Jun 7, 2011 | 20:43 GMT

9 mins read

Mexico Security Memo: Casino Attacks in Monterrey

Mexico Security Memo

Money-Laundering Targets

Another significant facet of Monterrey's strategic value to the cartels made the news May 25 when four casinos were robbed. Heavily armed gunmen reportedly emptied out the cashier cages at Casino Hollywood, Casino Royale, Casino Red and Casino Miravalle Palace, all in the same general area between Monterrey proper and the westside city of San Pedro Garza Garcia. Los Zetas are currently fighting with the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels for Monterrey. The Zetas hold the city, but the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels want to take it because it sits astride intersecting smuggling corridors for drug and human trafficking. But that is only part of the story. The greater Monterrey area has about three dozen casinos, most of the more than 40 casinos in northeast Mexico. To an extent that no other business sector can be, large casino operations are essential to laundering the billions of dollars generated by Mexico's cartels. Clearly, the tit-for-tat operations in which Gulf and Zetas elements target each other's vital support networks appear to have been elevated to a higher level with bigger stakes. Mexican media have indicated that "millions" were taken in the heists, but no source has quantified how much money was taken or whether the currency was in pesos or U.S. dollars. Furthermore, the reports have offered confusing or conflicting information about the order in which the heists occurred, so much so that a sequence may not be easily determined. In this situation, however, such tactical details are less important than the larger implications of the apparently well-coordinated heists. Last January, the Casino Royale was the scene of an apparent effort to eliminate two high-profile members of the Juarez cartel who were gambling in the casino. Gunmen entered the establishment and started firing hundreds of rounds, but the reported targets got away — and later were apprehended by authorities. Almost as an afterthought, one online report mentioned in its last sentence that "in the confusion" the casino's cashier cage was robbed and all of the casino's security-camera tapes disappeared. STRATFOR has found no direct link in the media between the January shooting-robbery and the May robbery at Casino Royale. But we find the events more than coincidental. In all likelihood, the first heist in January was a test run for the coordinated multi-casino robberies conducted May 25. Certainly, U.S. interdiction efforts have put a financial strain on all of the Mexican cartels, making casino robberies a tempting proposition, but the successful theft of millions of dollars or pesos may only have been a bonus on top of the larger reward of hitting a rival cartel at a vulnerable spot: its money-laundering operations. Two years ago, Monterrey was something of a neutral zone where all top cartel families made use of the affluent stability and superior schools and medical care. In late January 2010, however, Los Zetas started consolidating their hold on the city after declaring open war on their former parent organization, the Gulf cartel. Last summer, after taking losses on the border at Reynosa and Matamoros, Los Zetas retreated to Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. In Monterrey, the Zetas forces were entrenched for about two weeks when Hurricane Alex roared into the Rio Grande Valley and catastrophic flooding demolished huge sections of the city's transportation arteries — effectively pulling up the drawbridge behind the Zetas. Despite the heavy Zetas presence, Monterrey's longer history as relatively neutral ground means that the casinos robbed May 25 were likely laundering funds for any number of drug trafficking organizations. The Zetas' control of the Monterrey metropolitan area does not equate to exclusive use of its black market infrastructure, and dozens of large casinos have far more strategic worth as money-laundering operations than they do as extortion targets.

On the Quiet Coahuila Front

With the exception of Torreon and Saltillo, Coahuila state has been fairly quiet in Mexico's cartel wars. The state is sparsely populated, lacks high-volume interstate highway arteries and remains largely undisputed Los Zetas territory. But several recent events along with an increasing Mexican military presence could point to a coming change in Coahuila's security conditions. According to official government news releases and confirmed by STRATFOR sources in the region, there has been a gradual increase in the deployment of military assets to Coahuila and in military activities in 2011. Mexican marines seized just over a ton of cocaine at a ranch northwest of Monclova on May 24. Then on June 1, Mexican army personnel found 38 narcofosas, or hidden graves, in the village of Guerrero, 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Piedras Negras. It is not yet clear how many victims were disposed of at the Guerrero site — the meter-deep pits contained thousands of bits of charred human bones, metal buckles, buttons, and other personal items, and three 55-gallon drums also were found in which human bodies had been cremated. Also on June 1, the Mexican military uncovered a large cache of firearms and munitions on a farm in Nadadores, including 161 weapons and 92,039 rounds of ammunition of various calibers. By no means are these recent events in Coahuila unique for Mexico, but the increase in military personnel and operations in the sparsely populated state is notable. As that military presence grows, STRATFOR expects significant clashes between Los Zetas and Mexican troops over the next few months. In Mexico, cartels have demonstrated that they will absorb a low level of losses as "the cost of doing business." However, losses can reach a point where they are no longer acceptable to an organization, and violent countermeasures tend to result. In the quieter areas of Coahuila, particularly in the western and northern parts of the state where the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have not bothered to contest Zetas control, Los Zetas may soon respond to the Mexican government's inroads with direct and violent action against the military. (click here to view interactive map)

