Mexico in Crisis: Lost Borders and the Struggle for Regional StatusEditor's Note:Since the publication of STRATFOR's 2010 annual Mexican cartel report, the fluid nature of the drug war in Mexico has prompted us to take an in-depth look at the situation more frequently. This is the third product of those interim assessments, which we will now make as needed, in addition to our annual year-end analyses and our weekly security memos. While there has been a reshuffling of alliances among Mexican drug cartels since our July cartel update, the trend discussed in the first two updates of the year continues. That is the polarization of cartels and associated sub-groups toward the two largest drug-trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas. Meanwhile, the three primary conflicts in Mexico's drug war remain cartel vs. cartel, cartel vs. government and cartel vs. civilians. Operations launched by the military during the second quarter of 2011, primarily against Los Zetas and the Knights Templar, continued through the third quarter as well, and increasing violence in Guerrero, Durango, Veracruz, Coahuila and Jalisco states has resulted in the deployment of more federal troops in those areas. The northern tier of states has seen a lull in violence, from Tijuana in Baja California state to Juarez in Chihuahua state. Violence in that stretch of northern Mexico subsided enough during the third quarter to allow the military to redeploy forces to other trouble spots. In Tamaulipas state, the military remains in charge of law enforcement in most of the cities, and the replacement of entire police departments that occurred in the state during the second quarter was recently duplicated in Veracruz following an outbreak of violence there (large numbers of law enforcement personnel were found to be in collusion with Los Zetas and were subsequently dismissed). The battles between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas for control over northeastern Mexico continue, though a developing rift within Gulf leadership may complicate the cartel's operations in the near term. While Gulf remains a single entity, we anticipate that, absent a major reconciliation between the Metros and Rojos factions, the cartel may split violently in the next three to eight months. If that happens, alliances in the region will likely get much murkier than they already are. In central and southern Mexico, fighting for control of the major plazas at Guadalajara, Acapulco, Chilpancingo and Oaxaca continues to involve the major players — Sinaloa, Los Zetas and the Knights Templar — along with several smaller organizations. This is particularly the case at the Jalisco and Guerrero state plazas, where there are as many as seven distinct organizations battling for control, a situation that will not likely reach any level of stasis or clarity over the next three to six months. Though our last update suggested the potential for major hurricanes to complicate the drug war in Mexico, the region has avoided the worst of the weather so far. Though the hurricane season lasts until the end of November, the most productive period for major storms tends to be September and early October, so the likelihood of any hurricanes hitting Mexico's midsection is fairly remote at this point. Looking ahead toward the end of 2011, STRATFOR expects high levels of cartel violence in the northeastern and southern bicoastal areas of Mexico to continue. The military has deployed more troops in Guadalajara for the Pan-American Games, which run Oct. 14-30, as well as in Veracruz and Coahuila, and any flare-up of violence in those areas will likely be influenced by the military's presence. (click here to enlarge image)
Current Status of the Mexican Cartels
Over the past four months, the Sinaloa cartel, under the leadership of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, has continued to control the bulk of its home state of Sinaloa, most of the border region in Sonora state and the majority of Chihuahua and Durango states. The cartel continues to pursue its strategic goals of expansion into or absorption of neighboring cartel territories and to import precursor chemicals, mostly from China, for its methamphetamine production in Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Jalisco states. These shipments typically are received in the Pacific coast port cities of Lazaro Cardenas and Manzanillo. In addition to marijuana, Sinaloa is known to be smuggling high-value/low-volume methamphetamines, domestically produced heroin and Colombian cocaine into the United States via the plazas it directly controls at Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Agua Prieta, Columbus and Santa Teresa (both in New Mexico), Rio Bravo, El Porvenir and Manuel Ojinaga as well as the Gulf-controlled plazas at Ciudad Mier, Miguel Aleman, Diaz Ordaz, Reynosa and Matamoros. As we will further discuss in a separate section below, it appears that Sinaloa recently managed to co-opt the formerly independent Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), which until early September was believed to be strongly distrustful of El Chapo. It is clear that dynamic has changed. Regarding Sinaloa's running battles to subdue the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes cartel (VCF, aka the Juarez Cartel) and take control of the Juarez plaza, the slow, long-term strangulation of the VCF remains in progress. Sinaloa recently took two significant hits to its leadership when regional chief Jose Carlos Moreno Flores was captured by military forces in Mexico City in mid-September and Noel "El Flaco Salgueiro" Salgueiro Nevarez, leader of Sinaloa's enforcer arm Gente Nueva, was captured in Culiacan, Michoacan state, in early October. According to information released by Mexico's Defense Secretariat, Moreno Flores ran Sinaloa's Guerrero state operations in the cities of Chilpancingo, Jaleaca de Catalan, Izotepec, Pueblo Viejo, Buena Vista, Tlacotepec and Leonardo Bravo. He also controlled agricultural drug operations in Izotepec, Tlacotepec, Chichihualco and Chilpancingo. Salgueiro Nevarez reportedly founded Gente Nueva and had led it since 2007. Also under his control were the Juarez street gangs Los Mexicles and Los Artistas Asesinos, which conduct operations against the Juarez cartel and its allies Los Aztecas. Salgueiro Nevarez also ran operational cells in Guerrero and Durango states. His removal may adversely affect Gente Nueva's operational cohesion, though it is not yet clear whether he had a trusted lieutenant in the wings to replace him.
In the last four months, it has become apparent that a schism within the Gulf cartel over divided loyalties may be evolving into a split with large and violent consequences. As discussed in the 2009 and 2010 annual cartel reports, Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen continued to run the cartel from his federal prison cell in Mexico after his capture in March 2003. He was subsequently extradited to the United States, where he was convicted. Currently, he resides in the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, where tight security measures make it difficult for him to maintain any control over his organization. Following his removal from power-by-proxy, Osiel Cardenas Guillen was replaced as leader of the organization by a pair of co-leaders, his brother Antonio Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen and Jorge Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez. This arrangement shifted when Antonio Cardenas Guillen was killed in a six-hour standoff with Mexican military forces in November 2010. The split within the Gulf cartel that we are now watching began to a large extent with the death of Antonio Cardenas Guillen. At the time, it is believed that Rafael "El Junior" Cardenas, the nephew of Osiel and Antonio Cardenas Guillen, expected to replace his uncles as leader of the Gulf cartel. Instead, Costilla Sanchez assumed full control of the organization. The schism became wider as two factions formed, the Metros, which were loyal to Costilla Sanchez, and the Rojos, which were loyal to the Cardenas family. While government operations against the Gulf cartel resulted in the capture of several plaza bosses over the last three months — Abiel "El R-2" Gonzalez Briones, Manuel "El Meme" Alquisires Garcia, Ricardo Salazar Pequeno and Jose Antonio "El Comandante" Martinez Silva — internal violence brought down one of the factional leaders. On Sept. 3, 2011, the body of Samuel "El Metro 3" Flores Borrego was found by authorities in Reynosa. Flores Borrego had been the trusted lieutenant of Costilla Sanchez and served as his second in command as well as Reynosa plaza boss. These two men were at the top of the Metros faction. Then on Sept. 27, in a rather brazen hit on U.S. soil, gunmen in an SUV opened fire on another vehicle traveling along U.S. Route 83 east of McAllen, Texas. The driver, Jorge Zavala from Mission, Texas, who was connected to a branch of the Gulf Cartel, was killed. Though his role in the cartel is unclear, he is rumored to have been close to a senior Gulf plaza boss, Gregorio "El Metro 2" Sauceda Gamboa, who was arrested in April 2009. As indicated by his "Metro" nickname, Sauceda had been aligned with the faction of the Gulf cartel that supports Costilla Sanchez. On Oct. 11, the Mexican navy reported that the body of Cesar "El Gama" Davila Garcia, the Gulf cartel's head finance officer, was found in the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas. According to a statement from the Ministry of the Navy, the body was found in a home, dead of a gunshot wound. El Gama had been Antonio Cardenas Guillen's accountant, but after the 2009 death of Tony Tormenta, El Gama was made plaza boss of the Gulf cartel's port city of Tampico for a period of time, then placed back in Matamoros as the chief financial operator for the cartel. Many questions arise from this killing, but it could be another indication of internal Gulf conflict. Though the Gulf split has been quietly widening for two years, the apparent eruption of internally focused violence during the past quarter indicates the division may be about to explode. The consequences of a violent rupture within the Gulf cartel likely include moves by Los Zetas and Sinaloa to take advantage of the situation and grab territory. This would further heighten violence beyond the already volatile conditions created by the three-way battle between Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel and government forces for control of Mexico's northeast.
