More Tijuana Cartel News

Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel Expands to Baja California: Official


Authorities in Mexico have voiced fears the Jalisco Cartel has arrived in Baja California state, the most substantial indication yet the powerful criminal organization is expanding northward, potentially setting the stage for a deadly turf war between rival cartels. 

Gualberto Ramírez Gutiérrez, head of the kidnapping unit within Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República – PGR), said authorities believe the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco – Nueva Generación – CJNG) is moving into the border state as he announced the capture of a suspected Sinaloa Cartel hit man, El Universal reported. 

Marco Tulio Carrillo Grande, alias “El Marlon,” allegedly the Sinaloa Cartel’s head of assassins in the area, was arrested in Tijuana — Baja California’s largest city.

Authorities suspect Carrillo Grande of organizing recent violent attacks against members of rival cartels, including the Arellano Félix Cartel (also known as the Tijuana Cartel) and CJNG.

Baja California’s location affords valuable smuggling routes into the United States. It was previously contested by the Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellano Félix Cartel, and the former emerged as the predominant organization following a 2008 – 2010 turf war.

Headed by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” the CJNG already has an established presence in the states of Colima, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Morelos, Nayarit, and Veracruz, according to El Universal, despite being a relative newcomer to Mexico’s criminal landscape. 

The group has developed a particularly brutal reputation for violence and bloodshed. In April 2015, the CJNG carried out an attack on a police convoy that killed 15 officers. The following month the cartel shot down a military helicopter with a rocket propelled grenade.

InSight Crime Analysis 

Ramírez’s statements are the highest-profile claim yet made by a Mexican official placing CJNG in Baja California. While previous official comments suggested the CJNG might be attempting to expand its influence in the region, they stopped short of suggesting the group had established a significant foothold there. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Jalisco Cartel

Speculation the CJNG was moving into Baja California arose earlier this year as authorities sought an explanation for an uptick in violence in Tijuana, which saw nearly twice as many murders in January 2016 as it did in January 2015.

Ramírez Gutiérrez’s claim about the CJNG’s presence in the state appeared to be linked to evidence suggesting Carrillo Grande organized attacks against CJNG operators on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel.

A straightforward narrative about warring cartels, however, may be too simplistic an explanation of the reality on the ground in Baja California. Previously, it has been difficult to parse when and where the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG are in open conflict, versus where they engage in varying degrees of collaboration.

As such, it is too early to definitively conclude what type of organizational alignment or turf war might ultimately emerge in Tijuana — if the CJNG is in fact seeking to expand its presence in region. 

‘Tijuana Cartel Operators’ Captured in Bolivia


Bolivia’s capture of two Peruvians who allegedly worked for the Tijuana Cartel highlights Bolivia’s central role in the region’s cocaine “air bridge,” and raises the possibility that the once-mighty Mexican crime group still has some international reach. 

The Peruvians, Percy Santos Santillan and Sosimo Teofanes Bermudo Crepo (whose Bolivian identification provided him with another name) worked as intermediaries for Mexico drug trafficking group the Tijuana Cartel, local press quoted Bolivia’s Minister of Government Hugo Moldiz as saying. He also said the two coordinated aerial shipments of cocaine traffickeed between Peru and northern Bolivia.  

Bolivia’s anti-drug trask force, the FELCN, was able to capture the two Peruvians thanks to intelligence shared under a cooperation agreement signed by Peru and Bolivia in October 2014. Santillan and Bermudo are wanted by Interpol as well as in their home country, where they are accused of smuggling cocaine out of Peru’s Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (a region known as the VRAEM), according to reports

Moldiz emphasized that the arrest of the alleged Tijuana Cartel operators did not mean foreign drug trafficking cartels are present in Bolivia, describing the two as “emissaries.” 

InSight Crime Analysis

Bolivian officials have typically been careful to draw a distinction between the drug cartel “emissaries” they say are coordinating drug shipments in the country, versus the well-established presence of foreign drug cartels. As InSight Crime reported last year in a special investigation on Bolivian organized crime, local, family clans control much of Bolivia’s underworld, while Colombian groups handle much of the transnational drug trade. 