May 31

  • Unidentified people asphyxiated a man and abandoned his body in a vacant lot near the Francisco Madero avenue in Cancun, Quintana Roo state. The victim was tortured and beaten before being killed.
  • Soldiers arrested four men in Acapulco, Guerrero state, for transporting a dismembered body in the trunk of a car. A fifth suspect managed to escape. The men had been stopped at a military roadblock but attempted to flee and crashed into another car.

June 1

  • Unidentified gunmen in the Dale neighborhood of Chihuahua, Chihuahua state, shot and killed Fernando Oropeza, the former deputy director of a low-risk prison. Oropeza had resigned from his post after a clandestine bar was discovered at the prison.
  • Two people were killed and one was injured in a firefight between suspected members of drug trafficking gangs in the Region 233 neighborhood of Cancun, Quintana Roo state. The incident reportedly began when six members of a criminal gang arrived at a food vendor's stall and opened fire on several members of a rival group identified only as "LGD."
  • Relatives of journalist Noel Lopez identified his body among those found in a mass grave in Chinameca, Veracruz state. Lopez had last been seen headed to Soteapan on March 8.

June 2

  • Unidentified gunmen in the Jardines de Oriente neighborhood of Chihuahua, Chihuahua state, opened fire on a municipal police vehicle, killing a police officer.
  • Federal police officers arrested Candido Ramos Perez, the suspected head for Cartel Pacifico Sur of the Cuernavaca "plaza" in Morelos state, during vehicle inspections on the Cuernavaca-Mexico City highway near the southern boundary of the Federal District. A suspected cartel lookout riding in Ramos Perez's vehicle also was arrested.

June 3

  • Military authorities announced the seizure of 161 firearms and 92,039 rounds of ammunition reportedly belonging to Los Zetas in the municipality of Nadadores, Coahuila state.
  • Security guards at the Sinaloa state government palace in Culiacan discovered a severed head and hands on the building's exterior stairs. A preliminary report stated that the victim could be a state police officer.
  • The Mexican prosecutor general's office announced the seizure of two large containers holding 80 barrels of monomethylamine, a precursor used to manufacture chemical drugs, at container-ship facilities in Manzanillo, Colima state. Another 80 barrels were seized from a separate ship, bringing the total amount of precursors seized to 34,848 kilograms.

June 4

  • Soldiers arrested Jorge Hank Rhon, a former mayor of Tijuana, Baja California state, during a raid in response to a citizen complaint. Approximately 50 firearms were seized from Rhon's house.
  • Federal police announced the arrest of Victor Manuel Perez Izquierdo, the head of Los Zetas in Quintana Roo state, during an operation in Cancun. Ten other members of Los Zetas were arrested along with Perez Izquierdo. Authorities said the operation resulted from the arrests of 10 Zetas in Cancun on May 28.

June 5

  • Military authorities announced the seizure of four armored vehicles and 23 tractor-trailers during raids on vehicle workshops in Reynosa and Camargo, Tamaulipas state.
  • Unidentified gunmen shot and killed the municipal police commander of Mazatlan, Sinaloa state, in the San Angel neighborhood as he headed to his house.
  • Police in the Mitras Norte neighborhood of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, discovered the bodies of two men hanging from a pedestrian bridge. Signs bearing undisclosed messages to members of a criminal group were found near the bodies.
  • Unidentified people abandoned a taxi with a dismembered body outside a police station in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon state. A message found in the vehicle included a threat to the mayor of Guadalupe, warning that she would be next.

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