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Tracking Mexico's Cartels in 2018

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READFeb 1, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
In the Tierra Caliente region, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion is the most powerful criminal group.

Many of the Mexican organizations involved in the methamphetamine and heroin trades are using their trafficking skills and connections to facilitate the fentanyl trade

(ROBERT ZAVALA/Stratfor, Sunflower/Shutterstock)
  • Factional competition resulting from the breakup of large organized crime organizations continues to drive violence in Mexico.
  • The lucrative fentanyl trade, built on the backbone of methamphetamine and opiate smuggling networks, is furthering the expansion of criminal groups in Tierra Caliente.
  • While most cartel violence is directed at other cartels and the government, the widespread use of military-grade weapons raises the risk of collateral damage.

Editor's note: The turn of the year brings another periodic examination of the state of Mexico's criminal cartels. Shared from Threat Lens, Stratfor's unique protective intelligence product, the following column includes excerpts from a comprehensive forecast available to Threat Lens subscribers.

Since 2006, Stratfor has chronicled the dynamics of the organizations that make up the complex mosaic of organized crime in Mexico in the form of an annual cartel report. Back when this process began, the cartel landscape was much simpler, with only a handful of major groups to track. But by 2013, the splintering of the cartels into smaller factions had made it difficult to analyze them the same way. Indeed, many of the once-dominant umbrella groups, such as the Gulf cartel, have fragmented into several, often competing, organizations. In response, the focus of the analysis shifted to the clusters of smaller groups that emanate from a specific geographic area. Nevertheless, the organizations that arose in the Tierra Caliente region and in the states of Tamaulipas and Sinaloa remain on the radar.

2017 in Review

The dynamics outlined in last year's cartel forecast have changed little over the past year. Organized crime organizations in Mexico remain heavily fragmented, and this fragmentation is driving most of the violence in the country. As noted, there really is no Gulf cartel anymore. Instead, localized gangs that arose from the remnants of that once powerful cartel are now at war with one another over control of the smuggling routes, retail drug sales and other criminal activity formerly monopolized by the group. This drove the heavy violence in Reynosa during 2017 and in other parts of the state of Tamaulipas. The violence spawned by the fractionalization also led to a record number of murders last year: 29,168, which surpassed the previous record of 27,213, set in 2011.


The 2017 forecast noted how organized crime groups based in Tierra Caliente were benefiting disproportionately from the methamphetamine and opiate trade due to their control over the areas where opium poppies are grown and over the ports where synthetic drug precursor chemicals are imported. This dynamic continues, and it is even expanding as many of the organizations involved in the meth and heroin trades are using their trafficking skills and connections to facilitate the fentanyl trade. Fentanyl is a drug smuggler's dream. It is cheap to manufacture and compact to smuggle, and it can produce an even greater return on investment than the heroin or methamphetamine these groups are producing. And it has a far higher profit margin than the cocaine that Mexican cartels buy from Colombian producers.


Tierra Caliente and a New Generation

In the Tierra Caliente region of southern Mexico, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), is the most powerful of these organized criminal groups, and it is also the most aggressive and expansive of the Mexican cartels. While other groups have fractured and weakened, the CJNG has extended its geographic reach and scope of activities, boosting its power. And, to date, the CJNG has been able to resist fragmentation despite some significant losses of leadership. One such leader was Jose Gonzalez Valencia, a member of Guadalajara's powerful Valencia family who was arrested at a Brazilian resort in December 2017. 



The Valencia family was instrumental in the rise of the CJNG, which is led by Valencia's brother-in-law, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes (aka El Mencho). The CJNG is also likely to be bolstered by the unexpected release  from prison of Erick Valencia Salazar, aka El 85, from prison. He is a close associate of Oseguera Cervantes, a member of the Valencia family and one of the founding members of the CJNG.


Despite the CJNG's growth, other cartels continue to oppose it in Tierra Caliente, including La Nueva Familia Michoacana, a Knights Templar remnant called Los Viagras and several splinters of the Beltran Leyva Organization that operate in Guerrero.

A Weakening Sinaloa Cartel

At the beginning of 2017, things did not look good for the Sinaloa cartel. Its longtime, high-profile leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, was extradited to the United States on Jan. 19, 2017. El Chapo's arrest and extradition left a vacuum in the Sinaloa cartel, which close associate Damaso Lopez Nunez (aka El Licenciado) tried to exploit to take control of the organization.