Arellano Felix Organization
Little has changed in the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) since July's update on cartel activity in Tijuana, Baja California. The AFO (aka the Tijuana Cartel) is widely considered to be operating by permission of the Sinaloa cartel, an agreement suggested by a drop in the turf-war homicide rate in Tijuana. According to the Mexican federal government, deaths by homicide statewide in Baja California from January through August 2011 numbered 464, compared to 579 for the same period in 2010. In mid-August, Mexican authorities arrested AFO member Juan Carlos Flores "El Argentino" in Tecate, Baja California. Carlos Flores indicated that he was subordinate to a man known only as "El Viejon," who is second in command of the AFO, which is led by Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano. On July 9, Mexican authorities arrested Armando "El Gordo" Villarreal Heredia, an AFO lieutenant who reported to Sanchez Arellano. Any significant gains or losses for the AFO have gone largely unnoticed since the cartel effectively operates as a Sinaloa vassal organization. For the near term we do not expect significant changes within or related to the AFO, although given the cartel's continued but discrete interaction with Los Zetas, we believe there will probably be a resurgence of open hostility by the AFO at some point to regain control of its plazas.
Los Zetas continue to fight a large, multi-front war across Mexico. They are combating the Gulf cartel, Sinaloa and Mexican government forces in the northeast while assisting the Juarez cartel in holding Sinaloa forces back in Chihuahua state. Los Zetas are also taking control of additional territory in Zacatecas, pushing into Jalisco, Nayarit, Guerrero and Mexico states and battling Sinaloa in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The organization is being hit hard by the Mexican military in its home territories in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Veracruz states and fighting to hold the crucial plazas at Monterrey and the port of Veracruz against incursions by Sinaloa, Gulf and CJNG. Certainly, Los Zetas are being pressed on every side. What we find telling is that despite significant challenges to their ownership of Monterrey and Veracruz, Los Zetas do not appear to have been displaced, though we do expect violence to increase significantly in the near term as rival groups openly push into both cities. While Los Zetas have withdrawn from territory before — Reynosa in the spring of 2010 being a prime example — the loss of that plaza was not detrimental overall to the cartel's operations, given its control of other plazas in the region and in Nuevo Laredo. However, we expect to see Los Zetas ramp up defensive efforts in Monterrey and Veracruz, two cities that have great strategic value for the cartel. From July to mid-October, federal operations against Los Zetas in Veracruz, Zacatecas, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi and Quintana Roo states netted 17 cell leaders and plaza bosses, including Angel Manuel "Comandante Diablo" Mora Caberta in Veracruz, Jose Guadalupe "El Dos" Yanez Martinez in Saltillo and Carlos "La Rana" Oliva Castillo, reported to be the third in command of Los Zetas, in Saltillo. During a two-month operation in Coahuila, government forces also reportedly seized caches of weapons, ammunition, tactical gear and 27 tons of marijuana and freed approximately 97 kidnapped migrants. Over the past four months, questions have emerged in the U.S. and Mexican security communities about the strength, cohesion and capabilities of Los Zetas. At times, information from open sources, government reports and confidential STRATFOR sources on both sides of the border has been contradictory — which tends to be the norm given the exceptionally fluid nature of the drug war. The question of whether Los Zetas are weakening has many factors, including leadership losses, gains or losses in territorial control, increases or decreases in apparent smuggling activities (which directly tie to revenue) and the quality and quantity of human resources. As we discussed in July, the estimated 30 deserters from the Mexican army's Special Forces Airmobile Group (GAFE) who originally formed the core cadre of Los Zetas have been shrinking in number. On July 3, one of the remaining 11 "Zeta Viejos" at large, Jesus Enrique "El Mamito" Rejon, was apprehended by Mexican Federal Police in Atizapan de Zaragoza, Mexico state. In the past decade, 15 members of the original core group have been reported captured and imprisoned and nine have been reported killed. It is not realistic to assume, however, that the organization has lost the specialized skillsets, training and knowledge that those particular individuals possessed. When evaluating reports of captured or killed Zeta