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Dec 20, 2010 | 22:38 GMT

53 mins read

Mexican Drug Wars: Bloodiest Year to Date

STRATFOR
Click here to download a PDF of this report Cartel Report 2009 Editor's Note: In this annual report on Mexico's drug cartels, we assess the most significant developments of 2010 and provide updated profiles of the country's powerful drug-trafficking organizations as well as a forecast for 2011. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain on a weekly basis through our Mexico Security Memo and other analyses we produce throughout the year.

Summary

In 2010, Mexico's cartel wars have produced unprecedented levels of violence throughout the country. No longer concentrated in just a few states, the violence has spread all across the northern tier of border states and all along both the east and west coasts of Mexico. This year's drug-related homicides have passed the 11,000 mark, a 60 to 70 percent increase from 2009. The high levels of violence in 2010 have been caused not only by long-term struggles, such as the fight between the Sinaloa Federation and the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (the VCF, or Juarez cartel) for control of the Juarez smuggling corridor, but also by new conflicts among various players in an increasingly fluid cartel landscape. For example, simmering tensions between Los Zetas and their former partners in the Gulf cartel finally boiled over and quickly escalated into a bloody turf war in the Tamaulipas border region. The conflict spread to states like Nuevo Leon, Hidalgo and Tabasco and even gave birth to an alliance among the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf cartel and La Familia Michoacana (LFM). Additionally, the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in a December 2009 Mexican marine raid led to a vicious battle between factions of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) for control of the organization, pitting Arturo's brother, Hector Beltran Leyva, against Arturo's right-hand man, Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal. New conflicts this year have clearly added to the carnage from previous years' battles, such as those pitting the Sinaloa Federation against the Juarez cartel and LFM against the BLO. The administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon has also made strides against these cartels, dismantling several cartel networks and taking down their leaders over the course of 2010, most notably Sinaloa No. 3 Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal and Valdez. However, while such operations have succeeded in capturing or killing several very dangerous people and disrupting their organizations, such disruptions have also served to further upset the balance of power among Mexico's criminal organizations and increase the volatility of the Mexican security environment. In effect, the imbalance has created a sort of vicious feeding frenzy among the various organizations as they seek to preserve their own turf and seize territory from rival organizations. (click here to enlarge image) Calderon has also taken steps to shift the focus from the controversial strategy of using the Mexican military as the primary weapon in the conflict against the cartels to using the newly reformed Federal Police. While the military still remains the most reliable security tool available to the Mexican government, the Federal Police have been given more responsibility in Juarez and northeastern Mexico, the nation's most contentious hot spots. Calderon has also planted the seeds for reforming the states' security organizations with a unified command in hopes of professionalizing each state's security force to the point where the states do not have to rely on the federal government to combat organized crime. Additionally, the Mexican Congress has taken steps to curb the president's ability to deploy the military domestically by proposing a National Security Act that would require a state governor or legislature to first request the deployment of the military rather than permitting the federal government to act unilaterally. There is simply not enough federal military manpower to respond to all requests and deploy to all trouble spots, a position in which the federal government is increasingly finding itself.

Cartel Membership and Organization

Los Zetas

Los Zetas are a relatively new power on the drug-trafficking scene, having only recently become an independent organization. Although Los Zetas were characterized as an aggressive and ascendant organization in our 2009 cartel report, the group has experienced some major setbacks in 2010. Los Zetas have had a roller-coaster year, beginning with the severing of relations with their former parent organization, the Gulf cartel, in January 2010. Though Los Zetas have been operating more or less independent of the Gulf cartel for almost three years now, things finally came to a head with the Jan. 18 death of one of Los Zetas' top lieutenants, Sergio "El Concord 3" Mendoza Pena, at the hands of Gulf men under cartel leader Eduardo "El Coss" Costillo Sanchez. Mendoza was reported to be the right-hand man of Los Zetas No. 2 Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, and in response to his associate's death, Trevino demanded that Costillo hand over the men responsible for Mendoza's death. When Costillo refused, Trevino ordered the kidnapping of 16 known Gulf cartel members. Tit-for-tat operations escalated into all-out war between the two groups throughout the spring. It is no secret that Los Zetas are operationally superior to their former parent organization, which is why, once the fighting escalated, the Gulf cartel reached out to the Sinaloa Federation and LFM, two of their former rivals, for assistance in fighting Los Zetas. This new alliance was called the New Federation. (click here to enlarge image) Since the formation of the New Federation, Los Zetas have been on the defensive, fighting both Gulf cartel advances on traditional Los Zetas territory and the direct targeting of the group's regional leadership by Mexican security forces. Los Zetas were pushed out of their traditional stronghold of Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, and were forced to retreat to other strongholds such as Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state (even so, both Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo have been contested at various times during 2010). Despite losing key areas of their home territory, Los Zetas have continued to expand their operations throughout Mexico by working with other criminal organizations, such as the Cartel Pacifico Sur (or CPS, which is Hector Beltran Leyva's faction of the BLO), and are penetrating deeper into Central America, South America and Europe. Los Zetas' top-tier leadership has remained unchanged, with Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano atop the organization followed by his No. 2, Trevino, but the regional leadership of the group below Lazcano and Trevino has suffered tremendous setbacks in a number of locations, none more pronounced than in the Monterrey metropolitan area. The June 9 apprehension of Hector "El Tori" Raul Luna Luna, Los Zetas' Monterrey regional leader, in a Mexican military operation set in motion a string of operations over the next three months that netted at least five senior regional leaders of Los Zetas in Monterrey who were designated as replacements for Luna. Additionally, regional Los Zetas leaders have been apprehended in Hidalgo and Veracruz states, and at least three leaders have been captured in Tabasco state. However, events in the second half of 2010 have placed Los Zetas in a position to possibly regain some of the territory lost to the Gulf cartel and the New Federation earlier in the year. This opportunity has been presented by the apparent weakening of the New Federation alliance and the death of a key Gulf cartel leader. In response, Los Zetas appear to be preparing for an assault to regain lost territory, though a recent deployment of federal security forces to the region may delay or alter their plans for an anticipated offensive.

