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Dec 17, 2009 | 14:17 GMT

33 mins read

Mexican Drug Cartels: Two Wars and a Look Southward

In this report on Mexico’s drug cartels, we assess the most significant developments of 2009 and provide an updated description of the country’s powerful drug-trafficking organizations, as well as a forecast for 2010. This annual report is a product of the coverage we maintain on a weekly basis through our Mexico Security Memo as well as the other analyses we produce throughout the year. Two cartel wars in Mexico combined to produce record levels of violence in 2009. The first war is the struggle between the government of Mexico and the drug cartels. In a parallel war, cartels compete with one another for control of lucrative supply routes. Shortly after his inauguration in 2006, President Felipe Calderon launched a major campaign targeting the cartels, which he viewed as a major threat to Mexico's security and stability. Over the past three years, the government has weakened and fragmented some of the major cartels (namely the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels), but in the progress has upset the balance of cartel power. The result has been an increase in violence as formerly allied cartels have been pitted against each other in battles of attrition, as they fight for control of lucrative smuggling routes. Click here to download a PDF of this report The turbulence within individual Mexican cartels that was seen in 2008 was absent in 2009, although the changes created by that turbulence have persisted, along with the divisions in previous alliances caused by Calderon's 2008 campaign against the cartels. With these continued divisions came a continuation of Calderon's strategy, and a continuation of high levels of violence. With the success experienced in 2008, Calderon continued to pursue his strategy of deploying Mexican military personnel and federal police against the cartels. Calderon has vowed to pursue this strategy into 2010 despite mounting public criticism and issues with rising violence. Violence in 2009 has again reached unprecedented highs. Chihuahua state has accounted for nearly half of the organized crime-related deaths in Mexico so far in 2009, despite having the highest concentration of security forces in the country. And Juarez continues to be the epicenter of the violence in Chihuahua state as the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel struggle for control of the Juarez plaza. Another large source of violence has been the emergence of La Familia on the national and international drug-trafficking scene, as the organization looks to expand its territory beyond its home of Michoacan. The geography controlled by the various cartels has remained relatively static within Mexico, with the exception of La Familia's becoming the dominant force in Michoacan. One noticeable trend identified in 2008 was the expansion of Mexican cartel presence in Central America. The year 2009 also revealed an expansion of cartel operations south of Mexico, with a significant increase in seizures and law enforcement operations, targeting the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas in particular. The increase in seizures, along with less obvious indicators, such as the Sinaloa cartel placing a single person in charge of operations in Central America, shows the region is growing in importance to these organizations.
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Cartel Membership and Organization

