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Jan 25, 2011 | 13:14 GMT

10 mins read

Mexico Security Memo: Jan. 25, 2011

Mexico Security Memo

San Luis Potosi Heats Up

Members of the Mexican federal police and the Mexican military engaged in several firefights along Federal Highway 57 corridor in San Luis Potosi (SLP) state Jan. 21 with suspected members of Los Zetas. Six gunmen, a suspected kidnapping victim and one federal police agent reportedly died in the gunfight, though according to some unconfirmed media reports, a member of the Mexican military and two additional federal police agents also died. SLP has been relatively quiet throughout much of the Mexican government's offensive against the country's criminal organizations. Still, the region is no stranger to organized criminal activity, as Los Zetas have had an established presence in SLP for several years. In the past several weeks, the region has witnessed a steady increase in organized crime-type activity, which could be a harbinger of things to come. The first firefight erupted around 10:30 a.m. near the SLP town of San Lorenzo, when Mexican Federal Highway Police attempted to pull over a vehicle carrying multiple occupants. A first officer had radioed for backup when the occupants of the vehicle opened fire, killing him and severely injuring his partner. When the backup arrived, they too, were greeted with a volley of bullets. The Mexican military soon arrived on the scene, according to a few media outlets citing eyewitness accounts. The military forces sought to engage the suspected gunmen and apparent reinforcement groups of gunmen. According to a SEDENA (the Spanish acronym for Mexico's Secretariat of Defense) press release, a group of gunmen simultaneously engaged a Mexican army patrol near Matehuala, several kilometers north of San Lorenzo. The press release said six gunmen died in both altercations and four were arrested. Military officials seized three rifles, two handguns, 37 magazines, three vehicles, radio/communications equipment and tactical equipment. After securing the sites of the attack and the weapons and equipment, the military patrol and federal police members searched for gunmen who had fled into the surrounding desert during the firefight. During the search, another group of gunmen attacked them. The incidents of Jan. 21 were just the latest in an uptick of organized criminal activity in the region. SLP has had between 22 and 35 organized crime-related deaths so far this year alone. While these numbers do not jump off the page compared to hot spots of cartel violence like Chihuahua and Sinaloa states, they are higher than normal for SLP and mark the continuation of a trend that began in the latter half of 2010, a year in which SLP witnessed a record 102 deaths compared to seven in 2009. No evidence has emerged of major cartel rivalries playing themselves out in SLP. Instead, the recent spike in violence seems to be from members or associates of Los Zetas increasingly coming in contact with members of the Mexican security forces, culminating in incidents like the one on Jan. 21. In the wake of this and future conflicts, Mexican security forces are likely to mount a stronger response in the form of increased patrols and checkpoints. This heightened response itself further increases the probability of future confrontations between organized criminal elements and the security forces in the coming weeks.

The Arrest of El Amarillo

Members of the Mexican federal police arrested Flavio "El Amarillo" Mendez Santiago near the small city of Villa de Etla, Oaxaca state, on Jan. 18. Mendez was among the 30 original members of Los Zetas, recruited by Arturo "Z1" Guzman Decena in the 1990s to join the group, which originally served as the premier enforcement wing for the Gulf cartel and as the protective detail for former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Mendez reportedly rose through the ranks to run Los Zetas' intelligence network throughout Tamaulipas state and northeastern Mexico; for a period, he also served as Cardenas Guillen's personal bodyguard. At the time of his arrest, Mendez was the regional commander for Zeta operations in the southernmost portions of Mexico, primarily in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, portions of Tabasco and the southern half of the Mexican-Guatemalan border region. Most Zeta operations in this region involve migrant and human smuggling, a valuable industry where groups like Los Zetas can charge $1,000 to $10,000 per person seeking passage to the United States. While Mendez's arrest certainly has dealt a serious blow to Zeta operations in Oaxaca and Chiapas states, it does not necessarily affect the organization as a whole — such as in the volatile region of northeastern Mexico, where Los Zetas are fighting for control of their home turf. Los Zetas' structure is very hierarchical, with a clear chain of command. This means someone undoubtedly already has been assigned to replace Mendez. Even so, Mendez's knowledge, expertise and experience as one of the original Zeta members will be difficult to replace.

