By Stratfor Global Intelligence. Editor’s Note: In this annual report on Mexico’s drug cartels, we assess the most significant developments of 2011 and provide updated profiles of the country’s powerful criminal cartels as well as a forecast for 2012. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain through our Mexico Security Memo, quarterly updates and other analyses we produce throughout the year.
As we noted in last year’s annual cartel report, Mexico in 2010 bore witness to some 15,273 deaths in connection with the drug trade. The death toll for 2010 surpassed that of any previous year, and in doing so became the deadliest year ever in the country’s fight against the cartels. But in the bloody chronology that is Mexico’s cartel war, 2010’s time at the top may have been short-lived. Despite the Mexican government’s efforts to curb cartel-related violence, the death toll for 2011 may have exceeded what had been an unprecedented number.
According to the Mexican government, cartel-related homicides claimed around 12,900 lives from January to September — about 1,400 deaths per month. While this figure is lower than that of 2010, it does not account for the final quarter of 2011. The Mexican government has not yet released official statistics for the entire year, but if the monthly average held until year’s end, the overall death toll for 2011 would reach 17,000. Though most estimates put the total below that, the actual number of homicides in Mexico is likely higher than what is officially reported. At the very least, although we do not have a final, official number — and despite media reports to the contrary — we can conclude that violence in Mexico did not decline substantially in 2011.
Indeed, rather than receding to levels acceptable to the Mexican government, violence in Mexico has persisted, though it seems to have shifted geographically, abating in some cities and worsening in others. For example, while Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, was once again Mexico’s deadliest city in terms of gross numbers, the city’s annual death toll reportedly dropped substantially from 3,111 in 2010 to 1,955 in 2011. However, such reductions appear to have been offset by increases elsewhere, including Veracruz, Veracruz state; Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state; Matamoros, Tamaulipas state; and Durango, Durango state.
Over the past year it has also become evident that a polarization is under way among the country’s cartels. Most smaller groups (or remnants of groups) have been subsumed by the Sinaloa Federation, which controls much of western Mexico, and Los Zetas, who control much of eastern Mexico. While a great deal has been said about the fluidity of the Mexican cartel landscape, these two groups have solidified themselves as the country’s predominant forces. Of course, the battle lines in Mexico have not been drawn absolutely, and not every entity calling itself a cartel swears allegiance to one side or the other, but a polarization clearly is occurring.
Geography does not encapsulate this polarization. It reflects two very different modes of operation practiced by the two cartel hegemons, delineated by a common expression in Mexican vernacular: “Plata o plomo.” The expression, which translates to “silver or lead” in English, means that a cartel will force one’s cooperation with either a bribe or a bullet. The Sinaloa Federation leadership more often employs the former, preferring to buy off and corrupt to achieve its objectives. It also frequently provides intelligence to authorities, and in doing so uses the authorities as a weapon against rival cartels. Sinaloa certainly can and does resort to ruthless violence, but the violence it employs is merely one of many tools at its disposal, not its preferred tactic.
On the other hand, Los Zetas prefer brutality. They can and do resort to bribery, but they lean toward intimidation and violence. Their mode of operation tends to be far less subtle than that of their Sinaloa counterparts, and with a leadership composed of former special operations soldiers, they are quite effective in employing force and fear to achieve their objectives. Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group’s hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections. This contrasts starkly with the culture of other cartels, including Sinaloa.
Status of Mexico’s Major Cartels
The Sinaloa Federation lost at least 10 major plaza bosses or top lieutenants in 2011, including its security chief and its alleged main weapons supplier. It is unclear how much those losses have affected the group’s operations overall.
One Sinaloa operation that appears to have been affected is the group’s methamphetamine production. After the disintegration of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) in early 2011, the Sinaloa Federation clearly emerged as the country’s foremost producer of methamphetamine. Most of the tons of precursor chemicals seized by Mexican authorities in Manzanillo, Colima state; Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state; Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan state; and Los Mochis and Mazatlan, Sinaloa state, likely belonged to the Sinaloa Federation. Because of these government operations — and other operations to disassemble methamphetamine labs — the group apparently began to divert at least some of its methamphetamine production to Guatemala in late 2011.
In addition to maintaining its anti-Zetas alliance with the Gulf cartel, Sinaloa in 2011 affiliated itself with the Knights Templar (KT) in Michoacan, and to counter Los Zetas in Jalisco state, Sinaloa affiliated itself with the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). Sinaloa also has tightened its encirclement of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization in the latter’s long-held plaza of Ciudad Juarez. There are even signs that it continues to expand its control over parts of Juarez itself.