La Familia

La Familia has by far garnered the most media attention of all the cartels during 2009, especially after being dubbed "the most violent criminal organization in Mexico" by former Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora in May. La Familia has grabbed headlines mainly because of its brazen public operations and pseudo-ideological roots. La Familia is unique among Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in that it seems to be an ideological movement that uses the proceeds from the business side to fund the spread of its unique "religion," while most DTOs are run as strictly profit-driven businesses. In April, during a Mexican government investigation of the group, several documents were discovered, including a booklet that appears to be a moral code of conduct for La Familia members. Much of the booklet is devoted to pseudo-religious quotations from a man called "El Mas Loco" (the craziest one), also known as Nazario Moreno Gonzalez. There is, however, a major disconnect between some of the religious principles described in the documents and some of the violent crimes associated with La Familia, making it likely that the documents are more representative of the group's propaganda and rhetoric than true tenets of its ideology — perhaps to conceal its actual motives. The increased media coverage of La Familia has resulted in increased scrutiny from the Mexican federal government. La Familia networks were the focus of a statewide corruption scandal in Michoacan in 2009 that led to the arrests and resignations of several local and state government and security officials. In addition to the corruption scandal, several high-ranking La Familia operatives were arrested as part of a joint Mexican military and Federal Police operation, including the possible fourth-in-command Luis "El 19" Ricardo Magana Mendoza, who reportedly oversaw several aspects of La Familia's operations. It remains unclear who has replaced Magana Mendoza, but his responsibilities were likely absorbed by La Familia No. 3 Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez. The group's leadership is shared by Jose "El Chango" Mendez Vargas and the infamous Moreno Gonzalez, who took over control of the organization after the arrests of Carlos Rosales Mendoza and Zeta deserter Omar Lormendez Pitalua in 2004 and 2005, respectively, co-founders of the modern-day La Familia organization. La Familia's headquarters and main area of operation are in the southwestern state of Michoacan, hence the full name of the principal group: La Familia Michoacana (LFM). The organization also has regional franchises that operate in the neighboring states of Mexico, Guerrero (La Familia Guerrerenese), Guanajuato (La Familia Guanajuatense). The organization also has a limited presence in Jalisco and Queretaro states. It is unclear the degree to which these groups coordinate and how much autonomy each possesses, although they reportedly follow the same ideology. Without direct access to the U.S.-Mexico border, La Familia is somewhat geographically constrained; the group must rely on and/or pay taxes to the organizations that control the border corridors through which La Familia product must pass. (click here to enlarge image) La Familia was also the target of a 44-month U.S. law enforcement operation, dubbed "Project Coronado," in which several La Familia distribution networks across the United States were dismantled and which culminated in October with the arrests of 303 individuals. More than 1,100 people who were directly or loosely associated with LFM were arrested as a result of the operation. However, information gleaned from Project Coronado has indicated that, unlike other Mexican DTOs, La Familia takes more of a direct role in the retail distribution and sale of its narcotics inside the United States. This allows the organization to control the distribution of drugs directly to the consumer, which in turn allows it to retain a greater percentage of the profits. It also gives LFM control over an aspect of the supply chain that most drug cartels do not have, allowing La Familia to compete in terms of revenue rates with the cartels that control the upstream trafficking. LFM could be forced to employ this more direct hands-on approach to distribution in the United States because it is much smaller than Sinaloa, Los Zetas or the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), controls much less territory and gets a smaller share of the narcotics being trafficked through Mexico. By expanding business into the United States, LFM is able to leverage what little control it does have in order to gain access to the highly lucrative retail market. Despite its high-profile public image in both Mexico and the United States, La Familia remains relatively small and geographically isolated compared to the larger and more established cartels.

Gulf Cartel

At the beginning of Calderon's campaign against the cartels, the Gulf cartel was considered the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. At its height, in the first half of the decade, much of the Gulf cartel's true power came from its former enforcement arm, Los Zetas. Today, however, the two are separate entities, with Los Zetas the dominant organization and controlling much of the Gulf's former territory. After nearly three years of bearing the brunt of Mexican military and law enforcement efforts, the Gulf cartel is now a shell of its former self, but the long-standing connections its leaders and operators have forged from careers in the drug-trafficking industry still make the group a relevant entity on the Mexican narcotics scene. The relationship between the two organizations reportedly became strained over the course of 2009 with the Gulf leadership refusing to take orders from Los Zetas leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano in a surprising role reversal. Despite this reported rift, the two organizations continue to work together when their interests align. The leadership of the Gulf cartel is shared between Antonio Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen, brother of former Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and Jorge "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez. A senior leader of the Gulf cartel and probably the third in command, Gregorio "El Caramuela" Sauceda Gamboa, was arrested by the federal police in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, in May. Reports also surfaced that Gregorio's brother, Hector "El Karis" Sauceda Gamboa, was killed in a shootout with the Mexican military in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, in February. None of these reports have been substantiated, however, and the status of Hector remains unknown. It is also unknown whether either of the brothers' roles have been delegated to a lower-level Gulf member or if Los Zetas have filled the void left in their absence (which is more likely).

