Mexico's two pre-eminent cartels — the Sinaloa Federation in the west and Los Zetas in the east — progressively brought smaller and geographically disparate groups under their influence throughout 2011. By the beginning of 2012, Sinaloa had begun to rely on its affiliate groups, most notably the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), to combat its Zetas rivals, while Los Zetas more frequently worked with local groups with knowledge of and contacts in their regions to combat Sinaloa. This trend has largely continued through the first quarter of 2012.
The polarity of Mexico's criminal landscape in some ways is a byproduct of the country's geography, which lends itself to distinct trafficking corridors that run parallel on either side of the country. Los Zetas primarily control corridors along the Gulf coast that stretch from the Yucatan Peninsula to Nuevo Laredo, the busiest commercial point of entry into the United States on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Sinaloa Federation controls the corridors along the Pacific coast that run up through Ciudad Juarez and then west into Tijuana, Baja California. The Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa ally, controls the lateral corridor from Matamoros to Reynosa.
While geography helped polarize the country's criminal elements, violence can erupt anywhere. Even with operational control over a specific plaza, or distribution hub, a cartel still may have to defend itself from belligerent criminal groups. Such is the case with Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation. As the two groups continue to compete for these corridors, the rise of two affiliate groups, the Knights Templar (KT) and the CJNG, could add a new dimension to this conflict. Both groups are Sinaloa affiliates, and both appear to have come to prominence during the past three months. The KT appears to have solidified its control over its former parent organization, La Familia Michoacana. In doing so, it has been able to extend its reach to areas farther from its home territory, such as Acapulco.
Meanwhile, the CJNG has conducted operations in at least seven states, and the group has also demonstrated the tactical capability of maintaining a strong presence in Veracruz. Despite working with the same organization, the two groups declared a turf war on each other Feb. 16. Sinaloa's response to this potential turf war will be important to watch. A split from Sinaloa by one of these large and increasingly capable criminal organizations could disrupt the polarity currently in place in Mexico.