The attack was almost cinematic: Just over a week ago, gunmen dressed as mariachi musicians shot dead five people at a restaurant in Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi, a place of attraction for locals and tourists alike. The latest violence to grab the headlines illustrates how cartel figures are now dragging violence with them into the tourist areas and upscale neighborhoods they frequent and inhabit. In fact, an American tourist on her honeymoon was killed by a bullet meant for someone else outside a palatial Mexico City restaurant on July 7.
Mexico is locked in a growing spiral of violence. Criminal groups that began as small organizations moving narcotics and other contraband across the U.S.-Mexican border have grown into powerful organizations that use military-style weapons and tactics. They have also expanded their reach beyond drug smuggling into kidnapping, extortion, cargo theft, fuel theft and other crimes. They no longer confine their activities to remote, mountainous areas or border-city slums but operate in every corner of the country. Until authorities find a way to control these organizations, they will not only commit record levels of murder and violence but will also continue to hamper Mexico's economy.
In Plaza Garibaldi, La Union Tepito — a "narcomenudinsta" (local drug gang) supported by the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) — was attempting to assassinate Jorge Flores Concha "El Tortas," the leader of a rival gang, following a successful hit on his predecessor in May. Concha's organization "La U," or "La Fuerza Antiunion," split from La Union Tepito over a leadership dispute following the murder of the group's founder and leader in October 2017. Since the division, the two have engaged in often brutal violence, mirroring the savagery that has characterized the previous implosions of larger Mexican criminal organizations as the remnants battle for primacy — a phenomenon we've previously described as the Balkanization of Mexican organized crime.
The recent incident is just the latest act of violence that has occurred as the CJNG has expanded its presence throughout the length and breadth of Mexico. As a result of the group's atrocities, CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes (El Mencho) has become public enemy number one. Amid the violence, however, the bigger question for Mexican authorities is not how to capture or kill Cervantes, but a far more distressing one: What happens the day after?
Mapping the Violence
Mexico registered a historic number of homicides last year, but it is already on pace to beat that record this year. On Sept. 20, the Executive Secretariat of Mexico's National System of Public Security (SNSP) reported that murders from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 rose 17.6 percent over the same period in 2017. In all, there were 18,835 murders in the first eight months of 2018 compared to 16,013 in the first eight months of 2017.
The violence has enveloped every corner of the country, including the capital. The CJNG's aggressive expansion is fueling most of these conflicts, apart from the one in Tamaulipas, in which the violence stems from infighting among various components of the Gulf Cartel. In Mexico's far northwest, the homicide rate in Tijuana has spiked. As in Mexico City, the CJNG has partnered there with a local criminal organization, a remnant of the Arellano Felix Organization (also known as the Tijuana Cartel) that has begun calling itself the Cartel de Tijuana Nueva Generacion, in an effort to establish control over smuggling corridors into the United States.
The Sinaloa Cartel, which did not control any turf along the border, made a successful push from 2007 to 2010 to wrest control of the Tijuana Plaza from the Arellano Felix Organization — in part because the cartel managed to co-opt a faction of that group. Displaced by the Sinaloa faction, the other faction made willing partners for the CJNG as they turned on Sinaloa and began a bloody offensive to seize control of the area from them. The battles resulted in a high homicide rate in 2010, but even those numbers paled in comparison to the figure from 2017. And one year on, the death toll from the first half of 2018 is even 44 percent higher than the numbers from last year. At present, the state of Baja California (which includes Tijuana) currently has a murder rate of 87.4 per 100,000, the highest of any state in Mexico.
Further east along the border, a similar dynamic has led to a spike in violence in Juarez and Chihuahua state. There, the Sinaloa cartel launched a major effort to seize control of the Juarez plaza from the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (also known as the Juarez cartel) that lasted from 2008 to 2012. In Chihuahua, the CJNG is working with a remnant of the Juarez Cartel, the Nuevo Cartel de Juarez, along with La Linea and Los Aztecas. On the other side are the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies — Los Salazar, the Cartel Del Tigre, Los Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos. Amid such conflict, Juarez's murder toll for this year (840) has already passed the figure for all of 2017 (767) — and there are still more than three months remaining in 2018.
