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Jan 16, 2014 | 10:04 GMT

11 mins read

Mexico's Drug War: Balkanization Continues in the Northeast and Northwest


Editor's Note: This week's Security Weekly summarizes our annual Mexico drug cartel report, in which we assess the most significant developments of 2013 and provide updated profiles of the country's powerful criminal cartels as well as a forecast for 2014. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain through our Mexico Security Memo, quarterly updates and other analyses that we produce throughout the year as part of the Mexico Security Monitor service.

By Tristan Reed
Mexico Security Analyst

Organized crime in Mexico diversified and contorted in 2013. This resulted from the balkanization of Mexico's transnational criminal organizations, in which even groups with a national (and in some cases, international) reach such as Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation focused more on fighting rivals near their strongholds rather than on offensives further afield.

While the nationwide conflict between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation played a smaller role in organized crime-related turf wars compared to 2012, the two criminal organizations and the separate challenges from rivals they face will still play a central role in shaping security in their respective areas of operations throughout 2014. Los Zetas remain the most powerful and widely operating crime group in northeastern Mexico. But they are not immune to challenges from various rivals in their region, such as factions of the Gulf cartel, most of which enjoy support from the Knights Templar or the Sinaloa Federation.

Meanwhile, the Sinaloa Federation continues to maintain its territorial base and level of drug trafficking operations in northwestern Mexico in the face of rivals, particularly criminal groups originating from the old Beltran Leyva Organization. Leadership losses during the last quarter of 2013 mean the Sinaloa Federation will have to scramble to adapt — or face another internal division and possibly even substantial territorial gains by regional rivals, both of which could sharply raise levels of inter-cartel violence in the northwest.

Reorganization in the Northeast

2014 will see substantial changes in northeastern Mexico, which since 2010 has been the center of operations for — and thereby the center of conflict between — Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel. The arrest in 2012 of Gulf cartel leader Jorge Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez, which contributed to further Gulf cartel infighting, and Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero's split from Los Zetas blurred the dividing lines between the two groups. Leaders operating under both names have shifted allegiances to their rivals and even to outside groups like the Knights Templar and the Sinaloa Federation. The eventual outcome of such realignments remains to be seen. One possible scenario includes the creation of a new crime group in the northeast consisting of elements from Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel operating in tandem with the Sinaloa Federation and the Knights Templar. Alternatively, Los Zetas or the Knights Templar could absorb some Gulf cartel factions. Either scenario could lead to new dynamics in former Gulf strongholds in states including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila.

Los Zetas split from the Gulf cartel in 2010, causing northeastern Mexico to experience one of the most active and violent criminal conflicts in the country ever since. After the split, the two groups immediately began to fight in several states throughout Mexico, particularly Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. By 2011, it became apparent that Los Zetas had largely bested their former employer in much of the territory the Gulf cartel controlled prior to the split. By 2012, the Gulf cartel had suffered further losses at the hands of Los Zetas, Mexican authorities and, most of all, from infighting. Such losses initially suggested the Gulf cartel, once among the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico, would soon unravel.

However, the Gulf cartel criminal brand name has persisted even though the group is no longer a cohesive criminal organization. Instead, the Gulf cartel now comprises a collection of groups mostly based in Tamaulipas that all use the same name. Despite this fractured nature, groups operating under the Gulf name face constant threats from Los Zetas and the military. This is because some drug traffickers operating under the Gulf cartel name are able to move significant quantities of illegal drugs into the United States through ports of entry primarily located in Reynosa and Matamoros with the help of outsiders like the Sinaloa Federation and the Knights Templar, hence drawing attention from Los Zetas and the government.