Los Zetas

Over the past year, Los Zetas have held firm to their position as one of the most powerful cartels operating in Mexico and have been working to extend their presence and power southward into Central America from their core area of operations along Mexico's eastern coast and the Yucatan Peninsula. The organization remains under the control of leader "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano. There have been rumors that Lazcano Lazcano has been trying to consolidate control over what is left of the Gulf cartel and integrate the remaining personnel into Los Zetas' operations, but these reports have not been confirmed. Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales remains the second in command of the organization and oversees operations throughout Mexico and Guatemala. After a rash of arrests targeting Los Zetas at the end of 2008, which included the arrest of Los Zetas third-in-command Jamie "El Hummer" Gonzalez Duran in November of that year, it appears that Miguel Trevino Morales has taken more of an active role in operations along the Tamaulipas border region. Miguel's brother, Omar "Z-42" Trevino Morales, appears to have stepped in to fill the role of Gonzalez Duran in the wake of his arrest. (click here to enlarge image) Los Zetas have concentrated much of their efforts over the past year in securing overland trafficking routes across the Mexico-Guatemala border and extending their presence and influence deeper into Guatemala and Central America. Los Zetas have fostered a well-documented relationship with Los Kaibiles (Guatemalan special forces deserters turned criminal enforcers) since at least 2006, which has helped facilitate Los Zetas' expansion into Guatemala. A Guatemalan joint military and law enforcement operation in March raided a Los Zetas camp and air strip in the border department of Ixcan that were being utilized for the tactical training of Los Zetas recruits and as a destination for aerial deliveries of cocaine from South America. This push southward has given the organization greater control of their overland cocaine supply line into Mexico and control of much of the human smuggling from Central America into Mexico and the United States. There are also reports that Los Zetas and Kaibiles were training members of the transnational street gang MS-13 from El Salvador in the Guatemalan camps — further underscoring their efforts to make inroads into Central America by co-opting the group, which is also known as the Maras. Los Zetas continued to maintain a working relationship with the Beltran Leyva Organization throughout 2009. The two groups forged a relationship when BLO initially split from the Sinaloa cartel in late 2007. As with many inter-cartel alliances, this one formed when the two groups realized they had mutual interests, including a new common enemy in Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera and the Sinaloa cartel. It was even reported that BLO ordered the hit on El Chapo's son in Culiacan, Sinaloa, in May 2008 and that it was carried out by members of Los Zetas. Since then, Los Zetas has been working as muscle for the BLO, while the BLO has utilized the Los Zetas trafficking network to smuggle cocaine and heroin from South America into the United States. The two organizations are trying to wrest control of the Michoacan and Guerrero regions away from La Familia in order to gain access to the lucrative Pacific ports of Lazero Cardenas and Acapulco. Over the past year, there has also been a concerted effort by the Los Zetas leadership to take a more active role in the administration and leadership of the Beltran-Leyva Organization. However, the role of Los Zetas in the BLO remains that of hired enforcers to supplement the BLO's ongoing operations as the organization pursues its own agenda. Los Zetas have also reportedly contracted themselves out to the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization, also known as the Juarez cartel, to serve in an advisory and training role for the organization as they battle their common rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, for control of the Juarez border region.

Beltran Leyva Organization

After a very active 2008, the BLO maintained a relatively low profile through much of 2009. Once the BLO had secured its territory in mid-2008 after its split with the Sinaloa cartel — the BLO/Sinaloa battle for territory accounted for a significant portion of the violence in Mexico in early 2008 — the cartel focused on consolidating and streamlining its narcotics smuggling operations. After that period of consolidation, the group went on the offensive again in October and November, when it teamed up with Los Zetas to target La Familia in Guerrero and Michoacan states. (click here to enlarge image) The BLO still remains under the command of self-proclaimed "Jefe de Jefes" (boss of bosses) Arturo Beltran Leyva, who is supported by a well-established network that stretches from Mexico's Pacific coast into northeastern Mexico. Arturo Beltran Leyva and Los Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano have also continued their working relationship throughout the year. The BLO utilizes Los Zetas power and geography to traffic cocaine overland from Guatemala into Mexico. The March arrest of Hector "La Burra" Huerta Rios, who oversaw BLO operations in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon — a Los Zetas stronghold — also indicated that the BLO was (and likely still is) utilizing Los Zetas control of the South Texas-Mexico border region to traffic its narcotics into the United States. The BLO has been in the narcotics business a long time and has perhaps the most sophisticated intelligence capacity of any of the cartels. It maintains a wide array of human intelligence sources, and arrests in recent years have demonstrated that the BLO intelligence network has penetrated every level of the Mexican government.

