Mexican Drug War Update: Fourth Quarter Forecast

14 MINS READOct 29, 2012 | 10:47 GMT
Quarterly Cartel Report

Editor's Note: In this interim report on Mexico's drug cartels, we assess important developments in the drug war during the third quarter of 2012 and explain what they could mean for the rest of the year.

Many of the broader trends discussed in our annual and quarterly cartel updates continued through the third quarter. In particular, the polarized nationwide conflict between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation apparently went on. This conflict could be complicated if the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, once under the control of the Sinaloa Federation, was to act independently. Los Zetas, now led by Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, continued to fight against other criminal organizations aligned with the Sinaloa Federation, namely the Knights Templar, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Gulf cartel. The Sinaloa Federation continued to defend its strongholds, including northern Sinaloa state and Jalisco state, from Los Zetas and Zetas allies. The third quarter saw no new turf wars, but incursions that began in previous quarters continued, and indicators of a potential challenge to the Sinaloa Federation in northern Sonora state emerged from an unidentified organization.

Northeastern Mexico saw significant upheaval during the past quarter due to several key events within Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel. These events included some of the most notable operations by Mexico's law enforcement and military since the December 2009 killing of top Beltran Leyva Organization leader Arturo Beltran Leyva. With just one quarter of 2012 remaining, overall levels of violence in Mexico look set to be lower than in 2011. January through August 2012 saw 14,070 homicides compared to 15,331 homicides during the same period in 2011, though 2010 saw just 11,942 reported homicides during the same period. However, recent shifts involving Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar could cause the rate of violence to increase during the fourth quarter.

The quarter will also see the inauguration of Mexico's next president, Enrique Pena Nieto, on Dec. 1. Pena Nieto has discussed plans to reduce overall violence by 50 percent in the first year of his presidency by creating a national gendarmerie, transferring military troops to the federal police and honing the military's focus on violent crimes. Whether those plans will be pursued remains to be seen, and any significant shifts in military and law enforcement policies probably will not occur until 2013.

The Rise of Trevino and Demise of Lazcano

During the third quarter, the ascendancy of Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, formerly the second in command of Los Zetas, to the top spot over Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano became public. Trevino likely assumed control over the course of the first half of 2012. In the first quarter of 2012, Trevino became the focus of anti-Zetas messages posted by rival cartels, particularly in Nuevo Laredo in March. Mexican media outlets — some citing unnamed government sources — began referring to Trevino as the new leader of Los Zetas during August. As Stratfor sources confirmed during the third quarter, Trevino had surpassed Lazcano to attain control of one of Mexico's pre-eminent cartels.

Government officials and media outlets began reporting on a rivalry between the two top leaders in July, a rift that inevitably would have significant repercussions for the security situation throughout Mexico. The third quarter did not see the kind of violence one would expect when two top cartel leaders are engaged in open warfare, causing Stratfor to discount claims of their rivalry.

Mexican Drug War Update: Fourth Quarter

Areas of Cartel Influence: Fourth Quarter

Adding to our doubts about the reports, narcomantas were posted in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Tamaulipas states during June and July after former Zetas plaza boss Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero split from Los Zetas to ally with Los Zetas' principle enemy in the northeast, the Gulf cartel. These banners called Lazcano and Trevino traitors to Zetas plaza bosses. This suggested that rivals, possibly including Velazquez, saw Trevino and Lazcano as enemies, contradicting media reports that the organization was split into just two factions.

Whether a split between Lazcano and Trevino existed, the death of Lazcano on Oct. 7 in Progreso, Coahuila state, solidified Trevino's position within Los Zetas. His killing marks the most notable demise of a criminal leader in Mexico in almost three years, and perhaps the most notable during the entire Calderon presidency.

For the remaining quarter of 2012, the flow of illicit drugs into the United States from Los Zetas' stronghold in northeastern Mexico will continue. The fourth quarter could also see increased violence. Lazcano's closest supporters will seek revenge for their leader's killing, whether against the navy elements that took part in his death or against anyone perceived as a traitor who led Mexican forces to Lazcano.

Rival groups could attempt to capitalize on Lazcano's death through information operations designed to subvert Los Zetas' organizational structure by portraying the group as weakened or by sowing distrust by emphasizing claims that Lazcano was betrayed. Either way, Los Zetas remain engaged in violent turf wars with the Gulf cartel and remnants of Velazquez's network in the northeast as well as with the Sinaloa Federation, the Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in the central states, most notably in Guadalajara, Jalisco state.

Other Developments Regarding Los Zetas

Los Zetas experienced the most tumultuous quarter of all of Mexico's cartels. Former Zetas plaza boss Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero declared war against Trevino and Los Zetas and announced his alliance with the Knights Templar and the Gulf cartel. The resulting split drastically increased violence in Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi states. Although the Mexican navy arrested Velazquez on Sept. 26 in San Luis Potosi state, we expect the violence in the states affected by his split to continue while Los Zetas battle remnants of Velazquez's network.

