  A narcomanta (naromensaje) displayed on a bridge after the attack linked Juan Linares (allegedly El Juanito of Cida) to the attack.[15] Reports in local press and at Reforma suggest Manuel García “El Meño” and Oscar Silva of Cida, a derivative of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) (Cártel de los Beltrán Leyva) were behind the attack against their rival la Barredora, a Sinaloa associate.[16]

The riot and constituent fights left casualties scattered throughout the overcrowded prison.  Bodies were recovered in security modules, corridors, near the kitchen, in the prison yard, and in the area utilized for conjugal visits. State police and federal army troops were deployed to restore order.[17]

Image of Massacred Prisoners

Las Cruces Prison, Acapulco, 6 July 2017

Image at Borderland Beat

http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2017/07/acapulco-prison-riot-at-least-5-dead.html

The actual role the veneration or worship of Santa Muerte played in this riot is unknown. The limited news imagery of the decapitated and slaughtered prisoners does not provide enough forensic evidence to suggest that any form of elaborate ritual took place.  If such a hasty sacrificial ritual had been conducted, it may have been undertaken simply for narcoterrorist purposes in order to terrify the opposing drug gang with the future threat of ‘human sacrifice’ being directed at their membership.  This explanation would be devoid of any form of an underlying spiritual basis and can simply be viewed as an extreme component of narco psychological operations (PSYOPS) being waged by one drug gang against another.  On the other hand, this incident may be eventually confirmed as an act of mass human sacrifice derived from the new information now emerging:

Esa es una de las hipótesis en la investigación tras analizar la posición de los cuerpos, el nivel de violencia con que fueron ejecutados. Monedas, exceso de sangre, manzanas e imágenes; todo parece apuntar a que se trató de un sacrificio satánico…

…El gobernador Astudillo Flores también habría mencionado que los policías encontraron los cuerpos de 14 reos ejecutados frente a una imagen de la Santa Muerte y que había monedas regadas sobre los cuerpos.

El fiscal general del estado, Xavier Olea Peláez, agregó dos detalles más en una breve charla con este medio de comunicación: la capa de la muerte era de color negro y entre los cuerpos había una manzana.

En busca de corroborar algunos detalles de la información, un seguidor de la Santa Muerte, confío que por como se dieron los hecho. [18]

This would mean that it was conducted in order to provide one drug gang with divine—albeit dark—blessings and benefits, such as protective and death magic, in its war against an opposing drug gang.             

Regardless of either explanation, it is not surprising that Santa Muerte is linked with rituals within the prison. Santa Muerte is venerated by many prisoners and has a following among the criminal classes.[19] This connection also has precedent; the veneration of Santa Muerte was seen in the 2016 prison riot at Topo Chico[20] and veneration of Santa Muerte has become an element of narcocultura with shrines and altars to the folk saint appearing at cartel and gang crime scenes throughout Mexico.[21] 

An image of La Santa Muerte lies in a pool of blood at a crime scene in Acapulco on 18 February 2011. According to local media reports, heavily armed groups shot at least a dozen people, six taxi drivers among them, burned about 18 vehicles, a house, a business, and carried out shootouts in different parts of the resort city.

http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-santa-muerte-2016-3/#according-to-chesnut-the-disorder-and-bloodshed-brought-on-by-the-war-on-drugs-initiated-in-mexico-a-decade-ago-clearly-helped-accelerate-the-devotion-to-santa-muerte-14

Santa Muerte (Holy Death) is in many ways a popular patron ‘saint’ for the drug war.[22] Cartel members, gangsters, police, and prison guards venerate her and seek her protection. Of course, this role as ‘narcosantito’ is not sanctioned in the Catholic canon yet is an evolving sub-group of Mexican spiritual identity.[23]   

While it is unknown if the veneration of Santa Muerte (or participation in rites related to that veneration) triggered the attacks and subsequent massacre, the role of Santa Muerte, narcocultura, and narco-saints (narcosantitos) inside Mexico’s jails and prisons is an important component of narco identity (bonding adherents to the cult and each other and supporting group identity) both inside prison and on the street.

Sources

“Balearon a reos en medio de ritual de la Santa Muerte.” El Diario. Sábado 08 July 2017,  http://diario.mx/Nacional/2017-07-08_87e78774/balean-a-reos-en-medio-de-ritual-de-la-santa-muerte/ (Reprint of  “Balean a reclusos en medio de ritual.” Reforma, 08 July 2017).

Chivis (trans), “Prisoners in Acapulco massacre slaughtered during Santa Muerte ritual.” Borderland Beat. Saturday, 8 July 2017, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2017/07/prisoners-in-acapulco-slaughtered.html?spref=tw (Translation of “Balean a reclusos en medio de ritual.” Reforma, 08 July 2017).

