MEXICO CITY – In a video posted on social media, a man claiming to be a Mexican drug cartel leader says an attack that killed 20 people including a mayor was in fact aimed at him.
Authorities said Friday they were investigating the authenticity of the video attributed to José Alfredo Hurtado, a leader of the Familia Michoacana cartel.
Better known by his nickname “The Strawberry” — a slang term used in Mexico to denote someone with high-end tastes — the man in the video wears a Gucci T-shirt and an expensive-looking wristwatch as he talks about narrowly escaping the attack Wednesday.
“The attack was aimed at me,” Hurtado said describing the events Wednesday, in which gunmen entered the town of San Miguel Totolapan and opened fire on a meeting the mayor was holding with other officials.
Hurtado said he had planned to attend that meeting with deceased Mayor Conrado Mendoza and his father, a former mayor, but that the gunmen opened fire before he had descended from his bulletproof vehicle, allowing him to narrowly escape.
Hurtado mentions that he had cooperated in the past with the deceased mayor in fighting the Tequileros gang, which claimed responsibility for the killings, noting “We started this struggle together, the mayor and us.”
“We had set up this meeting with the mayor and his father, and the peace group they have,” he said, referring to a vigilante group that had been active in Totolapan, in southern Guerrero state.
In Mexico, residents of towns under pressure from from one cartel often set up vigilante groups and turn to rival cartels for help in fighting off the oppressors; cartels make much of their money in Mexico from extorting protection payments from local farmers and businessmen.
Shockingly, for a man wanted by police, Hurtado said he has openly lived in San Miguel Totolapan for some time.
“My house is in San Miguel, a block from the town hall, I think everybody knows it,” said Hurtado.
Totolapan is geographically large but sparsely populated mountainous township in a region known as Tierra Caliente, one of Mexico’s most conflict-ridden areas.
In another video posted on social media Wednesday, armed men who identified themselves as the Tequileros gang claiming responsibility for the mass shooting.
On Thursday, Ricardo Mejia, Mexico’s assistant secretary of public safety, said the Tequileros are fighting the Familia Michoacana gang in the region.
“This act occurred in the context of a dispute between criminal gangs,” Mejia said. “A group known as the Tequileros dominated the region for some time; it was a group that mainly smuggled and distributed opium, but also engaged in kidnapping, extortion and several killings in the region.”
The Familia Michoacana cartel, despite its name, was actually kicked out of the neighboring state of Michoacan years ago by a vigilante movement. Run by Hurtado and his brother, the cartel has been blamed for kidnappings, extortions and bloody attacks on police and soldiers.
Totolapan was controlled for years by drug gang boss Raybel Jacobo de Almonte, known by his nickname as “El Tequilero” (“The Tequila Drinker”).
In his only known public appearance, de Almonte was captured on video drinking with the elder Mendoza, who was then the town’s mayor-elect, in 2015. It was not clear if the elder Mendoza was there of his own free will, or had been forced to attend the meeting.
In that video, de Almonte appeared so drunk he mumbled inaudibly and had to be held up in a sitting position by one of his henchmen.
In 2016, Totolapan locals got so fed up with abductions by the Tequileros that they kidnapped the gang leader’s mother to leverage the release of others.
While the Tequileros long depended on trafficking opium paste from local poppy growers, the growing use of the synthetic opioid fentanyl had reduced the demand for opium paste and lowered the level of violence in Guerrero.