Though other notable arrests occurred during the quarter, such as that of Salvador Alfonso "El Ardilla" Martinez Escobedo on Oct. 6 in Nuevo Laredo, none will significantly impact the organization. Authorities attribute a series of high-profile crimes to Martinez, including the August 2010 killing of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, the September 2010 killing of U.S. citizen David Hartley on Falcon Lake in Texas and the September 2012 prison escape in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state.

Countering these setbacks, military operations and the actions of other criminal groups against Los Zetas' rivals have provided significant advantages to the cartel. Of particular benefit has been the series of military arrests of mid- to high-level Gulf cartel leaders and the arrest of senior Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion leaders in Guadalajara.

Gulf Cartel

During 2011, the Gulf cartel suffered from an internal rivalry between two factions known as Los Rojos and Los Metros, which suggested the group would decline in influence in 2012. Instead, a resurgence in activity directed against Los Zetas in the northeast during the second and third quarter suggested a revival in the group's fortunes. This rally led to significantly increased violence in the northeast, particularly in Tamaulipas state and Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state.

But during September, a series of significant Gulf cartel arrests apparently stymied the group's recovery. Mexican authorities detained the Gulf cartel plaza boss for Monterrey. Federal police arrested Juan Gabriel "El Sierra" Montes Sermeno, a plaza boss overseeing Gulf cartel operations in southern Tamaulipas state. In addition, the Mexican navy detained Mario Cardenas Guillen, brother of former top Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and Jorge Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez, leader of the Gulf cartel in Tampico, Tamaulipas state. Until the death of Lazcano, this was the most significant military success for 2012.

Whether the cartel will continue to operate as a cohesive organization following these rapid losses is uncertain. The arrests will likely prompt further violence in the fourth quarter, since Los Zetas may capitalize on the Gulf cartel's perceived weakness and refocus their efforts on contested turf like Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria and Matamoros. The arrests also may spark additional internal rivalries for control of the organization.

Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation saw perhaps the least change among Mexico's cartels during the third quarter. Sinaloa continues to use other criminal organizations like the Gulf cartel in Nuevo Laredo and the Knights Templar and perhaps the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in the central states to assault and defend against its principal rival, Los Zetas. The series of Gulf cartel arrests during the third quarter will likely benefit Los Zetas at the Sinaloa Federation's expense in the northeast.

The Sinaloa Federation continues largely to control the lucrative drug corridor in Chihuahua state. It gained the dominant position there after a violent conflict that began in 2008 with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, also known as the Juarez cartel, for control over the plaza in Ciudad Juarez. Violence in Ciudad Juarez and the city of Chihuahua continues to decline as Sinaloa consolidates its control of the plaza. According to the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security, Chihuahua state saw just 1,538 reported homicides from January to August 2012 versus 2,169 in the same period of 2011.

Even as the Sinaloa Federation appears to have gained considerable control over Chihuahua state, it is still defending other important territories against Zetas incursions, including Guadalajara. Sinaloa also faces an emerging challenge in northern Sonora state — where much of the organizations' marijuana and other illicit drugs flow into the United States.

The Sinaloa Federation largely has controlled the northern half of Sonora state since seizing it from the splintering Beltran Leyva Organization in 2010. The first indications that the Sinaloa Federation faced a challenge in Sonora appeared in the northern half of the state in July, when the brother of Raul "El Negro" Sabori Cisneros, a former Sinaloa Federation lieutenant, was killed in a shootout between two rival groups in Puerto Penasco. Indications of violence and tension associated with organized crime have since continued to emerge.

It still is not certain what has caused the recent violence in northern Sonora state. It could be the result of activity by local gangs or by Sinaloa Federation rivals like Los Zetas or splinter groups from the former Beltran Leyva Organization that operate in adjacent territories such as southern Sonora and western Chihuahua states. Should a rival challenge the Sinaloa Federation for control of the trafficking corridor in Sonora state, the violence will likely continue.

Either way, it does not appear the Sinaloa Federation is at risk of losing any control at present. Northern Sonora state has a relatively sparse population, making widespread violence less opportune than in more densely populated regions. Because those communities are small, the violence would be more visible and more likely to impact the overall security environment of those areas.

The Sinaloa Federation did suffer some notable losses due to military and law enforcement operations in the third quarter. An Oct. 11 shootout between gunmen and the Mexican army in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, resulted in the death of Manuel "M-1" Torres Felix, a high-level hit man for both Sinaloa Federation leaders Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Guzman. While the impact of Torres' death remains uncertain, he likely would have been responsible for defending against challenges to the Sinaloa Federation in northern Sinaloa state from rival groups. We therefore will be looking for indicators of increasing violence and weakness on the part of the Sinaloa cartel.