Areas of Cartel Influence in Mexico, Fourth Quarter 2013

Areas of Cartel Influence in Mexico, Fourth Quarter 2013

All Gulf cartel factions — whose exact dividing lines remain unclear — seem to operate primarily from the Tamaulipas cities of Reynosa, Tampico and Matamoros. The Velazquez faction, which had the widest reach during 2013, is an exception: It is based in Zacatecas and operates in Tamaulipas, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Jalisco and Tabasco states. The faction emerged after Velazquez, a regional leader for Los Zetas based in Zacatecas, declared war against now-detained Los Zetas top leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales at the beginning of 2012.

Just prior to Velazquez's own arrest in September 2012, he adopted the Gulf cartel name and aligned with other Gulf cartel factions and the Knights Templar (which already cooperated with some Gulf cartel factions). Now led by his brothers Rolando and Daniel, the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel is Los Zetas' most active rival. Following the arrest of the most powerful Gulf cartel leader, Mario "Pelon" Ramirez Trevino, the Gulf cartel umbrella began experiencing additional internal rifts, but the Velazquez faction has maintained its status as the strongest faction.

Though not based in Tamaulipas, it operates on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tamaulipas state and wants to wrest control of Nuevo Laredo from Los Zetas, given the opportunity. The Velazquez faction tried unsuccessfully to seize the city from Los Zetas in March 2012 under the guise of the Sinaloa Federation. Without a strong leader like Ramirez to oversee the Gulf cartel factions in Tamaulipas, the Velazquez faction will likely continue to fill the void in 2014. It will use its existing relations with other Gulf cartel factions to establish a stronger front in combating Los Zetas in Tamaulipas state, with the specific goal of taking Nuevo Laredo. This could create escalated levels of violence in Reynosa in 2014 as Los Zetas attempt to defend themselves against such incursions.

With new Gulf cartel infighting, new Los Zetas leadership and the persistent threat of the Knights Templar and the Velazquez faction to Los Zetas in Tamaulipas state, other Gulf faction leaders will have to decide where to place their allegiance. Each Gulf cartel faction has its own distinct relations with external groups including Los Zetas. As Gulf cartel factions compete against one another — a process that naturally has weakened them — these separate relations with other criminal groups will increasingly diverge as each faction seeks to ensure its respective survival. This could result in some aligning with Los Zetas or strengthening ties with the Velazquez faction or even the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar use the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros to traffic humans and drugs into the United States. The Michoacan-based criminal organization began in 2012 to help some Gulf cartel factions defend their territory against Los Zetas. As the Gulf cartel continued to suffer at the hands of infighting and military operations, factions' reliance on the Knights Templar increased. Notably, the Knights Templar has not sought to propagate its brand name in northeastern Mexico the way it has in southwestern Mexico. It will maintain its presence in northeastern Mexico in 2014 as it tries to ensure that its transportation routes into the United States remain open.

Although Velazquez's war against Miguel Trevino created divisions in Los Zetas in states including Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Quintana Roo, Los Zetas' hold over its territories in Tamaulipas state and Nuevo Leon has not weakened. Meanwhile, Miguel Trevino's detention has had little impact on Los Zetas' operations and territorial control. Miguel Trevino's brother, Omar "Z-42" Trevino, now runs Los Zetas.

Continued Gulf cartel infighting even helped bolster Los Zetas' presence in Tamaulipas state in 2013, when Los Zetas' activity in Reynosa — a traditional Gulf stronghold — increased. Los Zetas subsequently began transporting drugs and undocumented migrants through Reynosa. Los Zetas entered Reynosa without much overt violence, suggesting either the Gulf cartel factions in Reynosa were not as concerned with Los Zetas as they were with other rival Gulf cartel factions or that a Gulf cartel leader in Reynosa possibly allowed Los Zetas to enter.

Given that Los Zetas have Omar Trevino to build and maintain relationships with other leaders of criminal networks while the Gulf cartel factions in Tamaulipas state have no real replacement for Mario Ramirez Trevino, Los Zetas will likely expand into other areas of Tamaulipas state in a similarly tranquil fashion. Matamoros, a valuable port of entry into the United States where Gulf infighting is emerging, is one of the most likely areas for this to happen during 2014. But Los Zetas will face a challenge from the increasingly expansive Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel in Matamoros and beyond, something that creates the potential for increased violence in 2014.