Gulf Cartel

In the early half of the decade, the Gulf cartel was among the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico and served as an effective counterbalance in the east to the Sinaloa Federation, which dominated the western coast of Mexico. However, after the arrest of charismatic Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003, the group found itself on the decline while its enforcement wing, Los Zetas, gradually became the dominant player in their relationship. During times of intense conflict, the warriors in a criminal organization tend to rise above the businessmen, and this dynamic was seen in Los Zetas' ascension. Fissures began to emerge between Los Zetas and their Gulf cartel masters in late 2008, when Los Zetas began contracting their enforcement and tactical services out to other criminal organizations such as the BLO and the VCF. These fractures were widened in 2009 when Gulf cartel leaders Costillo and Eziquiel Antonio "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen (Osiel's brother) refused offers to be integrated into the Los Zetas organization by its leader, Lazcano. The situation finally boiled over into all-out war between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas in February 2010, after Costillo's men killed the Los Zetas lieutenant in January during a heated argument. The Gulf cartel had relied on Los Zetas for its enforcement operations for the past several years and knew exactly what Los Zetas were capable of. Because of this, the Gulf cartel knew, with its current capabilities, that it could not take on Los Zetas alone. So the cartel reached out to its main rivals in Mexico: the Sinaloa Federation and LFM. These organizations held an intense hatred for Los Zetas because of their long-running battles with the group, a hatred that amounted, in many ways, to a blood feud. With the added resources of the so-called New Federation, the Gulf cartel was able to take the fight to Los Zetas and actually force its former partners out of one of their traditional strongholds in Reynosa and to take its offensive to other regions traditionally held by Los Zetas, namely the city of Monterrey and the states of Nuevo Leon, Hidalgo and Veracruz. This resulted in Los Zetas being pushed back on their heels throughout the country, and by June it looked as if the group's days might be numbered. However, events transpired outside of the New Federation-Los Zetas conflict in July that weakened the alliance and forced the other members to direct attention and resources to other parts of the country, thus giving Los Zetas room to regroup. The lack of commitment from the Sinaloa Federation and LFM left the Gulf cartel exposed to a certain degree, exposure that was soon exacerbated when Mexican security forces began dismantling the cells associated with Gulf leader Antonio Cardenas Guillen in the Matamoros region beginning in August. This operation culminated when Mexican marines launched an assault to capture the Gulf leader on Nov. 5 that resulted in a three-hour fire fight that killed Tony Tormenta and several of his top lieutenants. While Antonio Cardenas Guillen was not the driving force behind Gulf cartel operations, he did lead several of the organization's enforcement cells, and his absence from the Tamaulipas border area prompted both Los Zetas and Mexican federal security forces to make preparations to move into the region.

Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation is, as its name implies, a true cartel comprised of several different drug-trafficking organizations that all report to the head of the federation, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, who is the world's second-most wanted man behind Osama bin Laden. Guzman is flanked in leadership by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia and Juan "El Azul" Esparragoza Moreno, each having his own independent trafficking network. The Sinaloa Federation has been an active participant on nearly every front of the cartel wars in 2010, including, with its involvement in the New Federation, the conflict in northeastern Mexico. But perhaps its most notable (and to date under-recognized) success has been in gaining a clear tactical advantage in the battle for control of the Ciudad Juarez smuggling corridor. An FBI intelligence memo revealed that a large majority of the narcotics seized in the El Paso sector, directly across the border from Juarez, belonged to the Sinaloa Federation. The FBI report also noted that the Sinaloa Federation had gained control of key territory in the region, giving the group clear business and tactical advantages over the Juarez cartel. Still, the Sinaloa Federation remains focused on the Juarez region as Sinaloa seeks to consolidate its position, defend itself from Juarez cartel counterattacks and exert total control over the smuggling corridor. This effort has demanded the vast majority of the organization's enforcement resources. (click here to enlarge image) The Calderon administration scored one of its greatest victories against the drug cartels this year when members of the Mexican military shot and killed Sinaloa Federation No. 3 Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal on July 29 in his home in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. Coronel oversaw the Sinaloa Federation's operations along much of the Central Pacific coast as well as the organization's methamphetamine production and trafficking, earning Coronel the nickname "King of Ice" (the crystallized form of methamphetamine is commonly referred to as "ice"). Intelligence gathered from the house where Coronel was killed, along with other investigative work by Mexican military intelligence, quickly led to the capture of nearly all the leadership cadre of Coronel's network in the Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit and Michoacan areas. The death of Coronel and the dismantlement of his network, along with a continued focus on the conflict in Juarez, have forced the Sinaloa Federation to pull back from other commitments, such as its operations against Los Zetas as part of the New Federation. While it appears the Sinaloa Federation has once again pulled its enforcers out of northeastern Mexico — at least for now — the organization has made inroads on the business operations-side in other regions and on other continents. The Sinaloa Federation has apparently made progress toward extending its control over the lucrative Tijuana, Baja California region, and has established at least a temporary agreement with what is left of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) to move loads of narcotics through the area. Additionally, STRATFOR sources continue to report a sustained effort by the Sinaloa Federation to expand its logistical network farther into Europe and its influence deeper into Central America and South America. Even though the Sinaloa Federation has experienced a few setbacks, such as the defection of the BLO and the loss of Coronel and his network, the group has control of, or access to, smuggling corridors all along Mexico's northern border from Tijuana to Juarez. This means that Sinaloa appears to be the group that has fared the best over the past few increasingly violent years. This applies even more specifically to Guzman and his faction of the federation. Indeed, Guzman has benefited greatly from some events. In addition to the fall of his external foes, such as the AFO, Gulf and Juarez cartels, he has also seen the downfall of strong Sinaloa Federation personalities who could have risen up to contest his leadership, men like Alfredo Beltran Leyva and Coronel. Sinaloa members who attract a lot of adverse publicity for the federation, such as Enrique "El Cumbias" Lopez Acosta, also seem to run into bad luck with some frequency.