Sinaloa Cartel

The Sinaloa cartel is not a single cartel group, but a network of smaller cartels headed by the world's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, who appeared on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world in 2009. In spite of the turbulence and infighting caused by the losses of the VCF and BLO from the Sinaloa Federation in 2008, the Sinaloa cartel has remained resilient, active and on the offensive throughout 2009 and remains the most formidable and dominant cartel group in Mexico. Guzman's partners — Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia, Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villareal and Juan "El Azul" Esparagoza Moreno — each have their own network, and they continue to work together to traffic narcotics northward from South America. The Zambada Garcia network experienced a setback when Zambada Garcia's son, Vicente Zambada Niebla, was arrested in Mexico City. Zambada Niebla was a key money launderer and financier in the organization and served in an important logistical role when needed. His absence, however, does not appear to have significantly affected the group's operations. (click here to enlarge image) The conflict in Juarez and Chihuahua state between the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel has undoubtedly been the primary focus of the Sinaloa cartel over the past year. The conflict, which was initiated by the Sinaloa cartel as it attempted to wrest control of Juarez away from the Juarez cartel, has essentially resulted in a stalemate between the two groups. The pitched battle for control of the lucrative Juarez plaza is exhausting large amounts of money and other resources. The Sinaloa cartel has also remained active in Central and South America in 2009 in an attempt to exert greater control over the flow of weapons and narcotics from South America into Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel maintains a significant presence in the territory along the Pacific coast of Mexico and the Sierra Madre Occidental. While the violence between the Sinaloa cartel and the BLO has declined significantly, the overlap in their geography has resulted in periods of open conflict, particularly in the state of Sinaloa. There have also been reports and rumors that the Sinaloa cartel could be making another push for control of the Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo smuggling routes. While there is no indication of a push having begun yet, these rumors do not come without precedent. Much of the violence witnessed in 2007 stemmed from the Sinaloa cartel's attempts to wrest control of these same lucrative plazas away from the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. Should Sinaloa conduct a sustained operation to take over these plazas, we can expect to see similar levels of violence, which will exacerbate already critical levels of violence in Mexico.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel

Also known as the Juarez cartel, the VCF is based out of the northern city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state. The cartel is led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who took over after the 1997 death of his brother, Amado, the cartel's founder. In 2009, the Juarez cartel has maintained its long-standing alliance with the Beltran Leyva Organization and reportedly has developed a working relationship with Los Zetas. (click here to enlarge image) The VCF is yet another Mexican DTO that has fallen significantly in the past year. The VCF and its enforcement arm, La Linea, have been locked in a nearly two-year battle with their former partner Guzman Lorea and the Sinaloa cartel over control of the Juarez plaza. The prolonged conflict has taken its toll on the VCF and has forced the cartel to resort to other criminal activities to finance its ongoing battle, primarily kidnapping, prostitution, extortion and the retail sale of drugs to the domestic market. With the growth of the domestic market in Juarez, the VCF has begun to engage in turf battles through proxy street gangs, namely the Aztecas (the Mexican syndicate of the U.S. prison/street gang Barrio Azteca), which is a primary reason for the incredible levels of violence currently seen in Juarez. Los Aztecas are fighting against the Sinaloa cartel-affiliated gangs Artistas Asesinos and the Mexicles. The VCF, in its weakened state, has been forced to focus inward on its core geography and has not been able to project its influence any farther than the greater Juarez area. The VCF was dealt yet another blow when the organization's number two in command, Vicente Carrillo Leyva, was arrested in Mexico City in April. Carrillo Leyva, Amado's son, reportedly was responsible for the group's financing and money-laundering operations.