The capture of Santillan and Bermudo follows the arrest of Alberto Santillan Zamora, alias “Chang,” in July 2014. Santillan’s Peru-based group allegedly supplied the Tijuana Cartel with cocaine, shipped to Mexico via sea routes. 

The Tijuana Cartel is a shell of what it used to be — all of its founding members have been killed and captured, and the organization came out badly fragmented following its violent war with the Sinaloa Cartel. The arrest of these alleged associates in Peru and Bolivia suggests that although weakened at home, the Tijuana Cartel could be expanding its international presence. The precise nature of the connections between the two Peruvian detainees and the Tijuana Cartel, however, is unclear — they may have been coordinating drug shipments on the Mexican group’s behalf, but could not really be considered full-fledged members of the group. 

The arrest also underlines Bolivia’s role in the air bridge used by traffickers to move cocaine from Peru to Brazil. On top of being a coca producing nation, Bolivia is now seen as a major hub for drugs being shipped to the world’s second largest consumer, Brazil, as well as onwards towards Europe, often via West Africa. In response, Peru and Bolivia have been searching and destroying clandestine airfields and have both enacted controversial shoot-down laws, with Peru reportedly downing a plane in early March.

Tijuana Cartel Resurgent in Mexico: Official


Mexico’s Tijuana Cartel is reportedly marshaling its forces in an attempt to gain back some of its lost glory, according to one security official, providing a look at the current state of a once powerful criminal empire that has since fallen into decline. 

Some leaders of the Tijuana Cartel have left prison and are once again engaging in criminal activities in the border city, Tijuana’s Public Security Minister Alejandro Lares Valladares told investigative magazine Zeta Tijuana. Juan Lorenzo Vargas Gallardo, alias “El Chan,” is in charge of restructuring the organization, the magazine reported. However, several other former heads of the cartel have also taken on leadership roles, including Manuel Lopez Nunez, alias “El Balas,” and Pedro Quintero Velazquez, alias “El 5-8.”

Lares Valladares also said that violent confrontations between the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartel are ongoing in the region. In recent years, the Sinaloa Cartel has largely taken over drug trafficking operations in the Tijuana-San Diego border region. 

The boroughs where the Tijuana Cartel previously dominated — Playas, Soler, El Cacho — are the same ones where the drug trafficking group is once again reorganizing itself, and where the majority of the violence with the Sinaloa Cartel is taking place, according to Lares Valladares.

InSight Crime Analysis

The reports of violence between factions of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels are emblematic of the type of small-scale skirmishes that have become the norm as a result of the atomization of Mexican organized crime in recent years. The arrest or killing of top leaders has created a power vacuum within many of Mexico’s traditional heavyweight criminal groups, including the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and the Juarez Cartel. This has led to the proliferation of splinter groups that lack the hierarchal structure and wherewithal to move massive quantities of drugs like their predecessors, resulting in turf battles over drug routes that were once undisputed. 

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel News and Profile

The Tijuana Cartel is a shell of its former self — during the 1990s and early 2000s, the cartel dominated Tijuana’s lucrative drug trade. However, the arrest or killing of several leaders — including Eduardo Arellano Felix in 2008 — substantially weakened the group. A faction led by Arellano’s nephew, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, “El Ingeniero,” then allied themselves with their longtime rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel. The arrest of El Ingeniero in June 2014 brought the cartel under the power of his mother, Enedina Arellano Felix, known as the “narco-mom“.

Captured Peru Narco Boss Worked with Mexico’s Tijuana Cartel


Peru’s National Police have arrested a man identified as one of the country’s most wanted criminals and the leader of an international drug trafficking organization with ties to the Tijuana Cartel, highlighting the continued transnational operations of the weakened Mexican group.

On July 24, Peruvian police arrested Alberto Santillan Zamora, alias “Chang” or “Viejo,” the leader of a criminal organization called “Safari,” which allegedly provided cocaine to the Tijuana Cartel, in the San Martin region of Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley, reported La Republica. Authorities believe Santillan’s organization set up clandestine laboratories to manufacture cocaine and then transported the drugs to a Peruvian port, from where they were trafficked by sea to Tijuana, reported EFE.