“El narcotráfico detrás de la matanza: Asesinato de 28 reos ocurrió en medio de ritual a Santa Muerte.” ANSA Latina, 08 July 2017, http://www.ansalatina.com/americalatina/noticia/mexico/2017/07/08/atribuyen-a-cartel-de-acapulco-matanza-en-carcel_74472e49-2b5d-4c62-92a6-bfbe9d2ea31c.html.

End Notes

[1] See “Asesinato de 28 personas en penal fueron en medio de ritual a la Santa Muerte.” Canal 44, 08 July 2017, http://canal44.com/asesinato-de-28-personas-en-penal-fueron-en-medio-de-ritual-a-la-santa-muerte/; “Suman 28 muertos por riña en el Cereso de Las Cruces, en Acapulco,” El Sol de Acapulco, 06 July 2017, https://www.elsoldemexico.com.mx/mexico/justicia/698557-ajustan-cifra-rina-en-el-cereso-de-acapulco-dejo-28-muertos; and Cartel Chronicles, “GRAPHIC: Five Beheaded in Acapulco Prison Riot amid DHS Secretary Visit.” Breitbart, 07 July 2017, http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2017/07/07/graphic-five-beheaded-acapulco-prison-riot-amid-dhs-secretary-visit/.

[2] A listing of the 28 confrimed dead inmates is found at “Riña entre grupos rivales deja 28 muertos y 3 heridos en la cárcel de Acapulco, Guerrero.” Animal Politico, 06 July 2017, http://www.animalpolitico.com/2017/07/muertos-carcel-de-acapulco/.

[3] Numerous reports including “Matanza de 28 presos en cárcel de México se produjo en ritual de la ‘Santa Muerte’.” Aciprensa, 12 July 2017, https://www.aciprensa.com/amp/noticias/matanza-de-28-presos-en-carcel-de-mexico-se-produjo-en-ritual-de-la-santa-muerte-34102 mention the Santa Muerte connnection, however reference an initial report at Reforma: Jesus Guerrero, Balean a reclusos en medio de ritual.” Reforma, 08 July 2017, http://www.reforma.com/aplicacioneslibre/preacceso/articulo/default.aspx?id=1157230&urlredirect=http://www.reforma.com/aplicaciones/articulo/default.aspx?id=1157230.

[4] David Agren, “Mexico prison riot: at least 52 people killed and 12 injured in Monterrey.” The Guardian, 11 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/11/dozens-killed-in-prison-riot-in-monterrey-mexico.

[5] See Paul Rexton Kan, “Busted: The Micropower of Prisons in Narco-States.” Small Wars Journal, 05 December 2016, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/busted-the-micropower-of-prisons-in-narco-states,: and Benjamin Lessing, Inside out: The challenge of prison-based criminal organizations. Washington, DC: Brookings, September 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/inside-out-the-challenge-of-prison-based-criminal-organizations/

[6] See Pablo Ferri, “Las autoridades confirman que la batalla entre grupos rivales dejó también tres heridos en el Estado más violento de México.” El País. 07 July 2017, https://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2017/07/06/mexico/1499356877_970137.html.

[7] Alternatively Centro de Reinserción Social, depending upon preferred style. 

[8] The number of deaths is stated as twenty-eight, with unknown number of injuries and claims of five beheadings.  See note 1 and Agence France-Presse, “Inmates beheaded in Mexico prison riot.” ABS-CBN News, 08 July 2017, http://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/07/07/17/inmates-beheaded-in-mexico-prison-riot.  A higher estimate is provided by Guerreros’ prosecutor, counting 34 dead and 32 injured; Ezequil Flores Contreras, “Informe interno de Fiscalía revela 34 muertos y 32 heridos en penal de Acapulco.” Proceso. 08 July 2017, http://www.proceso.com.mx/494142/informe-interno-fiscalia-revela-34-muertos-32-heridos-en-penal-acapulco.

[9] See “Cesan al director e indagan a 4 trabajadores por riña en cárcel de Acapulco que dejó 28 muertos.” Animal Politico, 07 July 2017, http://www.animalpolitico.com/2017/07/director-carcel-de-acapulco/

[10] See, for example, “Revelan oscuro ritual tras asesinatos de reos en el CERESO de Acapulco.” Denuncias Acapulco Sin Censura, 08 July 2017, https://denunciasacapulco.ml/acapulco/revelan-oscuro-ritual-tras-asesinatos-reos-en-cereso-acapulco/.  

[11] “28 prisoners killed inside Acapulco prison.” KVIA News (El Paso), 08 July 2017, http://www.kvia.com/news/kvia-breaking-news/28-prisoners-killed-during-santa-muerte-ritual/581643240.