Arellano Felix Organization/Tijuana Cartel

The Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), also known as the Tijuana cartel, is based in the far northwestern state of Baja California, across the border from San Diego, Calif. With the arrests of all of the Arellano Felix brothers and several other high-ranking members, infighting eventually led to the once-powerful AFO splitting into two factions in 2008 — one led by Arellano Felix's nephew, Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano, and the other led by Eduardo Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental. Garcia initially sought the support of AFO rival and Sinaloa leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera after the split. As 2009 draws to a close, it is now thought that Garcia is essentially a Sinaloa proxy in the greater Tijuana area. The Sanchez faction has remained relatively dormant throughout 2009, aside from minimal levels of narcotics smuggling as seen by the discoveries of smuggling tunnels under the border. (click here to enlarge image) The organization has been forced to diversify its operations into other criminal activities, such as human smuggling, prostitution, kidnapping and extortion. This was in part due to increased scrutiny by Mexican law enforcement after a spike in violence in 2008, which at its height saw more than 100 executions in one week in the greater Tijuana area. Much of the violence that has occurred in Tijuana in 2009 has been the result of these two factions fighting for control of territory. The overall level of violence in Tijuana has been far lower in 2009 than it was during the height of the conflict between the two factions in 2008.

Continued Divisions

In our 2008 cartel report, STRATFOR noted that Calderon's success in disrupting cartel activities through a military and federal law enforcement campaign, which included the arrests of high-ranking cartel members, created a year of flux for the cartels. This included divisions within the larger cartels, namely Sinaloa and Gulf. As Calderon continued to pursue his counternarcotics strategy, 2009 has seen more competition and conflict among the DTOs as new groups spun off from the parent cartels or as cartel groups sought to take control of weakened competitors' territory. The relationship between Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel, in particular, has grown more distant in 2009. As previously noted, Los Zetas was the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel during the height of Gulf's power in the current decade. After being weakened by Mexican military and federal law enforcement operations, the Gulf cartel began to lose its grip on Los Zetas and the chain of command became blurred. In early 2008, Los Zetas stopped taking orders from the Gulf cartel and began to operate autonomously, working with whomever they pleased, while conducting business with the Gulf cartel when it happened to be mutually beneficial. Reports surfaced throughout 2009 that Los Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano was attempting to consolidate control over what was left of the Gulf Cartel, in an ironic role reversal. It is not clear whether Lazcano Lazcano's attempts to consolidate the Gulf Cartel were successful, but it is clear from reports that his attempts were met with some resistance by senior Gulf leaders Jorge "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez and Antonio Eziquiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen. The splits in the Sinaloa cartel in 2008 were perhaps the most significant. While the Sinaloa cartel remains arguably the largest and most capable cartel in Mexico, the split of the VCF (or Juarez cartel) and the BLO from the Sinaloa cartel in 2008 was significant, and the effects of these divisions were still being felt throughout 2009. The conflict between the Juarez cartel and the Sinaloa cartel has been the most prominent issue in the Mexican cartel wars in 2009. With more than 2,100 deaths in Ciudad Juarez alone and approximately 8,500 Mexican military and federal law enforcement personnel deployed in the city as part of joint "Operation Chihuahua," this conflict has demanded the focus of all players involved. The conflict between the Sinaloa cartel and the BLO has declined significantly in 2009, in comparison with 2008. The BLO waged a very personal battle against Sinaloa leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera and his associates during the first half of 2008, after Guzman reportedly provided information to authorities that led to the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva. Since then, the groups' confrontations have seemingly come in cycles and in locations where their geographies overlap, namely Sinaloa state. This year, the violence between the two groups peaked during the fall marijuana harvest, since the key marijuana-producing region lies squarely in the mountains of Sinaloa. The death toll for November alone topped 100 for Sinaloa state, which prompted the deployment of 170 additional Federal Police to the state in addition to the more than 4,200 military and federal law enforcement personnel already deployed as part of joint "Operation Culiacan-Navolato."