The Safari criminal organization allegedly includes individuals from Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala, reported AFP.

According to Interior Minister Daniel Urresti, Santillan had been involved in drug trafficking since 1999.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, was once a powerful criminal organization that controlled the drug trade from the Tijuana area into California. The cartel lost a series of leaders between 2002 and 2008, however, which left the group fragmented and weakened. The cartel is now thought to be largely working under the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which also has a reported a presence in Peru, but the connections with Santillan could mean they are still involved in their own operations.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel News and Profile

The alleged links between Santillan and the Tijuana Cartel have existed for years. In 2002, Peruvian authorities captured Miguel Angel Morales Morales, alias “Malamud,” a high-level Tijuana Cartel operative, for processing cocaine and trafficking drugs from the Peruvian port of Chimbote to Mexico. As part of the operation, over 30 people involved in the cartel were arrested and later sentenced and 1.7 tons of cocaine were seized. According to Urresti, Santillan was linked to the operation, but managed to evade capture.  

Peru is currently the world’s largest coca and cocaine producer. The Upper Huallaga Valley where Santillan was captured is an important coca growing region and a former stronghold of the faction of the Shining Path led by Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, alias “Artemio,” who was captured in 2012.

The country’s importance to the cocaine trade has seen transnational criminal groups establish a presence in Peru. According to the police anti-drug directorate (DIRANDRO), authorities have identified the presence of Mexican, Colombian and Russian criminal groups in the country. The Sinaloa Cartel reportedly has armed cells operating near the border with Ecuador.

‘Narco-Mom’ Takes Charge of Tijuana Cartel


The capture of Tijuana Cartel leader Fernando Sanchez Arellano has left his mother in charge of the Mexican drug trafficking group, a change that could herald a shift towards semi-legal business operations and less violence.

After the arrest of Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” on June 23, his mother Enedina Arellano Felix, alias “La Narcomami” (the narco-mom), has been left in command of the Tijuana Cartel, reported 24 Horas. Enedina is the sister of the Arellano Felix brothers who originally headed the organization.

With her former husband, Enedina allegedly ran several businesses — including a chain of pharmacies and a real estate company — used to launder the cartel’s money. Sources cited in 24 Horas said Enedina oversaw the cartel’s development from an extremely violent gang to a “pseudo business,” favoring alliances with other organizations, including Colombian drug traffickers, over violence.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, dominated the drug trade from the Tijuana area into California for close to 20 years. The organization also profited from taxing other criminal activity in the region, including contraband and human trafficking.   

The Tijuana Cartel suffered a series of blows between 2002 and 2008 as the Arellano Felix brothers were captured or assassinated one by one, causing a leadership vacuum that led to the division of the organization.     

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel News and Profiles

One faction allied itself with the Beltran Leyva Organization while the other formed ties with the Sinaloa Cartel, leading to a violent turf war in Tijuana that began to die down in 2010 amid speculation Fernando Sanchez Arellano had reached an agreement with the Sinaloa Cartel

Although she has kept a lower profile than other cartel leaders, Enedina has been on the US Department of Treasury’s list of drug traffickers since 2002. Given her previous role as the cartel’s financial chief and reportedly less violent management style, her leadership could mark a shift in the organization’s tactics.

If speculation that the Sinaloa Cartel controls the Arellano Felix clan’s operations proves true, however, the change in leadership will likely have only a minor impact on the organization’s activities. 

Tijuana Cartel Leader Arrest Could Mean End of Drug Empire


Authorities in Mexico have captured the leader of the debilitated Tijuana Cartel, removing what will likely prove the last of Arellano Felix clan with the ability to control a large portion of the Tijuana drug corridor, but not the networks that move the drugs.

The Mexican military arrested Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero” in the northern border city of Tijuana on June 23, reported Excelsior.

Sanchez, the nephew of the Arellano Felix brothers that founded the Tijuana Cartel, is wanted in Mexico on organized crime, drugs and weapons charges, and in the United States for drug trafficking.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization after the five brothers that dominated the organization, is one of Mexico’s oldest criminal organizations.