La Familia Michoacana

After being named the most violent organized-crime group in Mexico by then-Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora in 2009, LFM has been largely a background player in 2010. The group holds to a strange pseudo-religious ideology unique among Mexican drug cartels, and though it is still based out of Michoacan state, it has a presence and, in some cases, substantial influence in the neighboring states of Guerrero, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Colima and Mexico. Until the Dec. 10 death of LFM spiritual leader Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzalez, the group's leadership had been shared by Moreno and Jose de Jesus "El Chango" Mendez Vargas; Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez, whose media profile has greatly expanded in recent months, had held the No. 3 spot in the organization. Just prior to Moreno's death, several LFM regional plaza bosses were captured in the sustained Federal Police operation against the group. (click here to enlarge image) LFM has remained active on two main fronts in Mexico in 2010. One is the offensive against Los Zetas as part of the New Federation with Sinaloa and the Gulf cartel in northeastern Mexico, and the other is the fight against the CPS and their Los Zetas allies in southern Michoacan and Guerrero states, particularly around the resort area of Acapulco. LFM and the CPS have been locked in a heated battle for supremacy in the Acapulco region for the past two years, and this conflict shows no signs of stopping, especially since the CPS appears to have recently launched a new offensive against LFM in southern Michoacan. Additionally, after the death of Coronel in July and the subsequent dismantlement of his network, LFM attempted to take over the Jalisco and Colima trafficking corridors, which reportedly strained relations between the Sinaloa Federation and LFM. In mid-November, LFM reportedly proposed a truce with the Mexican government. In "narcomantas" banners hung throughout Michoacan (narcomantas are messages from an organized criminal group, usually on a poster in a public place), the group allegedly announced that it would begin the truce the first week of December. That week was dominated by the arrests of several LFM operatives, including Jose Antonio "El Tonon" Arcos Martinez, a high-ranking lieutenant with a $250,000 bounty on his head, and Morelia plaza boss Alfredo Landa Torres. It is unclear whether LFM will stick to its truce or engage in retaliatory attacks as it has done in the past when high-ranking members have been arrested. It is equally unclear whether LFM still has the ability to conduct high-profile attacks. LFM is a relatively small and new organization compared to the older and more established drug-trafficking groups that operate in Mexico, and while it remains a potent organization in the greater Michoacan region, it appears the group is becoming increasingly isolated. Its truce offer, if legitimate, may be a sign that a combination of turf battles with rival cartels and government pressure is more than the organization can bear. Adding the death of the group's spiritual leader to the equation means that Mendez may be facing a great challenge in merely keeping the group together. We will be watching LFM closely over the next several weeks for signs of collapse.

Beltran Leyva Organization

Founded by the four Beltran Leyva brothers — Arturo, Alfredo, Carlos and Hector — the BLO was originally part of the Sinaloa Federation. After Alfredo was arrested in January 2008, the brothers accused Sinaloa Federation leader Guzman of tipping off Mexican authorities to Alfredo's location, and they subsequently broke away from Sinaloa to launch a bloody war against their former partners. The BLO even went as far as to kill one of Guzman's sons in a brazen assassination in the parking lot of a grocery store in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, where gunmen allegedly fired more than 200 rounds of ammunition and used rocket-propelled grenades. The organization quickly aligned itself with Los Zetas in an effort to gain military reinforcement. Their combined resources and mutual hatred of Guzman and the Sinaloa Federation helped the BLO and Los Zetas to become one of the most formidable criminal organizations in Mexico. But their fast rise to one of the top spots in 2008 was perhaps indicative of their volatile existence and could help explain their rapid degradation in 2010. (click here to enlarge image) Indeed, the BLO has had perhaps its most tumultuous year since STRATFOR began publishing its annual cartel report. On Dec. 16, 2009, only a few days after our report was published last year, Mexican marines stormed a luxury apartment complex in Cuernavaca, Morelos state, and killed the BLO's leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva, along with several of his top bodyguards. It was very apparent in the following weeks that Arturo was the glue that held the BLO together as a functioning criminal organization. His death sent shockwaves throughout the organization, causing a vicious blame-game for allowing Arturo to be killed. His brother Carlos was arrested Dec. 30 in Culiacan, leaving Hector as the only brother at large. Hector was the obvious choice for succession, if the reins of the organization were to stay within the founding Beltran Leyva family. However, many within the BLO felt that control of the organization should be given to Arturo's right-hand man, Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal. The BLO was quickly divided into two factions: those who supported Hector to lead the organization and those who supported Valdez.

Hector Beltran Leyva Faction/Cartel Pacifico Sur

It appears that most of the BLO operatives and networks sided with Hector Beltran Leyva and his deputy and top enforcer, Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal Barragan. The group renamed itself Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS), or the South Pacific Cartel, to distance itself from the elements associated with Valdez that still clung to the BLO moniker. The CPS remained allies with Los Zetas and continued to cultivate their working relationship, largely due to the hatred between Valdez and Los Zetas. The animosity between Valdez and Los Zetas dates back to 2003, when the Sinaloa Federation dispatched BLO gunman to wage an offensive in Nuevo Laredo against the Gulf cartel (and Los Zetas) in an attempt to take control of the Nuevo Laredo smuggling corridor following the arrest of Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Valdez, a U.S. citizen born in Laredo, Texas, was one of the leaders of the BLO's Los Negros enforcement unit. The CPS heavily engaged the Valdez faction in the states of Guerrero, Morelos and Mexico while maintaining control of the traditional BLO territories in parts of Sinaloa and Sonora states. As the fighting with the Valdez faction escalated, the two groups exchanged executions and gruesome public displays of mutilated bodies. However, Mexican authorities continued their pursuit of the BLO remnants and arrested Villarreal on Sept. 12, 2010, without incident inside a luxury home in Puebla, Puebla state. Several weeks later, Mexican federal authorities believed they were close to capturing Hector Beltran Leyva as well. They launched a few operations to nab the cartel leader but came up empty-handed. The CPS, with the help of Los Zetas, is currently engaged in an offensive against LFM in the southern portions of Michoacan, as the CPS attempts to push beyond its traditional operating territory in Acapulco, Guerrero state, and farther up the west coast of Mexico toward the port of Lazaro Cardenas. Additionally, the CPS and Los Zetas have staked a claim to the Colima and Manzanillo regions following the death of Sinaloa's No. 3, Coronel, and after fending off fairly weak advances by LFM and a lackluster attempt to maintain control of the territory by the Sinaloa Federation.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal Faction