leaders and the effects those losses might have on the organization, it is important to consider what leaders remain, the size of the manpower pool (both in terms of trained foot soldiers and potential recruits) and the existence of training programs and infrastructure for the rank and file. First, unlike the more traditional Mexican drug cartels, which tend to be family-centric, the Los Zetas organization is more of a meritocracy, and a number of later recruits have risen to leadership positions. Prime examples are Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, who was recruited roughly two years after the group's 1998 founding and has risen to No. 2 in the organization, and Carlos "La Rana" Oliva Castillo, reported to be the regional boss over the states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Coahuila, who joined Los Zetas in 2005 and was captured the first week of October 2011. In recent media reports of his capture, Oliva Castillo is described as the No. 3 leader in the organization behind Trevino Morales. While STRATFOR has yet to corroborate Oliva Castillo's position in the cartel, if he did in fact replace captured third-in-command Jesus "El Mamito" Rejon, neither part of the founding group. Second, it is known that Mexico's Defense Secretariat "lost track" of as many as 1,700 special operations soldiers over the past 10 years, according to documents obtained from the Federal Institute for Access to Information by the Mexican newspaper Milenio. A March 8 Milenio article indicated that at least 1,680 Special Forces Airmobile Group (GAFE) soldiers had deserted in the past decade, including trained snipers, infantrymen and paratroopers with advanced survival and counternarcotics training. It is not reasonable to assume that all of the GAFE deserters over the last decade went to work for Los Zetas or any of the other drug-trafficking organizations. However, it is reasonable to expect that, in an environment where cartels have had a wide presence and a demonstrated willingness to pay handsomely for highly skilled soldiers, a significant proportion of the GAFE deserters would sell their skills to the highest bidder and many would gravitate toward Los Zetas. If even one-third of the GAFE deserters chose to join any of Mexico's cartels, there are likely dozens of highly skilled soldiers already in positions of authority or working their way up the Zeta organizational ladder (along with recruits from other Mexican military branches and law enforcement agencies). While the organization long has recruited predominantly from military and law enforcement pools, which means most new recruits are already able to use basic firearms and understand fundamental tactics, the strength of Los Zetas comes from structured training in small-unit combat tactics at facilities modeled after GAFE training camps. According to STRATFOR sources with access to seized training materials, Zeta training includes basic marksmanship, fire-team drills and room-clearing techniques. The thoroughness of Zeta training depends on the tempo of the drug war. Prior to about May 2010, Zeta camps in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and elsewhere operated with sufficient space and freedom for recruit training to last as long as six months. When the Mexican government and the Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia Michoacana (LFM) cartels began to press them on every side, Zeta recruit training was reduced. According to a captured Zeta foot soldier, basic training in early 2011 involved two weeks of boot camp in which rudimentary firearms skills were taught. The recruits were then mobilized to gain additional training on the battlefield. The net effect has been seen in such "loose cannon" events as the Falcon Lake shooting in September 2010 and the botched carjacking attack on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents traveling through San Luis Potosi in February 2011. Nevertheless, we expect that Los Zetas will ramp up training whenever possible since their continued success depends upon it. What we find important in these dynamics is that Los Zetas have taken several big hits in the past several months but have managed to absorb the losses without any overall diminution of the organization's size or reach, even though the persistent pressure has reduced the capabilities of rank-and-file Zeta operatives. The net effect has been the organization's fairly static condition. Peripheral Zeta losses on the outskirts of Monterrey and Veracruz have been offset by recent gains in Zacatecas state and elsewhere. It certainly is possible, however, that the last months of 2011 may see an overall degradation of Los Zetas if CJNG and Sinaloa are successful in making inroads into Monterrey and Veracruz, and we expect the military to continue its operations against Los Zetas as well.