For nearly two decades it controlled the passage of drugs on the Tijuana border and into California, and collected “piso” — a criminal tax — on illegal activities in the region from Tijuana to Mexicali.

SEE ALSO: El Ingeniero Profile

The organization began to crumble after it lost one leader after another between 2002 and 2008, leading to fragmentation as factions broke away to stake their own claim to the region’s underworld.

Sensing weakness and opportunity, outside criminal groups moved in, brokering alliances with the rival factions. Sanchez made a pact with the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), while his rivals struck a deal with the Sinaloa Cartel, leading to a criminal conflict that saw Tijuana become one of the most violent cities in Mexico.

The killing began to tail off in 2010, leading to speculation that Sanchez had struck a deal with the Sinaloans, allowing him to remain in place but operating as a subordinate.

However, the security forces continued to chip away at the organization, arresting and extraditing numerous high level operatives.

The arrest of Sanchez, who maintained a low profile compared to his more illustrious predecessors, may mark the end of the Arellano Felix criminal dynasty, but it is unlikely to create serious upheavals in the Tijuana underworld.

The Sinaloa Cartel was widely believed to be the power behind Sanchez’s throne, and they will likely step in to oversee the region’s criminal networks.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

As in much of the country, those networks may have answered to Sanchez but are mostly horizontally organized and largely decentralized, so are unlikely to be seriously disrupted by such a change in leadership.

The “decapitation” of criminal organizations can often lead to violence as rivals compete to fill the vacuum. However, with the Sinaloa Cartel acting as the guarantor of the local underworld, the city should avoid a bloody war of succession.

Gunman Dressed as a Clown Kills Oldest Tijuana Cartel Brother


A gunman disguised as a clown has killed the oldest brother in the clan running Mexico’s once-mighty Tijuana Cartel, raising the question: why would someone target one of the last remaining members of a dying cartel?

Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix was attending a children’s party in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur on October 18, when an unidentified assassin entered and shot him in the head and chest, reported Proceso. The Attorney General’s Office later confirmed the identity of the victim.

According to authorities, the homicide is considered a common crime, and will be investigated locally, because Arellano Felix was not under investigation for any federal crime at the time of his murder, reported El Universal.

InSight Crime Analysis

Francisco Arellano was the oldest brother in the Arellano Felix clan, the family responsible for what was once one of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations, the Tijuana Cartel.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel Profile

He was first arrested in California in 1980 for selling cocaine to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, and after posting bail, fled to Mexico. He was newly arrested in Mexico in 1993 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Shortly upon completing his sentence, he was extradited to the United States in 2006, but was released early from a seven year prison sentence for good behavior.

The lack of current charges against Arellano would seem to indicate that he was no longer a major figure in Mexico’s drug scene, or in the cartel, at the time of his death. The killing could have been a settling of accounts from the bloody feud that occurred with rivals during the cartel’s heyday. However, authorities also recently reported the hanging of a narco-banner in Tijuana signed by the “New Tijuana Cartel,” meaning there could be new actors at work in the area.

The failure of the cartel thus far to retaliate for Arellano’s death is another potential sign of weakness. In August, a DEA agent claimed the Tijuana Cartel was “finished,” following the sentencing of Eduardo Arellano Felix, who was arrested in 2008. The clan has suffered numerous arrests and the deaths of two of top members, in the past decade. It is now run by a nephew of the brothers, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, and continues to operate helped by an alliance with former rivals of the Sinaloa Cartel.

How Tijuana’s Criminal Virtuous Cycle Has Reduced Violence


A new report examines the factors behind Tijuana’s relative lack of violence compared to other northern Mexico cities, and raises questions about whether the recent peace experienced in the city is sustainable.

In a report from Rice University’s Baker Institute, Mexico drug war expert Nathan Jones describes Tijuana as an oasis of relative calm among the chaos plaguing much of Mexico’s north.