The Valdez faction found itself fighting an uphill battle for control of the BLO after the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009. While the Valdez faction was very capable and quite potent, it simply did not have the resources to mount a successful campaign to take over the BLO. Valdez was supported by his top lieutenants, Gerardo "El Indio" Alvarez Vasquez and his father-in-law, Carlos Montemayor, along with their cells and networks of enforcers. The Valdez faction was relatively isolated and confined to the states of Guerrero, Mexico and Morelos, but even in those states its presence was contested by Mexican security forces and, in southern Guerrero, by the CPS and LFM as well. Mexican security forces wasted no time in going after the leadership of the Valdez faction. On April 21, Mexican military intelligence, with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, tracked Alvarez to a safe-house in Huixquilucan, Mexico state. After a several-hourlong firefight, military forces were able to surround the area and capture Alvarez as he attempted to flee in a small car under a volley of bullets. The safe-house provided Mexican officials with a wealth of information about the group and jump-started the hunt for Valdez. The arrest of Valdez on Aug. 30 is enveloped by conflicting reports. The Mexican government announced that a huge Federal Police operation overwhelmed the kingpin at a rural vacation home in Mexico state and that Valdez surrendered without a shot being fired. However, several weeks later reports began emerging that Valdez had turned himself in to authorities at a local municipal police checkpoint near his vacation home, simply identifying himself and telling the local police that he was there to surrender to them. The second scenario made much more sense when it was revealed that Valdez had been an informant for the Mexican government since 2008. He had reportedly been responsible for the apprehension of many of his rivals and those who worked closely with him, most notably Arturo Beltran Leyva. This possibility was raised by some BLO members at the time of Arturo's death when it was reported that Valdez had been in the apartment mere minutes before the Mexican marines launched the raid that killed Arturo. After the arrest of Valdez, Montemayor took the reins of the Valdez faction. One of his first moves was to order the kidnapping and execution of 20 tourists from Michoacan in Acapulco, which garnered headlines across Mexican and international media. Montemayor believed that the tourists were actually LFM operatives who had been sent to the Acapulco region to seize control of the lucrative port. A short while later, on Nov. 24, Montemayor himself was arrested, essentially decapitating the leadership of the Valdez faction. It is unclear who, if anyone, has replaced Montemayor at the helm of the organization, but given the blows the Valdez faction has suffered in 2010, it is likely that the remaining operatives have either gone their own way or now work for some other organization.

Arellano Felix Organization

The AFO, formerly known as the Tijuana cartel, is led by Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano, nephew of the founding Arellano Felix brothers. This organization has experienced numerous setbacks in recent years, including a major split and vicious factional infighting, and is only a shell of its former self. These hindrances have impacted not only the group's leadership but also its operational capability as a trafficking organization. The most significant loss the AFO has experienced this year has been the disappearance of Jorge "El Cholo" Briceno Lopez. Reports of both his death and his arrest have swirled around the media this year, but we have been unable to determine what exactly has happened to Briceno, other than the apparent fact that he is no longer involved in the Tijuana drug-trafficking scene. After fighting a brutal internal conflict with the AFO's Eduardo "El Teo" Garcia Simental faction (which had defected to the Sinaloa Federation), and bearing the brunt of a Mexican military-led operation, the AFO has only a few operational cells left, most of which have kept an extremely low profile in 2010. After the arrest of Garcia in January and the dismantlement of his organization in the Baja Peninsula, violence subsided significantly in the Tijuana region — a far cry from the upward of 100 murders per week that the region experienced during one period in 2008. The biggest threat the AFO has faced since its initial fall from power in the early part of the decade has been the aggressive actions of the Sinaloa Federation. For the past two years, the Garcia faction of the AFO had been the Sinaloa proxy fighting for control of the Tijuana smuggling corridor against the AFO faction led by Sanchez. In recent months, however, there have been signs that the two long-time rivals may have come to some form of a business agreement, allowing the Sinaloa Federation to move large shipments of narcotics through AFO territory. Generally, some sort of tax is levied upon these shipments, and it is likely that the AFO is gaining some sort of monetary benefit from the arrangement. Some sources are reporting that the AFO continues to exist only because of the largesse of the Sinaloa Federation and because the AFO is paying Sinaloa to allow the AFO to operate in Tijuana. Either way, these sorts of agreements have proved only temporary in the past. At the present time it is unclear if or when the Sinaloa Federation will decide to resume the offensive against the AFO and whether the AFO will be able to do anything about it.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel

The VCF, also known as the Juarez cartel, continued its downward spiral from 2009 into 2010. The VCF continues to lose ground to the Sinaloa Federation throughout Chihuahua state, most notably in the Ciudad Juarez area. The VCF's influence has largely been confined to the urban areas of the state, Juarez and Chihuahua, though it appears that its influence is waning even in traditional VCF strongholds. The organization is headed by its namesake, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and has remained functional largely because of the group's operational leader, Juan "El JL" Luis Ledezma, who also heads the VCF enforcement wing, La Linea. The VCF has been able to remain relevant in the greater Juarez area because of the relationship it has with the local street gang Los Aztecas, led by Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo. Los Aztecas serve as the primary enforcers for the VCF on the streets of Juarez. However, several Federal Police operations have netted some high-level operatives for Los Aztecas and La Linea, particularly after a few high-profile attacks conducted by the two groups. With its sustained losses, the VCF has done what many other criminal organizations in Mexico have done after falling on hard times — it has expanded its tactics and diversified its criminal operations. Extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom (KFR) operations have increased dramatically in the greater Juarez area, largely because of activities by Los Aztecas and La Linea. (More on the cartels' expanding tactics below.) The March murders of U.S. consulate worker Leslie Enriquez and her husband were ordered by La Linea lieutenants because she was believed to have supplied visas to members of the Sinaloa Federation while denying visas for people associated with VCF. And on July 15, La Linea became the first modern-day Mexican criminal organization to successfully deploy an improvised explosive device (IED). The blast killed four people and wounded several more (all first-responders). It appeared that the group confined its targeting only to first-responders, namely Mexican security forces, and despite its very public threats, La Linea has yet to deploy the tactic against innocent civilians. The fallout from both the assassination of a U.S. government employee and the deployment of an IED has resulted in the loss of several operatives and, in a few cases, senior leaders of La Linea and Los Aztecas, in addition to increased scrutiny by Mexican security forces and U.S. law enforcement on the other side of the border in El Paso, Texas. These scenarios have only worked to further inhibit the VCF's ability to move narcotics and continue to remain relevant on the Mexican drug-trafficking scene. It will remain the focus of intense Sinaloa Federation and Mexican government operations in 2011, but it can also be expected to continue its desperate fight for survival on its home turf.