IED Detonates in Hidalgo State

An improvised explosive device (IED) placed inside a car detonated Jan. 22 near the town of Tula, Hidalgo state, injuring four local policemen. Initial reports suggested that local law enforcement received an anonymous tip about a corpse in a white Volkswagen Bora. The IED reportedly detonated when police opened one of the vehicle's doors. Authorities have not named suspects, and no group has claimed responsibility. Hidalgo state has seen elevated levels of cartel violence over the past year, namely after the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009. At that time, factions loyal to Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal and Hector "El H" Beltran Leyva began fighting one another in the state. Neither of these groups had shown any willingness or ability to construct a device like the one deployed Jan. 22. The damage from the device is consistent with a small device placed inside the vehicle, making it similar to the IEDs deployed in Juarez, Chihuahua state, and Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, in 2010. The setup and the deployment of the IED in Tula also bears a striking resemblance to the tactics used by La Linea in the July 2010 IED attack against federal police in Juarez, Chihuahua, in that in both cases a corpse was used as bait to lure law enforcement and other first responders to the scene before detonating the device. The device deployed in Juarez consisted of an industrial gel explosive known as Tovex and was activated remotely via cell phone. At this point in time, however, no information has emerged about the composition of the Tula IED or how it was detonated. Despite their similarities, the distance between Tula and Juarez makes it unlikely that the same groups or bombmaker were involved. It thus appears that at least two people in Mexico have mastered the tradecraft necessary to deploy a viable IED; now it appears there might be a third. Follow-on attacks accordingly should be watched for to see if a sustained bombing campaign against law enforcement targets in Hidalgo state is on the way. (click here to view interactive graphic)

Jan. 17

  • Police in the municipality of El Carmen, Nuevo Leon state, discovered the body of an unidentified man. The victim was handcuffed and bore signs of torture.
  • Unidentified attackers threw a grenade into the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state; no one was injured.

Jan. 18

  • Security forces discovered five decapitated and dismembered bodies in the municipality of Montemorelos, Nuevo Leon state, near city hall and local police offices.
  • Police in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, arrested two suspected members of La Linea believed planning an attack on 11 people at a party in a local motel.
  • Police in the Bosques de las Lomas neighborhood in Mexico City arrested Jose Jorge Balderas Garza, a suspected gunman believed responsible for shooting Paraguayan professional soccer player Salvador Cabanas in January 2010.
  • Grenade explosions damaged two vehicles outside police stations in Linares and San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon state. One police officer was injured in the Linares attack.
  • Two primary schools in Mazatlan, Sinaloa state, canceled classes after a group of gunmen arrived at one of the schools and called on the principal to cancel classes for a week on pain of death.

Jan. 19

  • Soldiers in the Leon Moderno neighborhood of Leon, Guanajuato state, defused an IED outside a Red Cross post.
  • Military officials announced the liberation of a kidnapping victim held in a house in the Constituyentes de Queretaro neighborhood of San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon state. One suspected kidnapper was arrested during the raid.
  • Unidentified gunmen shot and killed two police officers in a patrol car in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon state.
  • The decapitated body of the police commander of Villa Union, Poanas municipality, Durango state, was discovered in Poanas.
  • Soldiers in Rosarito, Baja California state, arrested Juan Miguel Valle Beltran, a suspected chief for the Sinaloa cartel.

Jan. 20

  • Police in the Colombian city of Villavicencio arrested Carlos Arturo Cordoba, a Colombian citizen suspected of acting as a link between Colombian drug-trafficking cartels and the Sinaloa and Beltran Leyva cartels in Mexico.
  • Soldiers seized two suspected methamphetamine labs in the municipality of Tuxpan, Jalisco state.
  • Unidentified attackers detonated an explosive device near the Public Security Secretariat offices in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state. No injuries were reported.
  • Soldiers in the Olas Altas neighborhood of Manzanillo, Colima state, arrested 12 people, including the director of municipal transit, during a raid on a house allegedly containing drugs and explosives.

Jan. 21

  • Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a police station in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state. No injuries were reported in the attack, and two suspected gunmen were arrested while driving a car near the police station.
  • Unidentified gunmen shot and killed a state investigative police commander in the municipality of Canatlan, Durango state.
  • Military authorities announced the seizure of 245 kilograms (540 pounds) of opium gum in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state.

Jan. 22

  • Two soldiers were injured and a gunman killed in a firefight in the Cumbres neighborhood of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state.
  • Soldiers arrested eight suspected extortionists in Acapulco, Guerrero state. Naval intelligence work and patrols in the Miramar neighborhood reportedly led to the arrests.
  • Police in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, freed four kidnapping victims and arrested seven suspected kidnappers, including Francisco Ramon Escobar Carrillo, the nephew of cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

Jan. 23

  • Police in Acapulco, Guerrero state, arrested seven suspected members of the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, including Jose Lozano Martinez, who reportedly has admitted to participating in 22 murders in Acapulco in early January.
  • Unidentified gunmen shot and killed five people and injured two others during an attack on a group of people at a soccer field in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state.

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