Down in Mexico's far south, authorities arrested 30 members of the CJNG on Aug. 15 at a hotel in the Chiapas town of Tapachula. This settlement resides on Mexico's border with Guatemala and is a key link in the overland smuggling routes for migrants, narcotics and other contraband coming from South and Central America. Then there is Guerrero, a state that is not only home to the port and resort of Acapulco but also rugged mountains that are prime terrain for opium poppy and marijuana cultivation. Dozens of criminal groups are vying for control of poppy-growing areas, including the CJNG, remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization and La Familia Michoacana/Knights Templar. In addition to producing and trafficking narcotics, such groups engage in numerous other criminal activities including kidnapping, cargo theft, extortion and carjacking. The extortion demands by a wide array of criminal groups have persuaded FEMSA/Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and several other companies to suspend operations in Guerrero.
The CJNG has also been working to seize control of the lucrative fuel theft trade in Guanajuato state. The city of Salamanca is home to Mexico's fourth largest refinery, making it, unsurprisingly, the epicenter of fuel theft in the area. Local gangs, such as the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, have long dominated fuel theft in Guanajuato, where they have struggled to fight off incursions from the CJNG and factions of Los Zetas.
Late last month, the CJNG issued a propaganda video in which it vowed to vanquish the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel from Salamanca and the rest of Guanajuato. The CJNG simultaneously posted five identical narcomantas, or posters containing a warning, at various locations around Salamanca.
The video featured footage of around 100 members of the CJNG wearing matching uniforms and tactical gear — although their rifles were not all of the same type. The video also included footage of a Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine gun, four Browning 1919 .30-caliber medium machine guns, two .50-caliber sniper rifles and an RPG launcher. The CJNG's show of force is reminiscent of the videos it published on social media outlets in 2011 prior to its very bloody incursion into Veracruz, and Santa Rosa de Lima will undoubtedly struggle to counter the entrance of such a large and well-armed force into Salamanca and Guanajuato.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The sheer range of the CJNG's aggressive operations illustrates why the group has become a major enemy for both the Mexican and U.S. governments. Since the beginning of 2018, Mexican authorities have arrested a number of senior CJNG members, including Rosalinda Gonzalez Valencia, the wife of the CJNG leader who is alleged to be a major money launderer for the group. Although Gonzalez Valencia — herself a member of the powerful Valencia smuggling family — will face trial for alleged money laundering, authorities dropped organized crime charges against her and allowed her to go free on bail on Sept. 6.
El Mencho's incapacitation could cause the CJNG to fragment, leading to a renewed spasm of violence as various subcommanders and groups jockey for turf.
Nevertheless, the recent arrests, as well as the United States and Mexico's deep concerns about the CJNG's activities, suggest that it is only a matter of time until Oseguera Cervantes is either caught or killed. His removal will certainly weaken the hierarchy of the CJNG organization, reduce the threat it poses to the Mexican government and diminish the ability of the group to expand its control over various regions of Mexico. At the same time, Oseguera Cervante's incapacitation could cause the CJNG to fragment, leading to a renewed spasm of violence as various subcommanders and groups jockey for turf and control of the group's various enterprises.
Indeed, it appears that the significant pressure upon Oseguera Cervantes has already led to one split, as a group calling itself the Nuevo Plaza Cartel has begun to fight the CJNG in its home turf of Guadalajara, inevitably raising the homicide rate in the city. If the CJNG ultimately implodes, there will be an uptick in violence throughout its areas of operations, as internal factions struggle for power and the cartel's foes seek to hit the group while it's down. Regardless of what the Mexican state does to "El Mencho," its streets are unlikely to find peace for some time to come.