A Fluid Landscape and Hints of Success

Four years after President Calderon launched an offensive against the country's major drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in December 2006, the security landscape in Mexico remains remarkably fluid. Not everything has changed, however. The two main struggles in Mexico are still among the cartels themselves — for lucrative turf — and between the cartels and the Mexican government. Government offensives have continued to weaken and fragment several of Mexico's largest DTOs and their splinter groups and are continuing to disrupt the power balance throughout Mexico as DTOs try to seize control of key smuggling corridors held by weakened rivals. There have also been hints of success in Calderon's countercartel strategy, with 2010 proving to be one of the most productive years for the Calderon administration in terms of toppling cartel leaders and dismantling their networks. (click here to enlarge image) To recap: In 2010 we saw tensions between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas boil over into open warfare throughout the eastern half of Mexico, primarily in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states. The Gulf cartel, knowing it could not sustain an effective campaign against Los Zetas on its own, reached out to two of Los Zetas' main rivals — the Sinaloa Federation and LFM — for support in fighting Los Zetas. For much of the first half of 2010, this so-called New Federation dominated the battlefield in northeastern Mexico, pushing Los Zetas from their traditional stronghold of Reynosa and forcing the group to retreat to Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. However, alliances and agreements such as the New Federation are often fleeting, especially as the Mexican government continues to apply increasing pressure to criminal organizations throughout the country. While there was some indication of strained relations between New Federation partners when LFM tried to move in on Coronel's turf, the alliance fell by the wayside when other situations made it no longer beneficial for Sinaloa or LFM to contribute resources to the fight in northeastern Mexico. The Sinaloa Federation lost control of one of its most lucrative points of entry into Mexico and Colima states after the death of Coronel and the dismantlement of his network in Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit. Additionally, Sinaloa's conflict with the VCF in Juarez, despite having a tactical advantage throughout much of the region, has dragged on and continues to drain a significant amount of attention and resources from the organization. As for LFM, the organization was facing the threat of an offensive on its core territory in southern Michoacan by the CPS and Los Zetas, as well as a business opportunity to fill a power vacuum in the methamphetamine market in the neighboring region to the north in the wake of Coronel's death in July. One way to look at all this is to consider that the group that dominated the Mexican cartel scene for almost half of 2010, the New Federation, was disrupted by the Mexican government in July, which indirectly — and perhaps purposefully — made the cartel landscape very fluid. It has been the mission of the Calderon administration to deny any Mexican criminal organization an uncontested region of the country in which to freely operate. Since the Mexican government has not ever been able to fully control the territory outside the country's geographic core around Mexico City, disruption has been a key tactic in Calderon's war against the cartels. Several factions of many different organizations have been hit tremendously hard in campaigns by the Mexican military and the Federal Police. Here is a list of the major cartel leaders and their networks brought down in 2010:
  • Eziquiel Antonio "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen and several Gulf cartel cells associated with him
  • The Eduardo "El Teo" Garcia Simental faction of the AFO
  • Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal Barragan
  • The Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal faction of the BLO
  • Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal and his network
  • Eight plaza bosses for Los Zetas (four of whom were in charge of operations in Monterrey)
  • Two plaza bosses for LFM
  • Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzalez of LFM
Using disruption as a measure, 2010 has been a successful year for the Calderon administration. However, despite some successful countercartel operations, the country's security situation continues to degrade at a rapid rate and violence continues to rise to unprecedented levels.

