Tijuana's Cartel Landscape

5 MINS READJan 17, 2011 | 13:12 GMT

Baja California state, with its lucrative port of entry into the United States in Tijuana, is among the most sought-after territory for Mexico's drug cartels. For years the state was controlled by the Arellano Felix Organization until that group's disintegration and the rise of perhaps Mexico's most powerful cartel, the Sinaloa Federation. Learning from its past experience, the Sinaloa Federation has moved over the past year to decentralize control among autonomous cells in order to prevent any single faction from becoming too dominant, and breaking off to form its own rival cartel, which has already led to a more stable security environment in the region.

The criminal landscape in Mexico's Baja California state has changed dramatically over the past year, and so have the internal workings of arguably the most powerful cartel in Mexico, the Sinaloa Federation. Dominated by the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) in the 1990s and early 2000s, crackdowns by the Mexican government and internal divisions in the AFO led to the eventual rise of the Sinaloa Federation in Baja California in late 2010.

Taking its own experience with internal divisions into account, the Sinaloa Federation has adjusted its approach, decentralizing control and ensuring that no one faction becomes powerful enough to split from its parent organization and hold the lucrative Tijuana port of entry into the United States and its surroundings for itself. Despite the increase in organized criminal activity in the region over the past few months, this move has led to a more predictable security environment in the greater Baja California region — a drastic change from only a year ago.

Throughout the 1990s, Tijuana was controlled by the AFO, but a string of arrests and deaths of senior leaders of the groups — namely the Arellano Felix brothers, who made up the core leadership of the AFO beginning in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s — left the group's operational capability severely diminished. Internal fighting between the faction loyal to the Arellano Felix brothers' successor, Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano, and those loyal to the group's top enforcer, Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, led to a further degradation of the organization in the beginning of 2008. This conflict sparked incredible levels of violence in the region, until the Garcia Simental faction was dismantled by the Mexican Federal Police in January 2010.

Out of desperation, Garcia Simental attempted to win back power by reaching out to the Sinaloa Federation for backing against Sanchez Arellano, knowing that the Sinaloa Federation had been trying to move into the lucrative Tijuana region for several years. The strategy failed and the Garcia Simental faction was marginalized by Mexican security forces, but this left the AFO under Sanchez Arellano extremely weak, with only a few remaining cells still operating in the region. In the latter half of 2010, the Sinaloa Federation used the opening Garcia Simental had given it to solidify control over parts of western Baja California state, namely the Tecate and Mexicali regions, putting Sinaloa in prime position to seize Tijuana. The AFO knew it could not withstand another lengthy battle to retain control of its home territory against a much larger force with vast resources, and a deal was struck between the two organizations.

Calming the Battle

The deal allows both organizations to operate independently and includes a nonaggression pact, securing for the Sinaloa Federation its long-awaited access to the lucrative port of entry into the United States. As the Sinaloa Federation prepared to send its assets into the region in early 2010, it implemented a business plan for Tijuana that differed from its previous approach. Rather than have a traditional plaza boss who heads several cells and coordinates shipments of illicit goods across the border, the Sinaloa Federation sent numerous autonomous cells to work in the same area under the direction of Sinaloa No. 2 Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia. This information was finally made public by the Tijuana publication Zeta Tijuana (no association with the criminal organization Los Zetas) after it was able to obtain information from the interrogation of an aspiring Sinaloa cell leader in Tijuana, Jesus "El Tomate" Israel de La Cruz, who was arrested Jan. 4.

Historically, these types of non-aggression agreements have been fleeting in nature, as they are often only followed as long as they are convenient to all parties involved.

According to Israel de La Cruz, this new business structure with multiple autonomous cells working together was adopted after the Beltran Leyva brothers, who formed an important faction within Sinaloa, became too powerful and split from the Sinaloa Federation in 2008. A similar instance occurred with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization in Juarez. This strategy is intended to prevent one cell leader from becoming too powerful, and therefore to keep them dependent on the parent organization, the Sinaloa Federation. While this approach has generally stabilized the Tijuana region compared to the situation from 2008 to 2010, there is still some dissonance among the cells. A record 134-ton marijuana seizure in October 2010 resulted from a dispute between cell leaders over who was to smuggle which portion into the United States. Somehow, word of the massive shipment made its way to the Mexican military and law enforcement, resulting in the multimillion-dollar seizure. After an enforcement sweep left numerous associates dead, business was back to normal.

Undoubtedly, there will be brief flare-ups of violence anywhere organized criminal activity is present — it simply comes with the territory of any illicit business — and there will be spikes in violence again in Tijuana. These two factors — Sinaloa's decentralized approach, which prevents new rivals from springing up from within a cartel, and the agreement in place in Tijuana between the Sinaloa Federation and the AFO — have led to a more predictable operating environment not only for the cartels, but for the people and businesses of Tijuana, and have given the organizations operating in the area a set of rules to play by. That being said, historically, these types of agreements have been fleeting in nature, as they are often only followed as long as they are convenient to all parties involved. The question is not if the agreement will stay in place but how long it will prevail.

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