Mexican Drug War Update: Indistinct Battle Lines

17 MINS READApr 16, 2012 | 12:18 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 first quarter of 2012 and what they could mean for the rest of the year.

In our 2012 annual cartel report, we noted that Mexico's two pre-eminent cartels, western Mexico's Sinaloa Federation and eastern Mexico's Los Zetas, progressively brought lesser and geographically disparate groups under their influence throughout 2011. Indeed, by the end of the year Sinaloa had begun to rely on its affiliate groups, most notably the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), to combat its Zetas rivals, while Los Zetas more frequently worked with local groups with knowledge of and contacts in their regions to combat Sinaloa. This trend has largely continued through the first quarter of 2012.

But more important than the continuance of this trend is the way it shapes the overall security situation in Mexico. With the increased use of affiliate groups comes the freedom to attack and defend against one's rivals without thought of geographic constraints. Violence between Los Zetas and Sinaloa can occur virtually anywhere, including their respective traditional strongholds, eroding any sense of sanctuary they may have once enjoyed. For years the battle lines in Mexico's drug war have been blurred, but they are perhaps more blurred now than ever before.

Mexico's Cartels April 2012

Mexico's Cartels April 2012

Evidence of these indistinct battle lines can be seen throughout Mexico. For example, Sinaloa has used La Barredora as a proxy in the turf war in Acapulco, Guerrero state, and it has used the CJNG at the vanguard of its offensive against Los Zetas in Veracruz state. We also believe it may be using the Gulf cartel to confront Los Zetas in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states.

This may help explain the patterns of violence seen in Mexico throughout the first quarter of 2012. Overall violence remained high, with notable developments of targeted assassinations and firefights in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state; in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state; and in Mexico's central and Pacific states, such as Jalisco and Guerrero.

The potential showdown between Los Zetas and Sinaloa in Mexico's northeast could give rise to more inter-cartel violence, as could the continued presence of the CJNG in the southeast. So far, southwest and northwest Mexico remain relatively less violent than other parts of the country, but recent developments there may also lead to greater inter-cartel violence.

In the next quarter, we expect smaller groups to continue to polarize around the two cartel hegemons, though one phenomenon — the rapid rise in power of two particular affiliate groups — could challenge this trend if they turn against their current patron.

Geography and Drug Trafficking

The polarity of Mexico's criminal landscape in some ways is a byproduct of the country's geography, which lends itself to distinct trafficking corridors that run parallel on either side of the country. Los Zetas primarily control corridors along the Gulf coast that stretch from the Yucatan Peninsula to Nuevo Laredo — the busiest commercial point of entry into the United States on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Sinaloa Federation controls the corridors along the Pacific coast that run up through Ciudad Juarez and then west into Tijuana, Baja California. The Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa ally, controls the lateral corridor from Matamoros to Reynosa.

While geography helped polarize the country's criminal elements, the geographic divide does not constitute a warfront along which battles take place exclusively. In the Mexican drug war, violence can erupt anywhere. Even with operational control over a specific plaza, or distribution hub, a cartel still may have to defend itself from belligerent criminal groups. Such is the case with Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation. Both groups have seen conflict in the territories they control, and in Sinaloa territory there are separate conflicts among groups at war with one another.

Because the battle lines are never static, offensive campaigns conducted by Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation can be expected to route violence to any number of regions, including those in the two organizations' strongholds and trafficking corridors. But as the two groups continue to compete for these corridors, the rise of two affiliate groups, the Knights Templar (KT) and the CJNG, could add a new dimension to this conflict.

Both groups are Sinaloa affiliates, but the KT's association with Sinaloa appears to be looser than that of the CJNG's; the former is bound to Sinaloa by their mutual enemy, Los Zetas. Both appear to have come to prominence during the past three months. The KT appears to have solidified its control over its former parent organization, La Familia Michoacana (LFM). In doing so, it has been able to extend its reach to areas farther from its home territory, such as Acapulco. Meanwhile, the CJNG has conducted operations in at least seven states, and the group has also demonstrated the tactical capability of maintaining a strong presence in Veracruz.

Despite working with the same organization, the two groups declared a turf war on each other Feb. 16. Sinaloa's response to this potential turf war will be important to watch. A split from Sinaloa by one of these large and increasingly capable criminal organizations could disrupt the polarity currently in place in Mexico.