Expanding Tactics and Escalating Violence

At the time this report was being written, there had been 11,041 organized crime-related murders in Mexico in 2010, with nearly three weeks left in the year. At the same time in 2009, the death toll for the year had reached a new high, ranging from 6,900 to 8,000 (depending on the source and methodology used for tracking organized crime-related murders). The degrading security environment in Mexico has been exacerbated by the development of new conflicts in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Morelos, Mexico, Colima and Jalisco states, as well as by persisting conflicts in Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Michoacan and Guerrero states. This geography of violence has changed quite a bit since 2009, when the violence was concentrated mainly in five states: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacan and Baja California. One reason for the tremendous increase in violence in 2010 is the conflict between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. This conflict spread violence throughout the eastern half of the country, common territory where the two groups have significant influence given their past relationship. And the conflict that stemmed from the BLO split has become a new source of violence in the southern states of Morelos, Mexico and Guerrero. All this, combined with the ongoing conflicts between the VCF and the Sinaloa Federation in Chihuahua state; LFM and the CPS in Michoacan and Guerrero states; and the persistent low-level fighting between the CPS and the Sinaloa Federation in Sinaloa state, has produced this year's unprecedented death toll for the country as a whole. Groups that have borne the brunt of fighting, namely Los Zetas and the VCF, have found it harder and harder to engage in their core business of drug-trafficking and have been forced to diversify their income streams, mainly from other criminal activities. Cash flow is important for the cartels because it takes a lot of money to hire and equip enforcer units to protect against incursions from rival cartels and the Mexican government. It also takes money to purchase narcotics and smuggle them from South America into the United States. A reliance on other criminal enterprises to generate income is not a new development for either Los Zetas or the VCF. Los Zetas have been active in human smuggling, oil theft, extortion and contract enforcement, while the VCF has engaged in extortion and kidnap-for-ransom operations. But in 2010, as these groups found themselves with their backs against the wall and increasingly desperate, they began to further expand their tactics. Los Zetas found themselves in the crosshairs of Mexican military and Federal Police operations in Monterrey beginning in June with the arrest of Zeta leader Hector "El Tori" Raul Luna Luna in a Mexican military operation. Less than a month later, on July 7, Hector's brother, Esteban "El Chachis" Luna Luna, who had taken over the leadership position in Monterrey, was captured in yet another Mexican military operation. A senior lieutenant in Los Zetas, known only as "El Sonrics," was chosen to be the third leader in Monterrey in as many months after the arrest of Esteban Luna Luna. El Sonrics' tenure lasted about as long as his predecessor's, however. On Aug. 14 in Monterrey, El Sonrics was killed in a firefight with members of the Mexican military along with three Los Zetas bodyguards. A month and a half later, on Oct. 6, Jose Raymundo Lopez Arellano was taken down in San Nicolas de las Garza in yet another Mexican military operation. In other operations in the Monterrey area during this period, Mexican authorities also seized several large weapons caches belonging to Los Zetas and killed and arrested numerous lower-level Los Zetas operatives. In their weakened state, Los Zetas began to increase the number of KFR operations in the Monterrey area. Previously, KFR operations conducted by Los Zetas typically targeted people who owed the organization money, but as the group became increasingly pressured by Mexican security forces and the New Federation, they began targeting high-net-worth individuals for quick cash to supplement their income. This wave of kidnappings in Monterrey led the U.S. consulate there to order the departure of all minor dependents of U.S. government personnel. The VCF, which had already been engaged in large-scale extortion and KFR operations, reverted to lashing out at perceived injustices in its targeting and tactics, not for financial gain, but rather to gain room to maneuver in the increasingly crowded Juarez metropolitan area. Largely due to the continuing high levels of violence in the area, Juarez boasts the highest concentration of federal Mexican security forces in the country, with the Federal Police operating in the urban areas and the Mexican military operating on the outskirts and in surrounding rural areas. The VCF has made it no secret that it believes the Federal Police are working for and protecting the Sinaloa Federation in Juarez. The IED detonation on July 15 was in response to the arrest of high-ranking VCF lieutenant Jesus "El 35" Armando Acosta Guerrero. La Linea, the VCF enforcement arm, had killed a rival and placed the corpse in a small car with the IED and phoned in a report of a body in a car, knowing that the Federal Police would likely respond. At about 7:30 p.m. local time, as paramedics and Federal Police agents arrived on the scene, the IED was remotely detonated inside the car using a cell phone. The blast killed two Federal Police agents and two paramedics and injured several more first-responders. The exact composition of the device is still unknown, but the industrial water-gel explosive TOVEX was used as the main charge. In the hours following the incident, a narcomanta appeared a few kilometers from the crime scene stating that La Linea would continue using car bombs. La Linea tried to deploy another device under similar circumstances Sept. 10 in Juarez, but Federal Police agents were able to identify the IED and called in the Mexican military to defuse the device. There were also three small IEDs deployed in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, in August. On Aug. 5, a substation housing the rural patrol element of the Municipal Transit Police was attacked with a small IED concealed inside a vehicle. Then on Aug. 27, two other IEDs placed in cars were detonated outside Televisa studios and a Municipal Transit Police station in Ciudad Victoria. The Ciudad Victoria IED attacks were never claimed, but Los Zetas are thought to have been responsible. The geographic and cartel-territorial disparity between Ciudad Victoria and Juarez makes it unlikely that the same bombmaker is responsible for all the devices encountered in Mexico this year. Marking the first successful deployment of an IED by a Mexican organized criminal group in the modern day, the July 15 incident in Juarez was a clear escalation of cartel tactics. While the devices successfully deployed so far in 2010 have been small in size, they did show some degree of competency on the part of the bombmakers. The La Linea and Ciudad Victoria bombers also showed some discretion in their targeting by not detonating the devices among innocent civilians. However, should these groups continue to deploy IEDs, the imprecise nature of the tactic does increase the risk of innocent civilians being killed or injured. Rising levels of violence, combined with IEDs and the targeting of people not involved in the drug war in extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom operations, are taxing the civilian population. The trends have also begun to affect business operations in parts of Mexico's industrial core, particularly Monterrey, where industrial executives live in gated and fortified compounds, travel in armed convoys and send their children to the United States or Europe to escape the kidnapping threat. In many parts of Mexico, the threat of violence has had an adverse impact on small businesses such as restaurants, since people are afraid to go out at night. And those business owners are impacted even more when they are forced to pay protection money to cartel gunmen.