By the end of 2011, Los Zetas eclipsed the Sinaloa Federation as the largest cartel operating in Mexico in terms of geographic presence. According to a report from the Assistant Attorney General’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime, Los Zetas now operate in 17 states. (The same report said the Sinaloa Federation operates in 16 states, down from 23 in 2005.) While Los Zetas continue to fight off a CJNG incursion into Veracruz state, they did not sustain any significant territorial losses in 2011.
Los Zetas moved into Zacatecas and Durango states, achieving a degree of control of the former and challenging the Sinaloa Federation in the latter. Both states are mountainous and conducive to the harvesting of poppy and marijuana. They also contain major north-south transportation corridors. By mid-November, reports indicated that Los Zetas had begun to assert control over Colima state and its crucial port of Manzanillo. In some cases, Los Zetas are sharing territories with cartels they reportedly have relationships with, including the Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS), La Resistencia and the remnants of LFM. But Los Zetas have a long history of working as hired enforcers for other organizations throughout the country. Therefore, having an alliance or business relationship with Los Zetas is not necessarily the equivalent of being a Sinaloa vassal. A relationship with Los Zetas may be perceived as more fleeting than Sinaloa subjugation.
On the whole, Los Zetas remained strong in 2011 despite losing 17 cell leaders and plaza bosses to death and arrest. Los Zetas also remain the dominant force in the Yucatan Peninsula. However, the CJNG’s mass killings of alleged Zetas members or supporters in Veracruz have called into question the group’s unchallenged control of that state.
In response to the mass killings in Veracruz, Los Zetas killed dozens of CJNG and Sinaloa members in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, and Culiacan, Sinaloa state. Aided by La Resistencia, these operations were well-executed, and the groups clearly invested a great deal of time and effort into surveillance and planning.
The Gulf Cartel
The Gulf cartel (CDG) was strong at the beginning of 2011, holding off several Zetas incursions into its territory. However, as the year progressed, internal divisions led to intra-cartel battles in Matamoros and Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. The infighting resulted in several deaths and arrests in Mexico and in the United States. The CDG has since broken apart, and it appears that one faction, known as Los Metros, has overpowered its rival Los Rojos faction and is now asserting its control over CDG operations. The infighting has weakened the CDG, but the group seems to have maintained control of its primary plazas, or smuggling corridors, into the United States. (CDG infighting is detailed further in another section of this report.)
La Familia Michoacana
LFM disintegrated at the beginning of 2011, giving rise to and becoming eclipsed by one of its factions, the Knights Templar (KT). Indeed, by July it was clear the KT had become more powerful than LFM in Mexico. The media and the police continue to report that LFM maintains extensive networks in the United States, but it is unclear how many of the U.S.-based networks are actually working with LFM rather than the KT, which is far more capable of trafficking narcotics. It appears that many reports regarding LFM in the United States do not reflect the changes that have occurred in Mexico over the past year; many former LFM leaders are now members of the KT. Adding to the confusion was the alleged late-summer alliance between LFM and Los Zetas. Such an alliance would have been a final attempt by the remaining LFM leadership to keep the group from being utterly destroyed by the KT. LFM is still active, but it is very weak.
The Knights Templar
In January 2011, a month after the death of charismatic LFM leader Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno, two former LFM lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez and Enrique Plancarte, formed the Knights Templar due to differences with Jose de Jesus “El Chango” Mendez, who had assumed leadership of LFM. In March they announced the formation of their new organization via narcomantas in Morelia, Zitacuaro and Apatzingan, Michoacan state.
After the emergence of the KT, sizable battles flared up during the spring and summer months between the KT and LFM. The organization has grown from a splinter group to a dominant force over LFM, and it appears to be taking over the bulk of the original LFM’s operations in Mexico. At present, the Knights Templar appear to have aligned with the Sinaloa Federation in an effort to root out the remnants of LFM and to prevent Los Zetas from gaining a more substantial foothold in the region through their alliance with LFM.
Independent Cartel of Acapulco
The Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA) has not been eliminated entirely, but it appears to have been severely damaged. Since the capture of CIDA leader Gilberto Castrejon Morales in early December, the group has faded from the public view. CIDA’s weakness appears to have allowed its in-town rival, Sinaloa-affiliated La Barredora, to move some of its enforcers to Guadalajara to fend off the Zetas offensive there. The decreased levels of violence and public displays of dead bodies in Acapulco of late can be attributed to the group’s weakening, and we are unsure if CIDA will be able to regroup and attempt to reclaim Acapulco.
Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion
After the death of Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel in July 2010, his followers suspected the Sinaloa cartel had betrayed him and broke away to form the CJNG. In spring 2011, the CJNG declared war on all other Mexican cartels and stated its intention to take control of Guadalajara. However, by midsummer, the group appeared to have been reunited with its former partners in the Sinaloa Federation. We are unsure what precipitated the reconciliation, but it seems that the CJNG was somehow convinced that Sinaloa did not betray Coronel after all. It is also possible CJNG was convinced that Coronel needed to go. In any case, CJNG “sicarios,” or assassins, in September traveled to the important Los Zetas stronghold of Veracruz, labeled themselves the “Matazetas,” or Zeta killers, and began to murder alleged Zetas members and their supporters. By mid-December, the CJNG was still in Veracruz fighting Los Zetas while also helping to protect Guadalajara and other areas on Mexico’s west coast from Zetas aggression.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel
The VCF, aka the Juarez cartel, continues to weaken. A Sinaloa operative killed one of its top lieutenants, Francisco Vicente Castillo Carrillo — a Carrillo family member — in September 2011. The VCF reportedly still controls the three main points of entry into El Paso, Texas, but the organization appears unable to expand its operations or move narcotics en masse through its plazas because it is hemmed in by the Sinaloa Federation, which appears to have chipped away at the VCF’s monopoly of the Juarez plaza. The VCF is only a shadow of the organization it was a decade ago, and its weakness and inability to effectively fight against Sinaloa’s advances in Juarez contributed to the lower death toll in Juarez in 2011.
Cartel Pacifico Sur
The CPS, headed by Hector Beltran Leyva, saw a reduction in violence in the latter part of 2011 after having been very active in the first third of the year. We are unsure why the group quieted down. The CPS may be concentrating on smuggling for revenue generation to support itself and assist its Los Zetas allies, who provide military muscle for the CPS and work in their areas of operation. Because of their reputation, Los Zetas receive a great deal of media attention, so it is also possible that the media attributed violent incidents involving CPS gunmen to Los Zetas.
Arellano Felix Organization
The November arrest of Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, the AFO’s chief enforcer, was yet another sign of the organization’s continued weakness. It remains an impotent and reluctant subsidiary of the Sinaloa Federation, unable to reclaim the Tijuana plaza for its own.
2011 Forecast in Review
In our forecast for 2011, we believed that the unprecedented levels of violence from 2010 would continue as long as the cartel balance of power remained in a state of flux. Indeed, cartel-related deaths appear to have at least continued apace.
Much of the cartel conflict in 2011 followed patterns set in 2010. Los Zetas continued to fight the CDG in northeast Mexico while maintaining their control of Veracruz state and the Yucatan Peninsula. The Sinaloa Federation continued to fight the VCF in Ciudad Juarez while maintaining control of much of Sonora state and Baja California state.
We forecast that government operations and cartel infighting and rivalry would expose fissures in and among the cartels. This prediction held true. The Beltran Leyva Organization no longer exists in its original form, its members dispersed among the Sinaloa Federation, the CPS, CIDA and other smaller groups. As noted above, fissures within LFM led to the creation of two groups, LFM and the KT. The CDG also now consists of two factions competing for control of the organization’s operations.
We also forecast that the degree of violence in the country was politically unacceptable for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his ruling National Action Party. Calderon knew he would have to reduce the violence to acceptable levels if his party was going to have a chance to continue to hold power after he left office in 2012 (Mexican presidents serve only one six-year term). As the 2012 presidential election approaches, Calderon is continuing his strategy of deploying the armed forces against the cartels. He has also reached out to the United States for assistance. The two countries shared signals intelligence throughout the year and continued to cooperate through joint intelligence centers like the one in Mexico City. The U.S. military also continues to train Mexican military and law enforcement personnel, and the United States has deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Mexican airspace at Mexico’s behest. The Mexican military was in operational command of the UAV missions.
As we have noted the past few years, we also believed that Calderon’s continued use of the military would perpetuate what is referred to as the three-front war in Mexico. The fronts consist of cartels against rival cartels, the military against cartels, and cartels against civilians. Indeed, in 2011 the cartels continued to vie for control of ports, plazas and markets, while deployments of military forces increased to counter Los Zetas in the states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Veracruz; to combat several groups waging a bloody turf war in Acapulco, Guerrero state; and to respond to conflicts arising between the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas and their affiliate groups in Nayarit and Michoacan states.
While Los Zetas were hit hard in 2011, the Mexican government’s offensive against the group was unable to damage it to the extent we believed it would. Despite losing several key leaders and plaza bosses, as noted previously, the group maintains its pre-eminence in the east. This is largely due to the ease with which such groups can replenish their ranks.