Between 2008 and 2010, Tijuana endured a prolonged war between the Arellano Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, and factions loyal to the Sinaloa Cartel. As a result, in 2010, Tijuana registered a murder rate of 57 per every 100,000. However, by 2012 it registered a rate of just 28, making the notorious border city safer than many American cities, at least in terms of murders. The local kidnapping rate also plummeted, from 5.67 to just 2 over the same period.

Much of the public credit for this improvement went to former police chief Julian Leyzaola, an army colonel who earned fame, not to mention a New Yorker profile, for his tough talk and for the accusations of abuses directed his way. Leyzaola helped increase the role of the local police, just as he has since being posted to Ciudad Juarez, where his tenure has also coincided with a drop in the crime rate and an increase in reports of police abuse.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel Profile

Jones points to the end of the cartel war as equally important in establishing Tijuana as something of a safe haven. A key element in the city’s pacification was the arrest of Teo Garcia, a brutal former Arellano Felix lieutenant who briefly allied with the Sinaloa Cartel before falling afoul of them as well. Federal troops detained Garcia, who embraced kidnapping as revenue-generator and was perhaps best known for dissolving the bodies of his enemies in acid, in January 2010, setting the stage for a less violent Tijuana. 

The current year, however, has brought about a reverse in recent years’ positive trends. The annual murder rate now exceeds 40 per 100,000, though the kidnapping rate remains low. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

Jones attributes this year’s bump in murders to rivalries in the local drug trade, rather than a new dispute between the larger groups. The fact that smaller dealers could generate such an increase is attributable to the low level of organizational control exercised by the Sinaloa Cartel, the most significant criminal organization in the city. Instead of sending direct subordinates to run the city’s drug trade, Sinaloa bosses Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada have preferred to operate through loose affiliates.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile

However, notwithstanding the increase in murders in 2013, this unusual characteristic of Tijuana’s underworld is largely a force for peace: the Sinaloa Cartel operates the city largely as an open plaza, in which any gang (with some key exceptions) willing to pay a fee is permitted to use the city. As a result of this policy, gangs are discouraged from attacking the hegemon that allows them all to profit; it serves essentially as a safety valve. A key element of this approach is the list of gangs not allowed entry into Tijuana: the Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), and other allied groups. The presence of these gangs, whose disputes with the Sinaloa Cartel run much deeper, would likely make any pax narco impossible, and may again spark a deterioration in Tijuana’s security.

While its grip may be loosen, the regime controlling organized crime in Tijuana today has managed to establish a taboo against extortion and kidnapping. Because these crimes typically target law-abiding citizens, this provides the city with a further sense of security, above and beyond the drop in the murder rate. Indeed, even as the murder rate has bounced back, extortion and kidnapping complaints have largely remained stable.

In this sense, Tijuana may represent something like the best-case scenario for northern Mexican cities, at least over the medium term. Population centers near major ports of entry into the United States are going to have substantial drug trafficking markets for as long as a widespread drug prohibition exists, and this, in turn, will always generate some degree of competition among different groups. The goal for the government is to manage this competition while balancing two goals that can often be conflicting: limiting the impact of violence stemming from organized crime on the population as a whole, and avoiding degradation of state institutions by criminal actors.  

It is not conclusively clear that the improvements since 2010 will prove enduring, and declines in institutional integrity are usually not visible until they have become grave problems. In other words, public security has not been solved in Tijuana. Yet, as Jones details, thanks to a handful of unusual elements of the local drug trade, a virtuous cycle has replaced the spiral of violence that plagues much of the North.

The Current State of Mexico’s Many Drug Cartels


It is tempting to separate Mexico’s drug cartels into six hierarchical groups, each competing for trafficking turf. The reality, however, is that the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Zetas and La Familia, not to mention several new offshoot organizations, are fluid, dynamic, for-profit syndicates that sometimes operate under the umbrella of what are effectively conglomerates but more often than not operate as independent, smaller-scale franchises.

This article examines the current state of the Sinaloa Federation, the Zetas, and other Mexican cartels. It finds that due to law enforcement pressure in recent years, Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations have increasingly splintered, and may well end up consolidated under the influence of the last cartel standing. That cartel would likely be the Sinaloa Federation, which remains the most powerful cartel in Mexico today.

The Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation is the most powerful Mexican drug trafficking organization with the largest presence nationwide and globally. Based in the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, it has operatives in at least 17 Mexican states. In recent years, its members are known to have operated in cities throughout the United States. At the helm of the cartel is Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, and he is accompanied by several other key figures, among them Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza “El Azul” Moreno. These three figures, in their 50s and 60s, have run the Sinaloa Federation through a hands-off, top-down management style since the 1990s. While the cartel itself may employ as many as 100,000 operatives, the leadership is believed to rarely communicate directly with them, preferring instead to issue wide-ranging orders and allow the plaza chiefs — those in charge of specific trafficking zones — to run their operations like franchises. For this reason, the Sinaloa cartel has long been known as the Federation.

In 2008 and 2009, however, the Sinaloa Federation suffered its first major ruptures when the Beltran Leyva brothers and Edgar Valdez Villareal (also known as “La Barbie”) split off from Sinaloa to form their own independent outfits, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Cartel del Pacifico Sur. As a result, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers and Villareal were arrested in 2008 and 2010 respectively, while another brother was killed in 2009. It is unclear whether Sinaloa leader Guzman and his inner circle informed the authorities of the three’s locations as payback over the split, or whether they simply proved unable to run operations on their own. The Sinaloa Federation, however, would never be the same. While it would expand in size — domestically and internationally — it would suffer setbacks and lose clout near its home turf of Sinaloa and Durango, as well as in southwestern Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile

Since 2008, dozens of high-level Sinaloa cartel lieutenants have been brought down by authorities, including Guzman’s father-in-law and longtime associate, Ignacio Coronel Villareal (also known as Nacho Coronel), who was killed in a shootout in the central city of Guadalajara in July 2010, and Ismael Zambada’s son Vicente Zambada Niebla, who is currently on trial in Chicago. The Sinaloa cartel has continued to expand in Mexico and globally, but has faced increasing pressure from rival groups, the Zetas in particular. While it is no longer as effective as it once was, the Sinaloa Federation remains the most expansive, organized cartel operating in Mexico today.

The Zetas

The Zetas are Mexico’s most lethal drug trafficking organization. Originally a tight-knit group of approximately 30 former members of a Mexican Special Forces unit who operated as the paramilitary wing for the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas have grown exponentially since the early 2000s. True to their Special Forces origins, some of the recruits have received advanced weapons and communications training, which is what originally distinguished the group from other cartels in Mexico.

Nevertheless, today many Zetas members have had little training at all; since 2008, small groups of “thugs” sporting crew cuts and purporting to be members of the Zetas have appeared in small towns in Mexico, quickly claiming the turf as their own. The Zetas members have been involved in turf battles in Sinaloa cartel strongholds like the city of Culiacan and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Yet aside from a few apparent attempts to consolidate the multitudes of groups calling themselves Zetas, the Zetas have remained splintered.

The authorities have continually hampered the Zetas’ ability to use technology to communicate. In August 2012, for example, the military seized 15 communications installations, including a 50-foot telecom tower, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. In the past year, the authorities have also had success in arresting or killing some of the top Zetas leaders. On October 7, 2012, the Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca” or “Z-3” (indicating his high-rank within the original Zeta unit), was killed by the Mexican Navy. On July 15, 2013, Lazcano’s successor, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales (“Z-40”), was arrested in Tamaulipas without a shot being fired and reportedly with the help of US intelligence. Law enforcement pressure during the majority of the Calderon administration was focused on the Zetas and La Familia, in large part because these two groups were the most intent on executing indiscriminate acts of violence.

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

Without these leaders, the Zetas will likely remain a ragtag operation, intent on violence and willing to engage in almost any illicit activity for profit, but increasingly disorganized and, as a result, less in control of drug trafficking and less capable of undermining the authorities and the state. It is also likely that the Sinaloa Federation will repeat a move from its 2004 playbook and try to take control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo trafficking corridor given the corner in which the Zetas find themselves.

