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One Man's Drive to Reshape Mexico's Cartel Wars

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READMar 1, 2018 | 17:54 GMT
Reputed cartel leader Juan Manuel Rodriguez Garcia, not shown, was arrested in Tamaulipas, officials said.
(YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

A Mexican federal police officer stands guard before a reputed leader of the Gulf cartel is presented to the news media in Mexico City in 2014. Alleged cartel leader Juan Manuel Rodriguez Garcia, aka 'Juan Perros,' was arrested in Tamaulipas, officials said.

  • Jose Alfredo Cardenas, aka "the Accountant," is attempting to reconstitute the Gulf cartel.
  • Cardenas' arrest appeared to put these ambitions on hold, but his release due to a Mexican government misstep has put him back in the game.
  • If he could reconstitute the cartel, he could impose a sort of "pax Mafiosi" and possibly lower the level of overt violence in the areas that his groups dominate.

On Feb. 19, Mexican marines stormed a house in Matamoros and arrested Jose Alfredo Cardenas, aka "the Accountant," the leader of a powerful remnant of the Gulf cartel. As noted in our 2018 annual cartel forecast, Cardenas is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who was a leader of the Gulf cartel when it was a strong and unified organization. He is perhaps best known for his role in the militarization of Mexico's cartels. In the past, I've written about how exceptional individuals can make a difference at the tactical level in terrorism, and the same thing is true of criminal organizations. Now it appears as if Cardenas is trying to reshape organized crime in Mexico by asserting his family's claim to the throne and putting the pieces of the Gulf cartel back together.

However, these changes are occurring at the tactical level, where individuals can shape a great deal of what happens within the given political and economic dynamics dictated by geography. One of the core tenets of Stratfor's geopolitical method is this: In the long run, geography is critical to shaping the imperatives, capabilities and constraints that mold states, nations and regions. Historically, no matter how brilliant an individual leader or personality, he or she must yield to the realities of geopolitics.

Cardenas Guillen and the Gulf Cartel

Cardenas Guillen was the last leader of a united Gulf cartel, which his predecessor, Juan Garcia Abrego, had forged from a loose collection of regional smuggling clans and organizations. Under Cardenas Guillen, the cartel controlled much of the smuggling of illicit goods (and people) through Mexico's Gulf Coast and across the U.S. border into Texas from Matamoros to Ciudad Acuna. He recruited former special forces soldiers to form Los Zetas, which served as a highly skilled and deadly enforcer group for the cartel. Rival cartels quickly followed suit, recruiting former soldiers and arming them with military-grade weaponry to counter Los Zetas.

But Cardenas Guillen's 2003 arrest and extradition to the United States led to major splits in the Gulf cartel and resulted in Los Zetas breaking off to become a separate — and competing — cartel. It also led to the eventual devolution of the Gulf cartel into a collection of rival criminal gangs. This fragmentation, known as balkanization, has taken a heavy toll on organized crime groups across Mexico. But nowhere has it had a larger effect than on Mexico's once-mighty Gulf cartel. 

This fragmentation is known as Balkanization, and it has taken a heavy toll on organized crime groups across Mexico.

Los Zetas has further fractured several times, as have other Gulf cartel subgroups, such as Los Metros and Los Rojos. While this collection of gangs is far smaller and less powerful than the Gulf cartel at the height of its power, they are nevertheless heavily armed. And they are battling one another for control over smuggling corridors, retail drug sales territory and other crimes, such as oil theft. That rivalry has resulted in significant violence and a high death toll — one even higher than that seen during the Sinaloa cartel's military campaign to push the Gulf cartel out of Nuevo Laredo shortly after Cardenas Guillen's arrest. 

New Tracking and an Old Cartel

This balkanization of Mexico's organized crime groups made it difficult to track cartels, so in 2015, Stratfor developed a new way to analyze organized crime in Mexico: looking at it on a regional, rather than a per cartel, basis. It was simply not useful to try to analyze the myriad groups that called themselves the "Gulf cartel" as one group. Instead, we grouped them as "Tamaulipas-based organized crime" and analyzed the smaller gangs individually. 