Another notable development in the first quarter of 2012 pertains to drug seizures. Two seizures in particular were among the largest of their kind.

On Feb. 1, the Mexican military seized 3.6 metric tons (nearly 8,000 pounds) of a dark liquid containing opium paste in Coyuca de Catalan, Guerrero state. The seizure of opium paste was the largest ever in Mexico. Then on Feb. 8, authorities announced the largest methamphetamine seizure in world history — roughly 15 metric tons — at a ranch outside Guadalajara. The seizures indicate a concerted effort to produce illicit drugs on an industrial level.

Status of Mexico's Major Cartels

Sinaloa Federation

In the first quarter of 2012, the Sinaloa Federation aggressively challenged Los Zetas in various parts of the country. Sinaloa responded to Zetas incursions on its territory by conducting a counteroffensive of its own, using its affiliate and allied groups to attempt to strike Los Zetas in their own territory. So far this counteroffensive has not caused Sinaloa to lose operational control of its territories. 

Sinaloa's far-reaching assassination squads, particularly the CJNG, have been problematic for Los Zetas. The CJNG has maintained a presence in the Zetas stronghold of Veracruz since September 2011, when 35 bodies were dumped onto a busy road in the Boca del Rio neighborhood. (The incident is believed to have been carried out by the CJNG at the behest of Sinaloa.) The CJNG has continued to conduct operations in the city throughout the first quarter of 2012, claiming responsibility for several assassinations.

On Feb. 3 the CJNG announced its presence in Acapulco at the service of Sinaloa's leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, demonstrating the group's reach and its utility for Sinaloa. The group also has conducted operations in areas where Los Zetas are known to have interest, such as Durango, Michoacan, Colima and Morelos states.

Evidence of a Sinaloa offensive against Los Zetas in the latter's most vital plaza of Nuevo Laredo also appeared in the first quarter of 2012. On March 26, Mexican authorities found at least seven dismembered bodies in Nuevo Laredo accompanied by three narcomantas ostensibly signed by Guzman claiming the city as his own. Notably, this is not the first time Sinaloa has attempted to take Nuevo Laredo. From 2004 to 2008, Nuevo Laredo saw its highest ever levels of violence as Sinaloa fought the Gulf cartel and its then-enforcer group, Los Zetas.

But control of one plaza does not translate into control of an entire trafficking corridor, which is why the Sinaloa offensive is targeting other plazas leading to Nuevo Laredo. As the CJNG firmly established itself in Veracruz state, inter-cartel violence rose in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state — a valuable transportation hub between Veracruz and Nuevo Laredo — possibly from joint Gulf cartel-Sinaloa activity in the city. As violence between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas continues, it is becoming apparent that Los Zetas are confronting a significant challenge in maintaining the Monterrey plaza.

Furthermore, Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, saw a spike in inter-cartel violence with a series of grenade attacks and shootouts in March. While attribution for these incidents is currently unknown, it should be noted that Ciudad Victoria, like Monterrey, lies on the route from Veracruz to Nuevo Laredo. It is possible that the Sinaloa offensive is targeting the major links along Los Zetas' trafficking corridor.

However, Sinaloa activity in 2012 has not been entirely offensive. The group is dealing with multiple Zetas incursions on its territory and with confrontations with Mexican authorities. Sinaloa is constantly defending itself in key locations, such as Guadalajara, Jalisco state, and Sinaloa, Culiacan state, and areas of Zacatecas and Durango states, just as it is attacking Los Zetas in the east.  

The CJNG, and Sinaloa by extension, suffered a significant loss in Guadalajara, an important western transportation hub, when CJNG leader and founder Erick "El 85" Valencia Salazar was captured by Mexican authorities. Should the CJNG's operations suffer from Valencia's arrest, Sinaloa will have to defend the city with internal resources or bring in another affiliate organization to act in its stead. On March 17, a man's body was hung from a bridge in Guadalajara purportedly signed "Z-40"; this could foretell heightened Zetas activity in the Guadalajara plaza

Los Zetas

As we noted in our annual report, the Mexican military's campaign against Los Zetas has resulted in a number of arrests and seizures but to date has shown a negligible effect on the group's operations. However, it is possible that Los Zetas' rivals, specifically Sinaloa and its affiliate groups, upped their pressure in Veracruz, Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria and Nuevo Laredo due to perceived weakness caused by the military campaign.

