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Mexico's Cartels Will Continue to Splinter in 2017

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READFeb 2, 2017 | 08:01 GMT
Investigators work a crime scene in Cancun, Mexico, where a gunfight erupted on Jan. 17.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Investigators work a crime scene in Cancun, Mexico, where a gunfight erupted on Jan. 17.
Editor's Note

This analysis is an excerpt of the annual cartel forecast produced by Stratfor's Threat Lens team, available in its entirety to Threat Lens subscribers.

Stratfor has tracked Mexico's drug cartels for over a decade. For most of that time, our annual forecasts focused on the fortunes and prospects of each trafficking organization. But as Mexican organized crime groups have gradually fractured and fallen apart — a process we refer to as balkanization — we have had to refine the way we think about them. The cartels are no longer a handful of large groups carving out territory across Mexico, but a collection of many different smaller, regionally based networks. So, rather than exploring the outlook of every individual faction, we now take them as loose gatherings centered on certain core areas of operation: Tamaulipas, Tierra Caliente and Sinaloa.

A Year in Review

Before we can look ahead at what 2017 holds for the cartels, let's first look back to see how they fared in 2016. As we predicted in last year's annual cartel forecast, the country's large organized crime groups — particularly those in Tamaulipas and Sinaloa states — continued to break down. But we were proved wrong when we said that "no group would be immune to downsizing and decentralization." The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) showed no signs of splintering in 2016, though there may be cracks forming within the group that we simply aren't aware of yet. After all, similar divisions that began to grow among Los Zetas in 2010 took time to come to light. 

Map showing areas of Cartel influence in Mexico, focused on the Tamaulipas, Tierra Caliente and Sinaloa cartels.

Violence stemming from organized crime was also much higher last year than we expected. At the time, we believed that because no nationwide cartel wars raged, and many smaller clashes had moved beyond Mexico's major cities, the anticipated human toll would drop. But this also proved untrue: Last year's homicide rates in Mexico were 10 percent higher than 2015's, making it the country's deadliest year since 2012. We failed to foresee that the balkanization process would produce more flashpoints across Mexico, including in major cities such as Juarez, Acapulco, Tijuana and Veracruz. As a result, murder rates jumped in the states of Michoacan, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Colima and Chihuahua.

At the end of the day, the smaller groups that emerged from the bigger cartels' infighting were less stable, less predictable and more willing to fight tooth and nail to keep what little territory they had. Without a central leadership structure directing these groups' activities behind the scenes, Mexican authorities will have a tough time combating them. Though there are still a few ringleaders to target and capture — the government's favored strategy for tackling organized crime — Mexico City will have little choice in the year ahead but to pick off Mexico's many different groups and gangs one by one.

Tierra Caliente: An Elusive Enemy

After the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion broke off from the Sinaloa Federation in 2014, it rapidly grew into the largest and most powerful organization in Tierra Caliente, a scorching arid region in southern Mexico. The group's rise was partly aided by the support it continued to receive from the Sinaloa Federation in exchange for helping to stamp out its rival, Los Zetas

The CJNG's alliance with the Sinaloa Federation was, however, short-lived. As the CJNG began to make inroads into Tijuana and Mexicali in 2014, it gained access to smuggling plazas in the area. Now the group appears to be working with remnants of La Linea and the Juarez cartel to muscle its way into the Sinaloa Federation's Chihuahua territory, including the critical Juarez border crossing. The CJNG is also attempting to consolidate its control over the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacan and Colima while pushing deeper into the Baja Peninsula and the states of Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas and Aguas Calientes. Meanwhile, its clashes with Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel drag on in Veracruz, Tabasco and Guanajuato.

Though the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion's rise has painted a target on the back of cartel chief Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, the elusive and well-protected crime boss still has a firm grip on the organization. When Mexican authorities inevitably catch up with Oseguera, however, there is a chance his downfall will lead to the very balkanization the group has so far avoided.

Tamaulipas: Locked in a Bloody Struggle

To the north and east, cartels based in Tamaulipas have been in tumult for over half a decade. Their troubles began in 2010 when Los Zetas — then the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel — split from and declared war on their former masters. The conflict that ensued was then compounded in 2012 when Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero broke from Los Zetas, tearing the group apart from within. The Zeta core he left behind has been in near-constant turmoil ever since, exacerbated by the arrests of Zeta leaders Miguel Angel and Omar Trevino Morales in July 2013 and March 2015, respectively.