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

The rapid territorial expansion of the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion seen during the first half of 2012 appeared to stall during the third quarter. Although the group continued its ongoing turf wars with Los Zetas and the Knights Templar during the third quarter, no indications it enjoyed significant successes emerged. As noted during the second quarterly update, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion may be ending its alignment with the Sinaloa Federation. Additional indications of this shift appeared during the third quarter.

With Mexico's drug war defined at a national level by the Los Zetas-Sinaloa Federation conflict, many smaller criminal organizations in Mexico sought a working relationship with either Los Zetas or the Sinaloa Federation.

Of these smaller groups, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion has rapidly grown into a major criminal organization since 2011. It now operates along both the western and eastern coasts of Mexico in crucial locations for the transport of illicit drugs and shipments of precursor chemicals. Given its extensive territory, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion could carve out a niche as a separate major cartel on turf it originally secured with Sinaloa backing to aid Sinaloa operations.

The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion experienced increased law enforcement pressure in Jalisco state during the third quarter. Its response to the government's targeting organized criminals in Guadalajara and Ciudad Guzman demonstrated the organization's capability to mount coordinated violence over a wide geographic area. On Aug. 25-26, gunmen established at least 26 roadblocks by setting hijacked vehicles on fire in roadways throughout Jalisco state, including in Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and Ciudad Guzman, as well as locations in Colima state.

Jalisco state authorities said Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, a top leader of Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, managed to evade arrest due to the roadblock campaign. Even so, authorities attained some successes during their operations, including the arrest of four Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion members operating under Jose Javier Ramirez Chavez, a high-level leader in Ciudad Guzman. A week later, authorities in Ciudad Guzman detained Ramirez. The most notable arrests by Mexican authorities occurred Sept. 6 in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, when Ramon "El R-1" and Rafael "El R-2" Alvarez Ayala, two Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion leaders working directly with top leader Oseguera Cervantes, were detained.

Knights Templar

The Knights Templar continued their turf war with the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in addition to their conflict with La Familia Michoacana and Los Zetas. These conflicts in Mexico's central states have led to increased violence, particularly in Guanajuato state.

The Knights Templar have become increasingly public about their conflict with Los Zetas, particularly in relation to Trevino. For example, a video message released on the Internet in August from top Knights Templar leader Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez discussed the organization's ongoing feud with Los Zetas.

While there have been no explicit indications of expanding violence between the two organizations, it is certainly possible that the Knights Templar will begin assaulting Los Zetas in the latter's strongholds during the fourth quarter. Authorities discovered several narcomantas Oct. 1 in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, ostensibly signed by the Knights Templar. If they are in fact planning an assault on Los Zetas in Monterrey, this would obviously affect the security situation there during the fourth quarter.

Authorities have targeted lower-level Knights Templar members in response to brazen acts of coordinated violence by the group. These include the arson attacks on installations and delivery trucks of Sabritas, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, during May in various parts of Michoacan and Guanajuato and the coordinated attacks against fuel stations Aug. 10 in Guanajuato state. In response, authorities detained at least 20 Knights Templar members Sept. 13 in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato state, in connection to both series of attacks. Such arrests, however, will likely have a minimal impact on the group due to the low-level status of those arrested.

Other Groups

Many other lesser criminal groups have remained unchanged in their operational status, such as La Familia Michoacana, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, La Barredora and the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization. While still operational in Mexico, these groups have a minimal impact on security compared to Mexico's main cartels.

La Familia Michoacana continued its turf war with the Knights Templar. Despite its efforts, La Familia Michoacana has never regained the status it lost when the Knights Templar split from it in January 2011.

Though the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization has mostly lost control of Ciudad Juarez and the city of Chihuahua to the Sinaloa Federation, the group remains operational outside both cities. In addition to facing new violence in northern Sinaloa and western Chihuahua along with its current allies, Los Zetas, the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization continues to suffer at the hands of Mexican law enforcement and military forces. Most recently, on Oct. 4 federal police captured La Linea leader Juan Carlos "El Sabritas" Sandoval Seanez and six other members of La Linea, an enforcer group for the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization.

Outside of arrests, little activity was reported during the third quarter regarding La Barredora and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, splinter groups from the old Beltran Leyva Organization. Their operations appear to remain focused around Acapulco. On Oct. 1, authorities discovered dismembered human remains in Acapulco along with a narcomanta directed against the Independent Cartel of Acapulco's presumed leader, Victor Aguirre, ostensibly signed by the Gulf cartel. The incident might indicate a new conflict between the Gulf cartel and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco to watch for during the fourth quarter.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit

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