Despite this pressure, Los Zetas have yet to suffer any territorial losses since losing Reynosa in 2010. While they make every effort to defend their territory, they will continue to focus their efforts on Nuevo Laredo. With more trucks entering the United States here than anywhere else along the border, Nuevo Laredo presents the greatest opportunity for cartels to traffic illicit goods. This makes Nuevo Laredo indispensible for Los Zetas, who will fiercely defend the plaza against any incursion.

In early March, the Mexican army killed Gerardo "El Guerra" Guerra Valdez, Los Zetas' plaza boss for Nuevo Laredo, and then captured his replacement, Carlos Alejandro "El Fabiruchis" Gutierrez Escobedo. It is unclear how badly these leadership losses will hamper Los Zetas' ability to fend off Sinaloa's incursion. But if Sinaloa follows through with its purported threats against Los Zetas in Nuevo Laredo, violence in the city will increase sharply. This could affect legitimate companies operating in the city or shipping goods up U.S. Interstate Highway 35.

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

After the July 2010 death of Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, the Sinaloa Federation's boss for Jalisco state, several groups emerged to fill the resultant power vacuum.

The most prominent of those groups was the CJNG. Valencia, the group's founder, succeeded Coronel and assumed control of his own splinter group. Under Valencia's leadership, the CJNG oversaw drug trafficking through Jalisco state and expanded its operations into several other states.

What is most striking about the CJNG is how rapidly it expanded — likely a result of its affiliation with Sinaloa and of the resources available to it from having been part of Coronel's well-funded organization. In mid-2011, the CJNG operated solely around Guadalajara. Shortly thereafter, its area of operation included Veracruz, Guerrero, Morelos, Colima, Guanajuato and Michoacan states. It took the CJNG roughly six months to spread from coast to coast, becoming one of Mexico's most widely operating criminal groups in the process. The CJNG is unlikely to forfeit any territory in the next quarter.

Given the CJNG's expansive reach and tactical capabilities, its allegiance to the Sinaloa Federation is important to consider. Tactically, the CJNG has matured into a formidable adversary for the well-trained and well-armed Los Zetas. Geographically, the CJNG works throughout Mexico's central and Pacific states — areas crucial for the Sinaloa Federation's smuggling routes and production of illicit drugs. Evidence suggests that the CJNG and Sinaloa have a solid working relationship, but the level of autonomy the CJNG truly possesses is unknown.

Since the beginning of the year, the CJNG began to focus on another large criminal group: the Knights Templar. On March 21, a video emailed anonymously to a Mexican news agency — ostensibly it was sent by the CJNG — denounced the KT. Specifically, the video announced the CJNG would commence operations against its rivals in Michoacan and Guerrero states, and it claimed former LFM leader Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzalez was still alive and leading the KT.

The CJNG, like Los Zetas, tends to publicly display violence to announce its arrival, so violence will follow the group wherever it goes. This will make the group easy to track. Violence will continue unabated in areas with an established CJNG presence so long as the group continues to confront its rivals, specifically Los Zetas.

Gulf Cartel

For several months we have documented the infighting within the Gulf cartel and the ascendance of one of its factions, Los Metros, over the opposing faction, Los Rojos. The Gulf cartel appeared strong at the beginning of 2011, but it seemed to be on a path of degradation in 2012.

However, in the past three months the Metro faction of the Gulf cartel has apparently rebounded, evidenced by operations against its former enforcer group and current rival, Los Zetas, in Ciudad Victoria and Monterrey. The group's efforts may not have been made independently; as stated, the Gulf cartel's increased operations against Los Zetas appear to have been aided a great deal by external factors, such as Sinaloa patronage, and the Mexican government's focused campaign against Los Zetas.

