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Mexico's Drug War: Cartel Ringleaders in the Crosshairs

8 MINS READJul 17, 2014 | 08:00 GMT
(Stratfor)

Editor's Note: This week's Security Weekly summarizes our quarterly Mexico drug cartel report, in which we assess the most significant developments of the second quarter of 2014 and provide a forecast for the third quarter. 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

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto aggressively pursued a strategy of targeting top organized crime leaders throughout Mexico in the second quarter — and not just in Michoacan, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, the states that the country's major criminal groups call home.

Michoacan, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas

In Michoacan, Mexico City achieved substantial success against organized crime in the first half of 2014. Self-defense militias and Mexican authorities have dismantled most of the senior leadership of the Knights Templar. Only Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez remains at large.

Federal forces also continued to inflict significant leadership losses on organized crime groups in Sinaloa, particularly the Sinaloa Federation. The arrest of top Sinaloa Federation leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera on Feb. 22 capped the government's successes in Sinaloa. The Mexican military on June 23 also arrested Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano, one of the primary leaders of another criminal group in Sinaloa (despite its brand name), the Tijuana cartel.

Mexico City announced a renewed campaign against organized crime in Tamaulipas on May 13, highlighting its intent to crush the leaderships of all organized crime groups in their respective domains. Successes mounted just days after the announcement: Already, federal forces have arrested or killed several significant Gulf cartel and Los Zetas bosses. And at least so far, the campaign against organized crime in Tamaulipas has not distracted the government from its pursuit of crime bosses elsewhere.

Successfully targeting crime bosses in Mexico does not ensure improved security over the long term. It also does not guarantee the collapse of any group. For example, the arrest of Zetas leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales on July 15, 2013, did not appear to meaningfully affect Los Zetas' capabilities or operations.

Opportunities for new crime bosses to emerge or expand their control will remain as long as vast quantities of highly profitable drugs are flowing through criminal territories and other highly profitable criminal activities are proliferating. If Mexico City is to translate its recent successes into enduring security improvements, it will have to continue to pressure crime bosses and strengthen the government institutions that maintain the rule of law.

Economic Incentives

It is more than just a desire to end the drug-related violence that motivates Mexico City's recent campaigns against organized crime in Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Michoacan. The Mexican government is also protecting its own economic interests. Not only do Mexican criminal groups traffic drugs into the United States, but they are also increasingly engaged in the theft of hydrocarbon products, as well as illegal mining and illegal logging.

In Michoacan, the Knights Templar had enjoyed an increasing share of shipments of illegally mined ore to China until the second quarter. Meanwhile, the theft and sale of hydrocarbon products by these groups has grown throughout Mexico. Criminal groups in Tamaulipas in particular have an extensive reach into Mexico's energy resources: Groups have stolen gasoline from Petroleos Mexicanos' pipelines, trucks and even directly from refineries, then sold it on the street for less than half the official price.

Organized crime's exploitation of Mexico's hydrocarbon resources is one of the principal forces pushing the new campaign in the northeast. As Stratfor noted in its second quarterly cartel update, the recent surge in violence in Tamaulipas was mainly because of the collapse of the Tampico Gulf cartel faction and the continued Gulf cartel factional fight for control of Reynosa. However, Mexico City has thus far targeted virtually all organized crime groups based in Tamaulipas — from Los Zetas to the various Gulf cartel factions — and government operations have extended into Guanajuato, Mexico, Nuevo Leon and Veracruz states.

The long-term consequences of Mexico's high-value target campaign are difficult to forecast. Security improvements — where there have been any — as a direct result of military and law enforcement operations in the most violent areas of the country have been modest. Those operations have, however, accelerated the trends Stratfor underlined in its 2014 cartel annual update.

In northwestern Mexico, the series of arrests of high-level Sinaloa Federation leaders has further balkanized organized crime in states such as Sonora, Baja California and Sinaloa. In north-central Mexico, La Linea has re-emerged in Chihuahua without resorting to the levels of violence seen when the Sinaloa Federation initially pushed into the state and challenged it. The picture in Mexico's northeast is still hazy, especially given the recent operations in Tamaulipas. Nonetheless, the combination of escalated turf wars among Gulf cartel factions and the government's targeting of crime bosses from Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel will accelerate the organizational shifts Stratfor noted in its 2014 cartel update.