Cartel Pacifico Sur
Since the last cartel update, we have seen little activity by Cartel del Pacifico Sur (CPS). The cartel has suffered no significant arrests, and any violence associated with group has gone unnoticed in contested areas. This lack of reported losses and gains for CPS may be due to its alliance with Los Zetas, which attracts most of the media attention. There also is the possibility that, while Sinaloa and the Mexican government focus their efforts on Los Zetas, CPS is taking advantage of a lull in territorial battles to concentrate on smuggling activities and rejuvenate its revenue streams. We do not consider CPS to be marginalized at this point and will be watching for signs of activity during the last quarter of this year.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization
Although constriction of the VCF continues, the cartel retains the loyalty of the approximately 8,000-member Azteca street gang, which has helped it hold on to Juarez and maintain control of the three primary ports of entry into the United States, all of which feed directly into El Paso, Texas. STRATFOR sources recently indicated that the VCF also retains supply lines for its marijuana and cocaine shipments and continues to push large quantities of narcotics across the border. On July 29, Mexican authorities captured Jose Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez, the top leader of La Linea, the VCF's enforcement arm. His position in the VCF hierarchy makes him difficult to replace. For the cartels, there is never a good time to lose an important figure, but the loss is felt even more acutely when the figure is the leader of a cartel's armed wing and he is removed from the mix during a heated and prolonged battle for survival. The whereabouts of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and his closest lieutenants are unknown. At the beginning of 2011 there was an expectation that the level of violence associated with Sinaloa operations against the VCF would continue to escalate, given the indicators seen at the time. However, over the last eight to nine months we have seen cartel-related homicides drop significantly. It appears now, though, that violence again is on the rise in Juarez. Gun battles and targeted killings are increasing in the city, and STRATFOR sources in the region expect the current trend to continue through the end of 2011.
La Resistencia was originally a confederation between enforcers from Guadalajara-based affiliates of the Sinaloa Federation, the Milenio Cartel and Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel's faction, along with enforcers from the Gulf Cartel and LFM. The organization was intended to fight against Zeta incursions into Jalisco and Michoacan. Following the July 2010 death of Coronel, the alliance splintered as the LFM made a push to take over Guadalajara and Coronel's followers blamed Sinaloa leader El Chapo Guzman for Nacho Coronel's demise. In the melee that followed, the Milenio Cartel was badly damaged by the arrests of high-profile leaders and by battles with the strongest of the splinter groups from Coronel's organization, CJNG. Remnants of the Milenio Cartel have continued to use the La Resistencia name. Although La Resistencia was originally formed to combat Los Zetas, it recently announced an alliance with the group. If there is an alliance forming, it could help explain why CJNG, the enemy of La Resistencia, recently traveled across Mexico to target Zeta operatives in the port city of Veracruz. La Resistencia has been hit hard by CJNG and the Mexican government, but an apparent alliance with Los Zetas raises questions regarding the transfer of skills and the potential for a significantly increased Zeta presence in La Resistencia's area of operations. We will be watching this situation closely, since the dual dynamic of a Zeta-La Resistencia alliance and CJNG's cross-country operation lead us to expect elevated violence over a substantial part of Mexico's bi-coastal midsection.