One of the ways in which Mexico’s cartels, including Los Zetas, replenish their ranks is with defected military personnel. Around 27,000 men and women desert the Mexican military every year, and about 50 percent of the military’s recruiting class will have left before the end of their first tour. In March 2011, the Mexican army admitted that it had “lost track of” 1,680 special forces personnel over the past decade (Los Zetas were formed by more than 30 former members of Mexico’s Special Forces Airmobile Group). Some cartels even reportedly task some of their own foot soldiers to enlist in the military to gain knowledge and experience in military tactics. In any case, retention is clearly a serious problem for the Mexican armed forces, and deserting soldiers take their skills (and oftentimes their weapons) to the cartels.
In addition, the drug trade attracts ex-military personnel who did not desert but left in good standing after serving their duty. There are fewer opportunities for veterans in Mexico than in many countries, and understandably many are drawn to a lucrative practice that places value on their skill sets. But deserters or former soldiers are not the only source of recruits for the cartels. They also replenish their ranks with current and former police officers, gang members and others (to include Central American immigrants and even U.S. citizens).
2012 Forecasts by Region
Northeast Mexico saw some of the most noteworthy cartel violence in 2011. The primary conflict in the region involved the continuing fight between CDG and Los Zetas, who were CDG enforcers before breaking away from the CDG in early 2010. Los Zetas have since eclipsed the CDG in terms of size, reach and influence. In 2011, divisions within the CDG over leadership succession came to the fore, leading to further violence in the region, and we believe these divisions will sow the group’s undoing in 2012.
The CDG began to suffer another internal fracture in late 2010 when the Mexican army killed Antonio “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen, who co-lead the CDG with Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state. After Cardenas Guillen’s death in November 2010, Costilla Sanchez assumed full control of the organization, passing over Rafael “El Junior” Cardenas Vela, the Cardenas family’s heir apparent, in the process. This bisected the CDG, creating two competing factions: Los Rojos, loyal to the Cardenas family, and Los Metros, loyal to Costilla Sanchez.
In late 2011, several events exacerbated tensions between the factions. On Sept. 3, authorities found the body of Samuel “El Metro 3” Flores Borrego, Costilla Sanchez’s second-in-command, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. Then on Sept. 27, gunmen in an SUV shot and killed a man driving a vehicle on U.S. Route 83, east of McAllen, Texas. The driver, Jorge Zavala of Mission, Texas, was connected to Los Metros.
The Mexican navy reported the following month that Cesar “El Gama” Davila Garcia, the CDG’s head finance officer, was found dead in Reynosa. Davila previously had served as Cardenas Guillen’s accountant. Then on Oct. 20, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Cardenas Vela after a traffic stop near Port Isabel, Texas. We believe Los Metros tipped off U.S. authorities about Cardenas Vela’s location. (Los Metros have every reason to kill Los Rojos leaders, including Cardenas Vela, but cartels rarely conduct assassinations on U.S. soil for fear of U.S. retribution.)
On Oct. 28, Jose Luis “Comandante Wicho” Zuniga Hernandez, believed to be Cardenas Vela’s deputy and operational leader in Matamoros, reportedly turned himself in to U.S. authorities without a fight near Santa Maria, Texas. Finally, Mexican federal authorities arrested Ezequiel “El Junior” Cardenas Rivera, Cardenas Guillen’s son, in Matamoros on Nov. 25.
By December, media agencies reported that Cardenas Guillen’s brother, Mario Cardenas Guillen, was the overall leader of the CDG. But Mario was never known to be very active in the family business, and his reluctance to involve himself in cartel operations appears to have continued after his brother’s death. In addition, Costilla Sanchez is reclusive, choosing to run his organization from several secluded ranches. That he is not mentioned in media reports does not mean he has been removed from his position. Given his reclusiveness and Mario Cardenas Guillen’s longstanding reticence to involve himself in cartel activity, it seems unlikely that Costilla Sanchez would be replaced. Because Los Metros seemingly have gained the upper hand over Los Rojos, we anticipate that they will further expand their dominance in early 2012.
However, while Los Metros may have defeated their rival for control of the CDG, the organizational infighting has left the CDG vulnerable to outside attack. Of course, any group divided is vulnerable to attack, but the CDG’s ongoing feud with Los Zetas compounds its problem. Fully aware of the CDG’s weakness, we believe Los Zetas will step up their attempts to assume control of CDG territory.