Changing Roles

The organized-crime problem in Mexico has always been perceived as a domestic law-enforcement issue, but the country has always lacked a competent and trustworthy law-enforcement apparatus. This is why Calderon chose the Mexican military to tackle the country's drug cartels head on: It was simply the best tool available at the time. The Mexican military has traditionally been perceived as the least corrupt security institution in Mexico, and it possesses the firepower and tactical know-how to go up against similarly armed organized criminal groups. However, Calderon's choice to deploy the Mexican military to fight the drug cartels on Mexican soil has drawn fierce criticism from rival politicians and human-rights activists, mainly due to concerns that the military is not trained to handle the civilian population. To allay those concerns and create a more effective law-enforcement apparatus, Calderon proposed a reform plan to the Mexican Congress in September 2008 that would integrate the two existing federal law enforcement agencies — the Federal Preventive Police and the Federal Investigative Agency — into one organization, the Federal Police. The plan called for existing agents and new recruits to undergo a much more thorough vetting process and receive higher pay. The idea was to build up a more professional force less vulnerable to corruption and better able to fight the cartels. In implementation, however, the reform process has faced several setbacks in weeding out corrupt elements of the existing federal force. In October 2008, the then-designated drug czar for Mexico, Noe Gonzalez, was found to be receiving $450,000 a month from the BLO for information about the Mexican government's counternarcotics operations, just one indication of how far corruption permeated law enforcement agencies. In January 2010, nearly a year and a half after Calderon presented the reform plan to the Mexican congress, Federal Police agents began to take control of Joint Operation Chihuahua, which had been led by the Mexican military with the Federal Police in a supporting role. On Jan. 13, the Mexican federal security forces mission in Chihuahua state was officially renamed Coordinated Operation Chihuahua, to reflect the official change in command as well as an influx of some 2,000 Federal Police agents. Tactically, the change of command meant that the Federal Police assumed all law-enforcement roles from the military in the urban areas of northern Chihuahua, including police patrols, investigations, intelligence operations, surveillance, first-response and operation of the emergency 066 call center for Juarez (equivalent to a 911 center in the United States). The Federal Police were tasked with operating mainly in designated high-risk urban areas to locate and dismantle existing cartel infrastructure using law-enforcement methods rather than military methods. The military then assumed the supporting role, charged with patrolling and monitoring the vast desert expanses of the state's rural areas and manning strategic perimeter checkpoints to help stem the flow of narcotics through remote border crossings. These changes in roles and areas of operations were intended to better reflect the training and capabilities of each force. While the enhanced Federal Police are designed to operate in an urban environment and trained specifically to interact with the civilian population, the Mexican military is trained and equipped to engage in more kinetic operations in a rural environment. Coordinated Operation Chihuahua was the first big test of Calderon's Federal Police reforms. When he renamed the operation, Calderon said the effectiveness of the change in strategy would be evaluated in December 2010, but at the time this report was being written no evaluation had been released to the public. There have been several arrests of low-level operatives, and even a few high-ranking lieutenants such, as VCF leader Acosta and Los Aztecas leader Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, but Chihuahua state still leads the nation in the number of drug-related murders this year with more than 3,000 — more than the next two states, Sinaloa and Guerrero, combined. While the security environment in Juarez remains tumultuous and unpredictable, the Mexican government launched the Federal Police-led Coordinated Operation Northeast in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states in the wake of the death of Gulf cartel leader Tony Tormenta, in an attempt to pre-empt any violence from a Los Zetas offensive in the region. The roles of Federal Police agents and Mexican military personnel in the operation are nearly identical to their roles in Coordinated Operation Chihuahua, and the Northeast operation suggests the Calderon administration considers the change in strategy in Chihuahua a success.

National Security Act

While Calderon's Federal Police reforms have begun to relieve the Mexican military of domestic law-enforcement responsibilities, the Mexican Congress has taken steps to limit the president's ability to deploy the military domestically at will. On April 28, the Mexican Senate passed the National Security Act, a set of reforms that would effectively redefine the role of the Mexican military in the cartel wars, and while it is not yet law, it does indicate the country's attitude toward the domestic use of the military. The reforms range from permitting only civilian law enforcement personnel to detain suspects to repealing the ability of the president to declare a state of emergency and suspend individual rights in cases involving organized crime. While these reforms are notable, they would likely have little effect at the operational level. This is because the armed forces will likely remain the tip of the spear when it comes to tactical operations against the cartels simply by having troops accompanied by civilian police officers who conduct the actual arrests. Representatives from Mexico's Human Rights Commission would also be present during these operations to address public grievances, ensure no human-rights abuses have taken place and report them if they have. The most notable change in the proposed law is that the president would no longer be able to deploy the armed forces whenever he wants to. Individual state governors and legislatures would have to request the deployment of troops to their regions once criminal activity has gotten beyond the ability of state and local law-enforcement entities to control. In practical terms this could prove difficult given the limited size of the Mexican military. Many states, including Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, have previously requested significant numbers of troops to augment the federal garrisons already there, only to see their requests go unanswered due to a lack of available troops. Limiting the executive branch's power to deploy the military domestically has already politicized the battlefield in Mexico, much of which lies in the northern border region. This is where most of the Mexican security forces are deployed, and these are also states that are governed by Calderon's political opponents, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Friction has emerged between these states and federal entities on how best to combat organized crime, most notably from former Chihuahua state Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza of the PRI, who complained that federal security forces were complicating the situation in Juarez and Chihuahua state and that the problem was a law-enforcement issue that should be left to the Juarez municipal police and Chihuahua state police. As 2012 elections draw closer, Calderon's campaign against the cartels will likely become even more politicized as the three main parties in Mexico — the PRI, Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) and the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) — jockey for the Mexican presidency. So whether or not the new National Security Act will have an immediate impact on the Mexican government's countercartel campaign should it become law, high levels of violence will continue to necessitate the use of the Mexican armed forces, especially in regions where there is not a reorganized and enhanced federal security operation in place. State law enforcement has yet to demonstrate the ability to quell any outbreak of violence, so even the political friction between the PRI state governors and Calderon's PAN administration will not preclude a military role in counternarcotics efforts.