Debate Over the Military's Mission

One of the most important facets of the Calderon government's campaign against the drug cartels has been the widespread deployment of Mexican military personnel. This has been the core of Calderon's strategy in his counternarcotics fight, and it is largely responsible for the success the government has had in weakening and splitting the cartels. While previous Mexican presidents have utilized the military for isolated counternarcotics operations, the level to which Calderon has used Mexico's armed forces is unprecedented. During Calderon's term in office, he has deployed more than 35,000 military personnel to regions throughout Mexico to carry out counternarcotics operations. However, 2009 saw a growing debate over what role the Mexican military should play in the country's war against the cartels. Human rights organizations have expressed concern over an increase in alleged civil rights abuses by Mexican military personnel, and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to call on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify Mexico's human rights record, which would effectively freeze a portion of the Merida Initiative funds allocated by the United States to aid Mexico in its counternarcotics operations. Even members of Calderon's own National Action Party (PAN) have stated that there needs to be more of a balance between the needs of the cartel war and the civil rights of Mexican citizens. The extensive use of the military in counternarcotics operations has drawn criticism from leaders of both of Mexico's main opposition parties, who claim it has also unnecessarily weakened the armed forces. In addition, the president of Mexico's Supreme Court has said the court plans to review the appropriateness of military jurisdiction in citizen complaints against soldiers. The unprecedented use of the military to combat what is essentially a domestic law enforcement problem is due in large part to the systemic corruption in local, state and federal law enforcement ranks, which has made it necessary for the government to seek out a reasonably uncorrupted force. This has forced the military to handle tasks that would normally fall to law enforcement agencies, such as conducting security patrols, making traffic stops and manning checkpoints. As the military has taken over these tasks, it has come into almost constant contact with the civilian population, something the Mexican military is not designed, equipped or trained to do. This increased interaction with civilians been the source of many of the human rights abuse accusations and has resulted in the current controversy. Calderon has defended the strategy, saying that the military's large role in the war against the cartels is only a temporary solution, and he has tried to minimize the criticism by involving the federal police as much as possible. But the armed forces have provided the bulk of the manpower and coordination that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies — hampered by extensive corruption and a chaotic reform process — have not been able to muster. In some cases, entire local law enforcement agencies have been dissolved for being completely corrupt, which then forces the military to absorb their responsibilities. While the primary reason for using the military is the systematic corruption of Mexican law enforcement, the more the military takes on law enforcement roles, the more vulnerable it becomes to the same corrupting influences that have plagued law enforcement. (click here to enlarge image) Circumstances have left Calderon with few options: The military remains the most reliable and versatile security tool available to the Mexican government. While Calderon's goal is to hand over all law enforcement tasks to a professionalized local, state and federal law enforcement apparatus, the military will not fade away completely from Mexico's war against the cartels. In many ways, the Mexican military is the only security force with the capability to carry out essential elements of an effective counternarcotics strategy. Such tasks as technical intelligence gathering, maritime and aerial reconnaissance, and interdiction are best engaged in by the armed forces, which have the appropriate training and equipment to carry out these vital anti-cartel operations. On a more basic level, the military is also the only security force in Mexico that can match the cartels' fire power. Weapon seizures throughout Mexico routinely net fragmentation hand grenades, rocket and grenade launchers and even the occasional .50-caliber sniper rifle, arsenals that Mexican law enforcement cannot counter — especially when such weapons are wielded by ex-special forces soldiers in Los Zetas and the Kaibiles. Any legislative or judicial effort to withdraw the armed forces from certain law enforcement tasks will leave the government with fewer options in battling the cartels and in a more precarious position. In an effort to ease some of the criticism, Calderon announced an agreement at the closing of the 27th National Public Security Council meeting in November to establish a system for evaluating security policies and force performance. However, Calderon made it clear in his November mid-term speech that the military is the only option at this point. Of course, using the military to fight the drug war also has made it vulnerable to corruption by the cartels, which have started to target military units for recruitment, and the amount of money involved will eventually cause the corruption to spread into the military just as it did into law enforcement agencies.