The Sinaloa Federation

As our 2013 cartel annual report anticipated, the Sinaloa Federation, like Los Zetas, the Knights Templar and the Gulf cartel, faced numerous regional challenges. The Sinaloa Federation found these challenges in states such as Sinaloa, Sonora and Chihuahua, and they persisted throughout 2013. In fact, they grew substantially in the last month of 2013, when the Sinaloa Federation experienced several key losses of high-level leaders at the hands of unidentified gunmen and the government. On Dec. 11, an unknown assailant gunned down Jesus Gregorio "R-5" Villanueva Rodriguez in Sonora state. Gonzalo "Macho Prieto" Inzunza Inzunza was killed Dec. 18 in a targeted operation by the Mexican navy, also in Sonora state. Then on Dec. 30, Dutch authorities at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport arrested Jose Rodrigo "El Chino Antrax" Arechiga Gamboa. All three individuals operated directly beneath top-tier Sinaloa leaders such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera or Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, and their responsibilities included defending Sinaloa's territory in Mexico's northwest.

Regional crime groups such as Los Mazatlecos in northern Sinaloa state, La Linea in western Chihuahua and southeast of Ciudad Juarez, and a remnant of the Beltran Leyva Organization led by Trinidad "El Chapo Trini" Olivias Valenzuela in Sonora state all have challenged Sinaloa Federation operations, contributing to violence in the region. Moreover, Los Zetas quietly began to operate just southeast of Ciudad Juarez, a city which the Sinaloa Federation has largely overtaken from its rivals in the Juarez cartel. While Los Zetas have not yet begun to operate violently near Ciudad Juarez, as Stratfor noted in the fourth quarter cartel update, the group has been propping up lower-level crime and enforcer groups that fall under the Juarez cartel umbrella, namely Los Aztecas and La Linea. With continued rival challenges, the introduction of Los Zetas into northern Chihuahua state, and a series of leadership losses, the Sinaloa Federation could well face a tougher year in 2014 than it did in 2013.

While the possibility exists that the Sinaloa Federation will continue to hold all its territory with no further challenges in 2014, Sinaloa leadership losses in 2013 plainly invite a stronger and more violent push for control by its rivals. While the Sinaloa losses could embolden the cartel's rivals and spark turf wars throughout northwest Mexico, a Sinaloa split would likely prove even more problematic. Each of the three Sinaloa Federation operators that were either arrested or killed in December led their own criminal network under the Sinaloa umbrella and each controlled its own operations and members. The loss of all three might prompt subgroups to suspect treachery by other Sinaloa Federation leaders (whether top-tier leaders like Guzman or Zambada or those of other Sinaloa subgroups), raising the risk of infighting.

The Sinaloa Federation's top leaders have extensive experience dealing with organizational splits dating back to the days of the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s, which fragmented into regional plazas after U.S. law enforcement pressure triggered multiple conflicts between Guadalajara leaders. More recently, the Sinaloa Federation saw its organization in Jalisco state suffer an organizational break when Sinaloa lieutenant Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal died in 2010, eventually sparking considerable violence in the state. Prior to Coronel's death, the 2008 arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva and 2009 death of his brother, Arturo — the top leaders of the old Beltran Leyva Organization, itself an offshoot of the Sinaloa Federation — also contributed greatly to increased violence in northwestern Mexico. This history makes another Sinaloa split plausible, a scenario that would conform to the trend of the ongoing balkanization among Mexico's organized criminal groups. And that would increase the number of criminal groups operating in states such as Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence there.

Editor's Note: This Security Weekly assesses the most significant cartel-related developments in Mexico over the past year and provides a forecast for 2014. It is the executive summary of a more detailed report available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.

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