[12] Luis Santamaría, “México: el asesinato de 28 presos de una cárcel fue un ritual a la Santa Muerte.” InfoCatólica, 12 July 2017, http://infocatolica.com/blog/infories.php/1707111116-mexico-el-asesinato-de-28-pre.

[13] See, for example, Alejandro Ortiz, ‘Salazar Adame, Dispuesto a Comparecer por Masacre en las Cruces.” Bajo Palabra, 12 July, 2017, http://bajopalabra.com.mx/salazar-adame-dispuesto-a-comparecer-por-masacre-en-las-cruces#.WWgsrDOZNuU.

[14] Celso Castro castro, “Cronología: Crimen e impunidad en el cereso de Acapulco.” El Sol de Acapulco, 13 July 2017, https://www.elsoldeacapulco.com.mx/local/cronologia-crimen-e-impunidad-en-el-cereso-de-acapulco.

[15] “Tras masacre en penal de Acapulco, hallan narcomanta cerca del operativo de la Conago.” Proceso, 07 July 2017, http://www.proceso.com.mx/494102/tras-masacre-en-penal-acapulco-hallan-narcomanta-cerca-del-operativo-la-conago.

[16] Ezequiel Flores Contreras, “En narcomanta, vinculan a jefe policiaco con masacre en penal de Acapulco.” Proceso, 13 July 2017, http://www.proceso.com.mx/494774/en-narcomanta-vinculan-a-jefe-policiaco-masacre-en-penal-acapulco.

[17] Ed Adamczyk, “28 dead in Acapulco, Mexico, prison riot.” UPI, 07 July 2017, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/07/07/28-dead-in-Acapulco-Mexico-prison-riot/2731499434880/

[18] “Ejecutados en el penal de las Cruces fueron sacrificados a la santa muerte.” Sintesis de Guerrero, 16 Julio 2017, http://sintesisdeguerrero.com.mx/2017/07/16/ejecutados-penal-las-cruces-fueron-sacrificados-la-santa-muerte/.

[19] See Regnar Kristensen, “La Santa Muerte: Inmates’ New Friend.” Panoramas, 09 September 2016, http://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/art-and-culture/la-santa-muerte-inmates’-new-friend for a discussion of the role of Santa Muerte amoing inmates and criminals.  The role of Santa Muerte is more complex than many popular accounts.

[20] Carlos Benito, “La prisión de la Santa Muerte.” Hoy.es, 28 February 2016, http://www.hoy.es/sociedad/201602/28/prision-santa-muerte-20160228003948-v.html?ns_campaign=WC_MS&ns_source=BT&ns_linkname=Scroll&ns_fee=0&ns_mchannel=TW and Pryscilla Valdez y Carlos Rangel, “Sacan de penal a la ‘Santa Muerte’.” 12 February 2016, http://www.milenio.com/policia/Reos_penal_Topo_Chico-familiares_penal_Topo_Chico-motin_topo_Chico_Nuevo_Leon_0_682131894.html.

[21] Christopher Woody, “Saint Death: The secretive and sinister 'cult' challenging the power of the Catholic Church/” Business Insider, 17 March 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-santa-muerte-2016-3/#santa-muerte-likely-originates-from-europe-arriving-in-the-new-world-with-spanish-conquistadors-1.

[22] John Nova Lomax, “Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War.” Houston Press, 12 September 2012, http://www.houstonpress.com/news/santa-muerte-patron-saint-of-the-drug-war-6595544.

[23] Ruth Sherlock and James Frederick, “La Santa Muerte: 'Patron saint of Narcos' rattles the Catholic Church.“ The Telegraph, 25 December 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/25/la-santa-muerte-patron-saint-narcos-rattles-catholic-church/ and Nathaniel Janowitz, “El santo de los narcos, el culto a la santa muerte y el Apóstol de las causas perdidas esperan al Papa en México.” 12 February 2016, Vice, https://www.vice.com/es_mx/article/jmzd58/el-santo-de-los-narcos-el-culto-a-la-santa-muerte-y-el-apostol-de-las-causas-perdidas-esperan-al-papa-en-mexico. (In English as “A Narco-Saint, a Death Cult, and a Lost-Cause Apostle Await the Pope in Mexico,” https://news.vice.com/article/a-narco-saint-a-death-cult-and-a-lost-cause-apostle-await-the-pope-in-mexico.)

Additional Reading

R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Paul Rexton Kan, “Busted: The Micropower of Prisons in Narco-States.” Small Wars Journal, 05 December 2016, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/busted-the-micropower-of-prisons-in-narco-states.

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Rethinking insurgency: Criminality, spirituality and societal warfare in the Americas.” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 22(5), 742-762, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2011.625720.

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