Trends in Violence

The last three months of 2008 saw an explosion in violence and a dramatic increase in the number of organized crime-related deaths across Mexico. The levels of violence seen at the end of 2008 persisted into 2009 and have gradually worsened. While the violence of 2008 was characterized by dramatic waves of killings as conflicts flared up in geographic areas like Tijuana and Juarez, the violence of 2009 has been far more consistent, with only minor numerical spikes, resulting in an annual trend of steadily increasing bloodshed. Estimates of the annual toll of organized crime-related deaths at the time this report was written ranged from 6,900 to more than 7,300, with only a few weeks left in 2009. Hence, 2009's death toll will easily shatter the previous annual record of approximately 5,700 set at the end of 2008. The geography of the violence in Mexico has remained relatively static from the end of the 2008 throughout 2009. Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacan and Baja California were the five most violent Mexican states in 2009 — and all happen to be the five most violent states during Calderon's term. Chihuahua state once again sits at the top of the list, with nearly 3,200 deaths so far in 2009, more than 2,100 of which occurred in Juarez alone. The extraordinary levels of violence seen in Juarez and Chihuahua state can be attributed to the conflict between the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel. One factor that has likely played some part in the staggering death toll in Juarez is the fact that the conflict is being played out on two levels: among cartels and among street gangs. The two enforcement arms of the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, La Linea and Nueva Gente, respectively, have been waging war against each other since the beginning of the Juarez conflict in early 2008. However, a new front opened up in 2009 on the street. The enormous concentration of security forces in the greater Juarez area has stifled smuggling operations into the United States, which in turn has led to a flood of drugs in the greater Juarez area, drastically increasing the size of the already expanding domestic drug market. This has made retail sales in the greater Juarez area a much more reliable source of revenue, which is needed to pay for the weapons and enforcers being consumed in the battle for control of Juarez. And this retail market is dominated by three street gangs: the Aztecas, Artistas Asesinos and Mexicles. The Juarez cartel, embroiled in a war with Sinaloa and with its international smuggling operations hampered by a growing concentration of security forces on both sides of the border, began to back its traditional street ally, the Aztecas, in a turf expansion designed to generate more income from retail sales. The Sinaloa cartel countered by backing the Artistas Asesinos and the Mexicles in their own expansion against the Aztecas. Now, not only are the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels battling over control of the Juarez smuggling corridor, they are also engaged in a proxy war over virtually every street corner in Ciudad Juarez. Also, high levels of violence have returned to the Michoacan and Guerrero regions after a two-year lull. The violence in these two states in 2009 is due in large part to the increased activities and expansion of La Familia. That organization has conducted high-profile attacks against federal government forces operating in Michoacan as well as against its rivals in the region. Federal Police and military patrols frequently come under fire and are sometimes ambushed, with the attacks often associated with the capture of a high-ranking La Familia member. The June 11 capture of Arnaldo "La Minsa" Rueda Medina by the Federal Police sparked 14 attacks against federal police agents and military personnel, resulting in the deaths of three federal police agents and two soldiers. From all indications, other criminal entities are treated similarly by La Familia; bodies seemingly litter the sides of rural highways and urban street corners with narcomantas (poster-board messages left next to dead bodies, usually claiming responsibility for the death of the individual or issuing a warning to a rival group or government force). These messages have often been hung on overpasses over busy highways as well throughout Michoacan and Guerrero in 2009. Many of the narcomantas left by La Familia, the BLO and Los Zetas indicate that much of the most recent violence — in October and November — has been due to a joint push by the BLO and Los Zetas for greater control of the Lazaro Cardenas and Acapulco ports, a push that is meeting heavy resistance from La Familia. Although there have been some indications that 2009 saw an increase in the seemingly indiscriminant killings of civilians — a trend that could have serious implications for the Mexican security situation — a careful look at the situation suggests this has not really been the case. The September 2008 grenade attacks on a Mexican Independence Day celebration in Morelia, Michoacan state, caused an enormous public backlash and represented the first clear case of the intentional killing of innocents. Since then, closer investigation often reveals that so-called innocent victims may not have been so innocent. Most of them appear to have been associated with cartel targets, making them targets as well. No such case better demonstrates this than the string of cartel and gang attacks on drug rehabilitation clinics in Juarez and Chihuahua state in 2009. Gunmen entered these facilities, lined the patients up against a wall and opened fire, killing 18 in one attack and 10 in another. It was later determined that these rehabilitation clinics were being used by Juarez street gangs as venues for retail drug sales. While many victims of these attacks may not have been involved in the cartel conflict, they were essentially seen as customers or associates of the intended target, which made them all legitimate targets in the eyes of the attackers.