Changes in Tamaulipas and the Northeast

The collapse of the Tampico faction of the Gulf cartel during the first quarter, leaving no major group in control of organized crime in the city of Tampico, marked the beginning of substantial shifts in organized crime in the northeast. In addition to Tampico, Reynosa and Ciudad Victoria saw renewed organized crime violence. Gulf cartel factions fought each other for control of Reynosa, and Los Zetas continued to face off with security forces in Ciudad Victoria. However, because Tampico lies on drug smuggling routes into the United States and is a hub for the theft of hydrocarbon products, it is almost a given that a group such as Los Zetas or another Gulf cartel faction will vie for control. Competing groups could launch a direct incursion, or they could sponsor one of the old Tampico faction's successor groups.

Areas of Cartel Influence in Mexico

Areas of Cartel Influence in Mexico

As Stratfor detailed in the first quarterly update, a shift of control in Tampico could affect the landscape of organized crime in all of northeastern Mexico. We did not, however, predict the sweeping federal operations targeting all major criminal groups in Tamaulipas that began in May. Sharp increases in violence and subsequent military operations are not new to Tamaulipas. Since 2003, the state has experienced a series of bloody criminal turf wars followed by substantial military and law enforcement operations. The turf wars reflect the state's value to organized crime. Given its location on the Lower Rio Grande, Tamaulipas offers access to U.S. ports of entry where contraband can be smuggled into the United States. This has made Tamaulipas one of the major regional bases for organized crime in Mexico. The various major groups based there, namely, Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel factions, collectively operate in roughly half of the country.

The operations that reshaped the security environment in Tamaulipas in the second quarter will continue at least into the third quarter. Fighting between gunmen and military forces has increased in multiple areas of Tamaulipas, particularly Reynosa, Tampico and Ciudad Victoria, though the increased troop presence in hot spots in the state has diminished intercartel violence.

The wide net Mexico City has cast in targeting crime bosses from groups based in Tamaulipas reveals that the government's ambitions go beyond simply quelling cartel violence in the state. Numerous Tamaulipas crime bosses have been caught, many after fleeing the state. The number of crime bosses fleeing Tamaulipas only to be arrested in their new refuges stands out. These include Gulf cartel boss Juan Manuel "Juan Perros" Rodriguez Garcia, apprehended May 25 in Nuevo Leon state; Los Zetas leaders Juan Fernando "El Ferrari" Alvarez Cortez and Fernando "Z-16" Magana Martinez, both apprehended in May in Nuevo Leon; Luis Jimenez Tovar, Los Zetas' plaza boss for Ciudad Victoria, arrested July 3 in Leon, Guanajuato; and Gulf cartel boss Juan Zarate "El Sheyla" Martin Chavez, apprehended June 18 in Mexico state. The high volume of fugitives from Tamaulipas suggests that the crime bosses fear this security operation more than major ones in the past, such as the operation launched against Los Zetas in 2011 and the one targeting the Gulf cartel in 2012.

Violence stemming from the turf wars between rival criminal groups in Reynosa and Tampico slowed in the last few weeks of the second quarter, supplanted by fighting between authorities and criminal gunmen. While organized crime groups will continue fighting one another in Tamaulipas, the heightened number of federal troops and aggressive targeting will continue to limit their ability to fight one another in the third quarter.

It is highly likely that more Gulf cartel and Los Zetas leaders will fall this quarter, though it is uncertain whether Mexico City will apprehend the senior leaders of Los Zetas, such as leader Omar "Z-42" Trevino Morales, brother of former leader Miguel Trevino Morales. The faction of the Gulf cartel based in Matamoros, a town where the family of former Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen still has considerable power, has weathered the federal operations the best. As a result, this faction could expand its reach onto the turf of other Gulf factions in the second half of the year.

Editor's Note: The full version of our quarterly cartel update is available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.

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