Unified State Police Command

One thing that has become obvious during the past three years of the federal government's offensive against the cartels is that government resources are stretched thin — the Mexican government simply doesn't have the manpower to be everywhere federal security forces need to be. One possible solution is to build up the capability of individual states to handle many criminal matters on their own, without the aid of federal security forces. On June 3, the Mexican National Public Security Council approved a proposal by Calderon to establish a commission charged with creating a new unified police force nationwide. Under the plan, each state would have a new statewide police force that would eventually replace all municipal-level law enforcement entities. These new state police agencies would all report to a single federal entity, the Unified State Police Command, in order to ensure a unified strategy in combating drug-trafficking organizations and other organized criminal elements. The idea of replacing some 2,000 municipal police agencies with state or federal law enforcement personnel has been floating around Mexican political and security circles since about 2008, but certain obstacles — mainly pervasive corruption — have prevented it from being realized. Municipal-level law enforcement has traditionally been a thorn in the side of the larger federal offensive against the cartels due to incompetence, corruption and, in many cases, both. In some cases, the Mexican military or Federal Police have been forced to completely take over municipal police operations because the entire force was corrupt or had resigned due to lack of pay or fear of cartel retribution. Lack of funding for pay, training and equipment has led to many of the problems at the local level, and under the new plan such funding would come from larger state and federal budgets. The plan will likely take up to three years to fully implement, some state governors estimate, and not only because of logistical hurdles. The federal government also wants to give current municipal-level police officers time to find new jobs, retire or be absorbed into the new law-enforcement entity. The new force will likely go through a vetting and training process similar to that seen in the 2008 Federal Police reforms, but the process will not be a quick and easy solution to Mexico's law-enforcement woes. While the new police force will serve as a continuation of Calderon's strategy of vetting and consolidating Mexico's law-enforcement entities, stamping out endemic corruption and ineptitude in Mexico is a difficult task. Consolidating police reforms at the local level should not be expected to produce meaningful results any more quickly than the Federal Police program has. It is very difficult to reform institutions when they exist in a culture that tolerates and even expects corruption. Without changes to the underlying culture of graft and corruption to support the new institutions (for example, paying police a living wage and cultivating public respect for their authority), these reformed institutions can be expected to become corrupt in short order. In October, nine state governors from Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Oaxaca, Puebla and Hidalgo agreed to begin the process and to have unified police commands within six months.

Outlook for 2011

The successes that Calderon has scored against the cartels in 2010 have helped his administration regain some public confidence in its war against the cartels. But by disrupting the balance of power among the cartels, the effort has made the cartel landscape throughout the country more fluid and volatile than it was a year ago. Violence has continued to escalate unabated and has reached unprecedented levels, and as long as the cartel balance of power remains in a state of flux, the violence will show no signs of diminishing. While direct action by the Mexican government has fractured certain organizations — the BLO, for instance — the cartel environment in Mexico is stressful in its own right, and organizations falling victim to infighting only exacerbate this stress. Indeed, fissures that opened in 2010 will likely continue in 2011, and new will ones will quite possibly appear. Calderon's current strategy appears to be inciting more violence as the cartels try to seize upon their rivals' perceived weaknesses, and the federal government simply does not have the resources to effectively contain it. While plans are in place to free up certain aspects of the federal security apparatus, namely the reformed and still-maturing Federal Police and the Unified State Police Command, they are still several years away from being capable of adequately addressing the security issues that Mexico is dealing with today. With the 2012 presidential election approaching, unprecedented levels of violence are politically unacceptable for Calderon and the PAN, especially since Calderon has made the security situation in Mexico the focus of his presidency. Calderon is at a crossroads. The levels of violence are considered unacceptable by the public and the government's resources are stretched to their limit. Unless all the cartel groups can be decapitated and brought under control — something that is highly unlikely given the limits of the Mexican government — the only way to bring the violence down will be to restore an equilibrium of power among the cartels. Calderon will need to take steps toward restoring this balance in the next year if he hopes to quell the violence ahead of the 2012 election. Calderon's steps will likely go in one of two directions. The first would be toward increased assistance and involvement from foreign governments. With federal resources stretched to their limit, Calderon and the Mexican government have nowhere else to look for legitimate assistance in combating the violence. With foreign assistance, the combined resources could effectively dismantle major cartel and other criminal operations and restore security and control, particularly in the northern tier of border states. Over the past several years there has been an increase in the level of involvement of U.S. intelligence in Mexican operations, and even members of the Mexican military establishment have voiced their opinion that Mexico cannot continue down its current path alone. The revelation of a joint U.S.-Mexican intelligence center in the Mexican media in November is further indication of the increased involvement of foreign agencies. However, there was a tremendous political outcry by many in the PRD and PRI after news of the joint intelligence center was made public. Mexican social sensitivities to foreign forces operating on Mexican soil will likely trigger an even bigger political backlash than what has already been triggered by the violence, making foreign assistance the least likely choice that Calderon will make. The second direction is not a new option and has been discussed quietly for several years. The Mexican federal government has never been able to assert complete and total control over Mexican territory very far outside of its central core region around Mexico City — certainly not in its northern tier of border states. Going back to the days of Pancho Villa in the early 1900s, the northern frontier of Mexico has always been bandit country due to its inhospitable environment and distance from the capital, and it remains so today. Before the balance of cartel power was significantly disrupted by Calderon in 2006, there were clear delineations of territory and rule in the region, and while there was still occasional fighting between cartels, the levels of violence were nowhere near what we are seeing today. This was due in large part to the cartels' ability to effectively police the region. It is in their interest to have lower-level violence and other crimes, such as kidnapping, carjacking, robberies, extortion and muggings, under control. Any sort of uptick in criminal activity negatively affects their ability to traffic drugs through their respective areas. This second scenario involves a dominant entity purging or co-opting its rivals and reducing the violence being practiced by the various criminal groups. As this entity grows stronger it will be able to direct more attention to controlling lower-level crimes so that DTOs can carry out their business unimpeded. However, this situation would not be able to play out without at least some degree of complicity from elements of the Mexican government. While the Mexican government has demonstrated the ability to significantly disrupt cartel operations, it cannot control their territories, and it would need some degree of compliance from the dominant cartel entity as well. We began to see hints of such an arrangement in the first half of 2010 with the formation of the New Federation, but the organizations involved were eventually forced to focus their attention elsewhere and the goals of the alliance fell by the wayside. However, one key element is still in play: the Sinaloa Federation. The Sinaloa Federation has spread and increased its level of influence from Tijuana to parts of the Rio Grande in Texas and has the most resources at its disposal, making it the most capable of all the organizations in Mexico today, and thus the most likely to lead an alliance that could consolidate power in the volatile regions and keep them stable. Sinaloa has remained remarkably intact throughout much of Calderon's offensive against the cartels, and it has even been accused by rival cartels — most vocally by the VCF — of being favored by the Mexican government. Over the course of the next year we will be watching for indications that the Sinaloa Federation and any new friends it may make along the way are becoming the dominant organized-crime entity throughout Mexico.
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Mexican Drug Wars: Bloodiest Year to Date
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