La Familia Michoacana
LFM continues to suffer losses at the hands of the Knights Templar and the Mexican government. On Oct. 5, LFM leader Martin Rosales Magana "El Terry" was captured in Mexico state, the most significant hit to the cartel's leadership since Jesus "El Chango" Mendez's fall in July. The Mexican Federal Police claims that the La Familia structure is disintegrating and the cartel no longer has much access to essential precursors in the production of methamphetamines. The continued losses indicate that LFM as an organization is nearing its end. However though LFM's losses have hurt the organization, the cartel continues to show activity. In a raid in July, U.S. law enforcement agencies arrested 44 individuals in Austin, Texas, who allegedly were LFM members, though it remains unclear whether the cell in Austin worked for LFM or the Knights Templar. There have been indications that remnants of LFM are continuing to seek an alliance with Los Zetas. Narcomantas signed by the Knights Templar were intended to send a message to El Terry, blaming him for aligning with Los Zetas. Following his arrest in early October, Mario Buenrostro Quiroz, the alleged leader of a Mexico City drug gang known as "Los Aboytes," claimed in an on-camera interview that El Terry had sought an alliance with Los Zetas prior to his arrest. This claim followed reports that Jesus "El Chango" Mendez was also seeking an alliance with Los Zetas before being arrested. While the Mexican government denies LFM has achieved an alliance with Los Zetas, LFM will likely continue pressing for any advantage to stay alive as the Knights Templar continue trying to eradicate it.
The Knights Templar
One question that emerged over the last quarter is whether the Federal Police will increase its focus on Knights Templar operations. With LFM's organizational decline, Federal Police will have more resources to target the Knights Templar in Michoacan and Mexico states. Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas has suggested an imminent end to LFM and a shift in operations against the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar have taken hits from Mexican federal forces, but there have been no indications that the group's organizational structure has been seriously impacted. Arrested in September was one of the group's principal members, Saul "El Lince" Solis Solis, the highest-level Knights Templar leader to fall in the third quarter. A number of other Knights Templar leaders were arrested in the third quarter, including Bulmaro "El Men" Salinas Munoz and Neri "El Yupo" Salgado Harrison. The effect of these arrests on the group's operations remains unclear. The Knights Templar continue to display narcomantas in Michoacan and Mexico states. In September, the cartel offered monetary rewards for information leading to the capture of certain individuals named on the banners (known LFM members who the Knights Templar claimed were aligned with Los Zetas). The early October arrest of Los Aboytes gang leader Buenrostro Quiroz has raised questions about Knights Templar leadership. In the video of Buenrostro Quiroz being questioned by authorities, he said he met with Knights Templar leaders approximately a month before he was captured. He further claimed that Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzalez is still alive and heading the Knights Templar with Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez, former LFM plaza boss, as second in command. There has been no evidence supporting Buenrostro Quiroz's claims, although Moreno Gonzalez's body was never found when he was reported dead in December 2010. The prospect of Moreno Gonzales, the ideological founder of LFM, still being alive would explain to a large extent LFM's immediate decline following the emergence of the Knights Templar in March. The Knights Templar will continue to target LFM members in Michoacan and Mexico states, and as it takes over La Familia's turf it will likely increase its methamphetamine production operations. Regardless of whether an alliance exists between LFM and Los Zetas, we anticipate increasing conflict between the Knights Templar and Los Zetas in the coming months due to both groups' territorial aspirations.
Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion
When we began discussing Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in the last quarterly update, we included it in the "Independent Operators" section. We took the cartel at its word, which had been made clear its publically released videos, that CJNG had declared war on all other cartels. The organization, based in Guadalajara, consists primarily of former Sinaloa members who had worked for Nacho Coronel and who believe that Nacho was betrayed by Sinaloa leader El Chapo Guzman Loera. However, recent activities by CJNG have greatly muddied our take on the group. Between Sept. 20 and the first week in October, at least 67 bodies labeled as Zetas were dumped in Boca del Rio, a wealthy southern suburb of Veracruz. The first batch of 35 bodies was dumped in a busy traffic circle in broad daylight during afternoon rush hour. All of the killings were claimed by CJNG. We find this odd for two reasons: While it is not surprising that CJNG would go after Los Zetas, Veracruz is very much outside of CJNG's home territory in Guadalajara, and CJNG appears to have conducted these operations in cooperation with the Sinaloa Federation. Therefore, it seems as though CJNG may have been co-opted by Sinaloa (though Sinaloa has not confirmed this). However, as discussed in the Sinaloa and La Resistencia sections above, such a restructuring of affiliations makes sense, and we anticipate that CJNG's links to other cartels will become increasingly clear over the next quarter.