Into this mix of warring gangs stepped Cardenas. He is attempting to return to the top of organized crime in the region and put the pieces of the Gulf organization back together. Although in that respect, he would be taking on a role more akin to that of Garcia Abrego in cajoling or forcing the gangs to reconsolidate under his control, rather than that of his famous uncle, who took over a large cartel that had been already created.

Cardenas has re-established control over most of the illicit traffic in Matamoros and has dispatched a large number of gunmen from the Los Escorpiones enforcer group to Reynosa to support one of the Los Metros factions fighting for control of that city. (Cardenas is supporting the faction of Los Metros loyal to Petronilo Moreno Flores, aka El Panilo or Metro-100.)

While control of Reynosa is still undecided, if Cardenas were able to consolidate command over that city in addition to Matamoros, it would give him a strong base from which to continue taking over former Gulf cartel territory.

While control of Reynosa is still undecided, if Cardenas were able to consolidate command over that city in addition to Matamoros, it would give him a strong base from which to continue taking over former Gulf cartel territory. And that could result in his organization becoming far more powerful and lucrative. At the same time, it would allow him to impose a sort of "pax Mafiosi," which could possibly result in a lower level of overt violence in those areas that his groups dominate, because there would no longer be competition over turf. 

On the Radar

This potential revival of a more powerful Gulf cartel raised Cardenas' profile, and it undoubtedly led the Mexican marines and their American partners to begin to focus on him. His Feb. 19 arrest posed a major obstacle to his plan by removing him from the field. If his criminal organization did not have a clear line of succession and a strong deputy to step up and take his place, there was a very real risk of his group again splintering as warring lieutenants squabbled for power. But his story does not end there.

On Feb. 21, a judge at the Altiplano maximum security prison in Mexico state ruled that the marines violated protocol by entering Cardenas' residence to arrest him without the proper warrant and ordered that he be released. Apparently, the marines claimed to have arrested him in his vehicle on the street, but a video from his home security system showed them entering his home and removing him. While there have been many claims of corruption in this case, the marines clearly did not follow the proper procedure for obtaining a warrant, and under the law, Cardenas' capture was illegal. Will he be as easy to find and capture the next time? While the arrest may have disrupted his trafficking operations for a bit, they will undoubtedly continue, as will his likely efforts to re-form the Gulf cartel.

A single criminal leader cannot change the geopolitics of Mexico.

Geopolitics and Crime

A single criminal leader cannot change the geopolitics of Mexico. However, a thoughtful look at those geopolitics can help one to understand why Mexico City has always struggled to exert control over the three regions that have spawned powerful organized crime networks — Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Tierra Caliente — and how criminal leaders can take advantage of this geopolitical reality.

Likewise, a Mexican criminal leader cannot change the geopolitics of the borderlands, but again, he can take advantage of the reality to make a profit. Even the powerful economic dynamics driving the drug trade that have made the cartels multibillion-dollar enterprises are beyond the control of any Mexican criminal leader.

However, a skillful criminal can influence how much of the border his organization can control and how much drug revenue his group can rake in. Certainly Garcia Abrego made a huge impact on drug-smuggling dynamics, not only by establishing the Gulf cartel, but also by changing the way that Mexican cartels interacted with Colombian cartels: The Mexicans began demanding 50 percent of each load of cocaine they trafficked into the United States rather than just accepting a smaller fee per kilo. Other high-profile traffickers such as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Cardenas Guillen also made a sizable impact within the dynamics of narcotics trafficking.

Indeed, even at a lower level, such people as the Amezcua brothers and Ignacio Coronel had a powerful impact on the drug trade by establishing Mexican "super labs" to produce synthetic drugs — first methamphetamine, and now fentanyl. And, if he remains free, Cardenas may also be able to make a difference at the tactical level by rolling back the balkanization in Mexico's northeast. If that happens, he could become another chapter in the book on Mexico's cartel wars.

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