After Omar's capture, the Zeta core was riven in half once again. The faction that stayed loyal to the Trevino family called itself the Cartel del Noreste, while its former ally-turned-rival adopted the name Vieja Escuela Zetas, or "Old School Zetas." (The group also goes by Zetas Vieja Guardia, or "Old Guard Zetas.") The two have been locked in a brutal fight for Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria for nearly two years, and beheadings and mutilations have become commonplace.

The conflict is starting to wear on both groups. In September 2016, Cartel del Noreste leader Jose Francisco "Comandante Kiko" Trevino was arrested in Houston, Texas. His capture followed rumors that the Old School Zetas had aligned with factions of the Gulf cartel and Los Talibanes against the Cartel del Noreste and that they had put a price on Trevino's head. His flight to Texas could signal that his faction isn't faring well, but by all appearances the Cartel del Noreste is still in control of northern Coahuila state. Meanwhile, the Old School Zetas are holding strong to the east in Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, but they, too, are grappling with their own problems. Several of the group's leaders have been captured or killed, and media reports suggest that the Mexican navy arrested Juna Pablo Perez Garcia — the Old School Zetas' alleged kingpin in Los Ramones — on Jan. 17. Whether or not the reports are true, it is clear that Tamaulipas-based crime groups will not emerge from their protracted internecine war anytime soon.

Sinaloa: A Slow Languish

Looking to the west, the Sinaloa cartels aren't doing much better. Even Sinaloa boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera — a larger-than-life figure who has become the stuff of legend in Mexico — was not powerful enough to counter the damage balkanization did to his once-powerful crime syndicate before he was captured in early 2014. Prior to his detention, some factions, including the Beltran Leyva Organization and parts of Ignacio Coronel's criminal network, had begun to abandon the Sinaloa Federation. The defections continued after his imprisonment as the CJNG formed its own organization.

On Jan. 19, Guzman was extradited to the United States. Most Mexican cartel members in his position have historically pleaded guilty and cooperated with the U.S. government in exchange for shorter prison sentences. Given the ages of Guzman and his immediate family members, it would be in his best interest to do the same. Should he plead guilty, the information he may provide to U.S. authorities could be incredibly damaging to his associates — and even more so to his enemies. Most of Guzman's allies are aware of this danger and have presumably taken steps to protect themselves from any knowledge or incriminating evidence Guzman may have possessed at the time of his arrest. Even so, Guzman's cooperation with U.S. law enforcement would be bad news for Sinaloa's remaining crime bosses.

Though Sinaloa cartels will keep losing power and influence in the year ahead — and perhaps even valuable territory along the U.S.-Mexico border — they won't die out completely.

Instead, the region's crime groups will continue to operate in the country's golden triangle, a remote area that is tough to police and ideal for growing opium and marijuana. These groups will be much smaller than the once-massive Sinaloa Federation, but that will not stop them from growing, synthesizing and smuggling narcotics through their well-established connections in and beyond the region.

A Drain on Government Resources

Most of the uptick in violence Mexico saw last year stemmed from clashes between cartels or between cartels and security forces. Nevertheless, there is a good chance the coming year will see more collateral damage — especially in heavily contested areas — as gunfights and the use of high-powered weapons on both sides persist. Travelers and expatriates can avoid the danger by staying away from trouble spots, practicing situational awareness and employing common-sense personal security measures. But few parts of Mexico are immune to the violence, as was made clear by several recent incidents in areas of the country that are generally considered safe. For example, Los Zetas gunmen stormed a popular nightclub in Playa del Carmen on Jan. 16. Their intention was to kill a Gulf cartel member who was trying to move in on their turf, but their attack also left a young American woman dead.

Nearly all Mexican organized crime groups have publicly condemned kidnapping and extortion. Many have even promised to punish other gangs that commit these crimes. Most groups, however, blatantly show their own hypocrisy by engaging in these activities, as well as most imaginable types of crime. But in doing so they also carve out more space for other criminals to operate in, fostering corruption and forcing the government to divert more resources to countering them.

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