Mexico’s Other Cartels

There are more than a handful of other cartels operating in Mexico, but none on the level of the Sinaloa Federation or the Zetas. There are already indications that the Sinaloa Federation may try to strike an alliance with the remnants of the Gulf Cartel, which, since the extradition of Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2007 (he received a 25-year sentence in Houston in 2010), has been considerably weakened. Its members have been in constant conflict with the Zetas, from Tamaulipas all the way to Guatemala. Once the most powerful drug trafficking organization on Mexico’s East Coast, the Gulf Cartel’s current level of influence is unclear. It is reasonable to assume it still controls the majority of drug trafficking operations in Tamaulipas, but it is impossible to be completely confident of the Gulf Cartel’s current condition given the fog that surrounds the criminal underworld in Tamaulipas.

Of the other groups, the Tijuana Cartel is perhaps the least menacing. Since the fall of the last of the group’s long-time leaders, the Arellano Felix brothers in 2008, the group has stayed largely off the radar. It is believed that a sister of the Arellano Felix brothers, Enedina, may be trying to run operations, but there are indications that the Sinaloa Federation has moved in on their territory. A similar situation exists in Ciudad Juarez, where just one of the original Carrillo Fuentes brothers, Vicente, remains in charge of what used to be the powerful Juarez Cartel but is now an increasingly fluid operation that resembles gang-on-gang warfare more than intra-cartel violence, with the high-level drug trafficking operations apparently conducted by members of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. In some ways, Sinaloa has always had a foot in Juarez: in the 1990s, Esparragoza Moreno was considered the “number three” for the Sinaloa Federation as well as the “number two” for the Juarez Cartel, even though the two organizations were officially rivals.

What remains in the rest of Mexico is a hodgepodge of offshoot groups that are increasingly staking their claim to disputed turf from Veracruz to Guadalajara to Acapulco. La Familia, a pseudo-religious group based in the central state of Michoacan which preached wholesome values all the while peddling methamphetamine on the side, has all but shattered under law enforcement pressure, but the so-called Knights Templar has risen in its place. The Knights Templar, like La Familia, operates behind a facade of pseudo-religiosity, calling into question just how separate it is from what was once La Familia. Given La Familia’s growth during the early years of the Felipe Calderon administration, it is unlikely the organization simply disappeared entirely.

Groups such as Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), based in Guadalajara, and the Matazetas (the “Zeta Killers” who are purportedly an offshoot of the aforementioned Jalisco organization now based largely in Veracruz) have appeared on the scene in the last two or three years, attracting attention with beheadings, other violent killings and narcomantas (banners) laying claim to their turf. Yet a closer examination reveals that these may not actually be new organizations at all: the New Generation was a name commonly thrown around Guadalajara in association with Sinaloa Federation kingpin Coronel Villareal as early as 2008, while the name Matazetas appeared as early as 2004 in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo when Sinaloa Federation operatives challenged the Zetas for their turf. It is nearly impossible to confirm whether the new organizations are offshoots of the major cartels or not. Although many disgruntled operatives are often tempted to try to form their own organizations, sometimes even with their leadership’s blessing, it is rarely clear whether they operate independently or under an umbrella.


If there is one certainty that has emerged from roughly six years of fighting the cartels in Mexico, it is that the country’s drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented than ever, and now lack the leadership of organized, business-oriented kingpins.

There are several scenarios for the future. If offshoots like La Generacion Nueva, the Zetas and the Matazetas — which have shown a propensity for wanton violence that is unparalleled in Mexican history — continue to gain a foothold, Mexico may become such difficult terrain through which to move drugs that the traffickers shift back to the Caribbean, which they abandoned in the 1990s after increased US law enforcement pressure around the islands. Traffickers also may opt to use Central America as a hub, given its lack of strong institutions.

There is also the possibility that the Sinaloa Federation and Gulf Cartel will seek to consolidate control over the various offshoots and incorporate them into their larger organizations. If this happens, violence would likely diminish, but drug trafficking would flourish, and both US and Mexican law enforcement along the border would be put under increasing pressure.

*Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord. This article originally appeared in the CTC Sentinal and is reprinted with permission. See the orginal article with references here.