If Los Zetas are able to defeat the Los Metros faction — or they engage in a truce with the faction — they may be able to redeploy fighters to other regions or cities, particularly Veracruz and Guadalajara. Reinforcements in Veracruz would help counter the CJNG presence in the port city, and reinforcements in Guadalajara would shore up Los Zetas’ operations and presence in Jalisco state. Likewise, a reduction in cartel-on-cartel fighting in the region would free up troops the Mexican army has stationed in Tamaulipas state — an estimated force of 13,000 soldiers — for deployment elsewhere.
Some notable events took place in southeast Mexico in 2011. On Dec. 4 the Mexican army dismantled a Zetas communications network that encompassed multiple cities in Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi and Coahuila states.
In addition, Veracruz state Gov. Javier Duarte on Dec. 21 fired the city’s municipal police, including officers and administrative employees, and gave the Mexican navy law enforcement responsibilities. By Dec. 22, Mexican marines began patrols and law enforcement activities, effectively replacing the police much like the army replaced the police in Ciudad Juarez in 2009 and in various cities in Tamaulipas state in August 2011. We anticipate that fighting between the CJNG and Los Zetas will continue in Veracruz for at least the first quarter of 2012.
We expect security conditions on the Yucatan Peninsula to remain relatively stable in 2012 because there are no other major players in the region contesting Los Zetas’ control.
In the southern Pacific coastal states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, we expect violence to be as infrequent in 2012 as it was in 2011. Chiapas and Oaxaca have been transshipment zones for Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation for several years; as such, clashes and cargo hijackings occasionally take place. However, direct and sustained combat does not occur regularly because the two groups tend to use different routes to transport their shipments. The Sinaloa Federation prefers to move its product north on roads and highways along the Pacific coast, whereas Los Zetas’ transportation lines cross Mexico’s interior before moving north along the Gulf coast.
Pacific Coast and Central Mexico
As many as a dozen organizations, ranging from the KT to local criminal organizations to newer groups like La Barredora and La Resistencia, continue to fight for control of the plazas in Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco states. Acapulco was particularly violent in 2011, and we believe it will continue to be violent through 2012 unless La Barredora is able to exert firm control over the city. Acapulco has been a traditional Beltran Leyva stronghold, and the CPS may attempt to reassert itself there. If that happens, violence will once again increase.
Security conditions worsened in Jalisco state at the end of 2011, and Stratfor anticipates violence there will continue to increase in 2012, especially in Guadalajara, a valued transportation hub. In November, Los Zetas struck the CJNG in Guadalajara in response to the mass killings of Los Zetas members in Veracruz state. The attacks are significant because they demonstrated an ability to conduct protracted cross-country operations. Should Los Zetas establish firm control over Guadalajara, the Sinaloa Federation’s smuggling activities could be adversely affected, something Sinaloa obviously cannot permit. Given an increased Zetas presence in Zacatecas, Durango and Jalisco states, and Sinaloa’s operational need to counter that presence, we expect to see violence increase in the region in 2012.
Unless a significant military force is somehow brought to bear, we do not expect to see any substantive improvement in the security conditions in Guerrero or Michoacan states.
The cross-country operations performed by Los Zetas indicate that the group’s growth and expansion has been more profound than we expected in the face of the government’s major operations specifically targeting the organization. Such expansion will pose a direct threat not only to the Sinaloa Federation’s supply lines but to its home turf, which stretches from Guadalajara to southern Sonora state.
In northwest Mexico, specifically Baja California, Baja California Sur and Chihuahua states (and most of Sonora state), the Sinaloa Federation either directly controls or regularly uses the smuggling corridors and points of entry into the United States. Security conditions in the plazas under firm Sinaloa control have been relatively stable. Indeed, as Sinaloa tightened its control over Tijuana, violence there dropped, and we expect to see the same dynamic play out in Juarez as Sinaloa consolidates its control of that city. Stability could be threatened, however, if Los Zetas attempt to push into Sinaloa-held cities.
Outside of Mexico
As we noted in the past three annual cartel reports, Mexico’s cartels have been expanding their control of the cocaine supply chain all the way into South America. This eliminates middlemen and brings in more profit. They are also using their presence in South America to obtain chemical precursors and weapons.
Increased violence in northern Mexico and ramped-up law enforcement along the U.S. border has made narcotics smuggling into the United States more difficult than it has been in the past. The cartels have adapted to these challenges by becoming more involved in the trafficking of cocaine to alternative markets in Europe and Australia. The arrests of Mexican cartel members in such places as the Dominican Republic also seem to indicate that the Mexicans are becoming more involved in the Caribbean smuggling routes into the United States. In the past, Colombian smuggling groups and their Caribbean partners in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic used these routes. We anticipate seeing more signs of Mexican cartel involvement in the Caribbean, Europe and Australia in 2012.