The Expanding Role of Central America

The geography of the Mexican cartel landscape has remained relatively unchanged since the end of 2008, with the exception of La Familia becoming the dominant force in Michoacan and Guerrero. A trend that we pointed out in 2008, the expansion of Mexican DTOs into Central America, namely Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, has continued throughout 2009. This trend was highlighted by the discovery in March of a Los Zetas training camp in Guatemala near the Mexican border that contained a clandestine airstrip and was reportedly being used to give tactical training to local Guatemalan recruits. A Mexican national was also reportedly made head of Sinaloa operations in Central America. (click here to enlarge image) The spread of Mexican DTOs into Central America stems from increased government efforts to interdict long-range aerial and maritime drug smuggling over the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. As those routes became more difficult, the Mexican DTOs increased trafficking through Central America using overland routes, short littoral maritime routes, short aerial routes or a combination of all three. This allows the DTOs to be more flexible in their logistics coordination and to be more dynamic in response to enforcement operations. Using these tactics and routes, however, significantly limits the cargo capacity due to the vehicles involved. Typically, trucks are used for overland trafficking, but the Sinaloa cartel has been known to use horses and backpackers to transport narcotics. Traffickers also typically use small "go-fast" boats that sacrifice capacity for speed. Small twin-engine planes are used to make aerial jumps toward Mexico, but due to advanced radar tracking systems and flight restrictions, these planes fly into Mexico less frequently than before. Several law enforcement operations during 2009 in Honduras discovered numerous airstrips belonging to the Sinaloa cartel. Another 2009 operation by Nicaraguan security forces targeting the Sinaloa cartel in Nicaragua revealed that the group primarily utilized the Pan-American Highway to transport its illicit cargo north. In 2009, there has been minimal competition between any two DTOs in the Central American theater, but the Central American land-based trafficking superhighway will undoubtedly become more lucrative as interdiction efforts increase, and inter-cartel competition (and violence) is sure to follow. If the cartel dynamics in Mexico are any guide, intensifying DTO competition in Central America could have serious implications for the security of countries across the region. The investment of resources has proved profitable for the Mexican DTOs, and the ongoing allocation of more resources — particularly human resources — shows that Central America is becoming increasingly important to these organizations.


Weakened and disrupted in 2008, the Mexican cartels somewhat solidified in their divided state in 2009, a condition that is likely to continue well into the new year. Calderon has decided to continue his current counternarcotics strategy, which has proved effective in denying the cartels uncontested control of vital territory. The lack of complete control of their geography, combined with their seemingly ever-changing organizational hierarchy, could be the recipe for internal infighting and further fractures to current cartel structures — and provide opportunities for cartels to attack rivals weakened by the government's campaign. While Mexican security forces, mainly the military, have been able to increase the divisions among the cartels, they have not been able to quell the record-breaking violence and reduce it to politically acceptable levels. Indeed, if anything, the disruption of the cartels resulted in increased violence. Adhering to the strategy of deploying primarily military forces to fight the cartels and restore law and order, Calderon has chosen to accept a high casualty count, and due to delays in reforming the law enforcement apparatus, he has had no real alternative. A thoroughly vetted and professionalized federal police force will eventually become a viable option for a change in strategy, but the deadline for reforms to be implemented is 2012, which means at least two more years of heavy military involvement. We expect to see high levels of violence continue in Mexico throughout 2010. Further complicating matters for Calderon were the July 2009 Mexican legislative elections, which saw a resurgence of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and an end to Calderon and PAN's majority rule. Calderon has already received much criticism over the levels of violence in the country and his strategy in fighting the cartels. The shift of legislative power to the opposition PRI will pressure the president to find an effective means of reducing the violence. Should Calderon opt for a shift in his counternarcotics strategy, it will be quite difficult without political support from the Mexican legislature.

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