While rumors of a new Sinaloa-Los Metros alignment remain uncorroborated, such an alignment would be a logical development: It would prolong the Gulf cartel's survival. It would also present a noteworthy challenge to Los Zetas in areas vital for the flow of drugs and reinforcements to the crucial Nuevo Laredo plaza. But at present, Los Zetas still control most of northeast Mexico and the transportation corridors leading to it.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel

The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization, also known as the Juarez cartel, has shown no sign of returning to its former status as one of Mexico's largest organized criminal groups. In fact, it is unclear how much control it has over the Juarez plaza; most of the plaza appears to be Sinaloa's domain. However, in the first quarter of 2012 a group calling itself the New Juarez Cartel (NCJ) made a startling announcement through narcomantas posted throughout the city. Composed of remnants of La Linea, the former enforcer group for the VCF, and other criminal elements, the NCJ pledged to murder a municipal police officer every day until the police force ended their alleged support of NCJ rivals. The group killed several police officers in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua but fell well short of its quota.

The NCJ has not demonstrated the same level of sophistication as La Linea, a decline that probably stems from the splintering of the VCF due to Sinaloa's successes in Juarez. La Linea's capabilities degraded markedly after the arrest of its top leader, Jesus Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez, in July 2011, and his subsequent replacement by Jesus Antonio "El Coman Dos" Rincon Chavero. For its part, the NCJ employs relatively elementary tactics, such as drive-by shootings and hitting isolated soft targets like off-duty police officers.

Without external support from Los Zetas or another Sinaloa Federation rival, the NCJ — indeed, any other incarnation of residual VCF elements — will be unable to reassert itself against Sinaloa in Ciudad Juarez. In the meantime, the NCJ will likely continue targeting the security infrastructure in both Juarez and Chihuahua, leading to sustained levels of targeted violence. With Sinaloa controlling most of the roads leading to Juarez, the NCJ is probably unable to move significant quantities of illicit drugs across the border. Like La Linea, the NCJ will have to resort to kidnapping and extortion to fund its operations — a continuing problem for the people and businesses of Juarez.

Knights Templar

Since its split from LFM in January 2011, the KT continues to assert control over LFM's former territories. Though severely weakened, LFM has not been completely wiped out, and clashes between the two groups take place intermittently in Michoacan, Mexico, Morelos and Guerrero states. Like the CJNG, the KT has actively expanded its territory since its inception, remaining active in Michoacan, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Mexico and Morelos states.

The KT has not experienced any significant pressure from Mexican authorities over the last quarter, but there are a few exceptions. In February, Mexican authorities seized a total of 3.6 metric tons of methamphetamine from three separate drug laboratories in Donato Guerra, Mexico state. Media reports have suggested the drugs belonged to the KT — a fair suggestion, given that the KT is very active in the area in which the seizures were made. Seizures of this size suggest the KT is producing massive quantities of a high-value drug — if in fact the caches belonged to them. This is a significant development because financial wealth correlates with the capabilities of a criminal organization.

As stated in our annual report, the Sinaloa Federation had been using the KT to prevent Los Zetas from gaining a foothold in the central and Pacific states. However, activity over the last quarter indicates the KT was focused on continuing its fight against LFM and engaging in a turf war with the CJNG. The KT's conflict with the CJNG is a recent development, whereby both groups have denounced one another through narcomantas and videos. For example, in February, KT posted several narcomantas throughout Guanajuato state warning the CJNG to stay out of the state. On March 16, the CJNG had announced its presence via narcomantas in Leon, Guanajuato state.

Violence between the CJNG and the KT remains infrequent, but conflicts from turf wars likely will develop between the two groups in the central and Pacific states of Mexico in the next quarter.

The KT remains an active purveyor of its unique form of propaganda. The group utilizes pamphlets, narcomantas, a publicized code of ethics and ceremonial uniforms to win the allegiance of the populace. Through narcomantas posted April 2, the KT claimed to have worked with street vendors to lower the prices of meat and tortillas for residents in Michoacan state. By reaching out to the public, the KT hopes to curry favor with the public — a move that could ease resistance to its illicit activities while providing an ideal recruiting environment.  

Other Groups

There has been minimal reported activity of the remaining groups we catalogued in our annual report, such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Cartel Pacifico Sur and the Arellano Felix Organization. Long beleaguered by the turf war in Acapulco, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco has shown no signs of activity save for a handful of arrests by Mexican authorities.

The first quarter saw no reported activity by Cartel Pacifico Sur. As we noted in the annual report, the group may be focusing on smuggling for revenue while assisting its Zetas allies. There has also been no reported activity of the Arellano Felix Organization, which remains a subsidiary of the Sinaloa Federation.

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