In January 2017, it looked as if this infighting was going to create another significant schism in the Sinaloa cartel. However, Mexican authorities arrested Lopez Nunez in May 2017, and his son, Damaso Lopez Serrano (aka El Mini Lic), surrendered to U.S. authorities in July 2017 at the Calexico West border crossing. He pleaded guilty to trafficking charges in January 2018. El Licenciado's brother, Alvaro Lopez Nunez, also fled to the United States and was arrested at the Nogales border crossing.

In October 2017, another trafficker reportedly aligned with Lopez Nunez, Sajid Emilio Quintero Navidad, (aka El Cadete), surrendered to U.S. authorities at the San Ysidro border crossing and pleaded guilty in San Diego on Jan. 25. He was the second high-ranking cartel leader to enter a guilty plea in a month. Quintero Navidad is a cousin of Rafael Caro Quintero, and at one point he was one of the most powerful Sinaloa cartel-linked traffickers in the state of Sonora.

But this chain of events, with several senior traffickers fleeing to face prison in the United States rather than death in Mexico, would suggest that Lopez Nunez's insurrection (and organization) has been crushed and that it no longer poses a threat to the factions of the Sinaloa cartel headed by Ismael Zambada Garcia (aka El Mayo) and Guzman's sons, Alfredo Guzman Salazar and Ivan Archivaldo Salazar.



The Sinaloa cartel continues to attempt to fend off a challenge to its control of Tijuana, the rest of Baja California and Baja California Sur by a faction of the Tijuana cartel (Cartel de Tijuana Nueva Generacion). As the name implies, it is being supported by the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. At the same time the Sinaloa cartel is facing a challenge in Juarez and the state of Chihuahua by a remnant of the Juarez cartel calling itself the Nuevo Cartel de Juarez, which is also being supported by the CJNG. Both of these conflicts remain unsettled and continue to generate high levels of violence in the border cities of Tijuana and Juarez and around Cabo San Lucas.

Tamaulipas and Los Escorpiones

In the state of Tamaulipas, organized crime groups also are heavily fragmented. Several competing organizations call themselves the Gulf cartel, and much of the violence in the state is the result of intense fighting among them. Reynosa is in the midst of a particularly brutal period as remnants of the Gulf cartel vie for control of the plaza, or drug-smuggling corridor, centered there. At the root of the struggle are two groups of the Gulf cartel's Los Metros faction. Their battle started when leader Juan Manuel Loza Salinas, aka El Toro, was killed by Mexican security forces in April 2017.



According to multiple reports, large numbers of gunmen from Los Escorpiones have descended on Reynosa to support one of the warring Los Metros factions. Los Escorpiones, a group of enforcers, were initially established by Antonio Cardenas Guillen (aka Tony Tormenta), the brother of former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, before Antonio was killed in 2010. Los Escorpiones have been resurrected by Cardenas Guillen's nephew Alfredo Cardenas, and they have been able to consolidate his control over the Matamoros plaza. Cardenas' dispatch of large numbers of enforcers to Reynosa appears to demonstrate the strength of his faction of the Gulf cartel. It could also be a sign that he is seeking to re-establish control over the territories formerly run by his infamous uncles. If Cardenas and Los Escorpiones are able to regain control over the region, the violence could diminish — but it will likely require a lot more bloodshed to eliminate all the opposition. 


The city is under the control of the Cartel del Noreste, or Northeast cartel, a remnant of the Los Zetas controlled by the Trevino family.  

The fight for control of the Yucatan Peninsula between remnants of Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel also continues, with violence occasionally spilling over into resort areas in the Riviera Maya. There are a lot of moving pieces among the Tamaulipas-based organized crime groups, and friction is resulting in high levels of violence. And that brutality will continue unless a significant change alters the fractured nature of organized crime in the region.

Staying Safe South of the Border

While most of the violence in Mexico involves cartels fighting other cartels and the government, it is certainly not focused exclusively on those targets. There is a continuing risk of collateral damage because of the military-grade weapons used by the cartels and the running gunbattles they have with one another and the government, which can cover significant territory. The smaller groups that survived the cartel breakups are less capable of transnational drug trafficking. This means that they are often forced to rely on more localized crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, cargo theft, carjacking and fuel theft, to raise operational funds. These non-trafficking crimes can pose a significant risk to companies and their employees if heavily armed criminal gangs turn their guns upon civilians to extort, rob or kidnap them.



Most travelers and expatriates can avoid the violence if they stay away from trouble spots at night, pay attention to their surroundings and observe good, commonsense personal security measures. That said, almost no part of Mexico is completely immune. Violent incidents, including kidnappings, murders and the arrests of cartel figures, continue to happen even in areas generally considered safe.

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