April 18, 2013
Editor's Note: This Security Weekly assesses the most significant cartel-related developments of the first quarter of 2013 and provides updated profiles of Mexico's powerful criminal cartels, as well as a forecast for the rest of this year. It's the executive summary of a more detailed report available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.
By Tristan Reed
Balkanization of Cartels
Since the late 1980s demise of the Guadalajara cartel, which controlled drug trade routes into the United States through most of Mexico, Mexican cartels have followed a trend of fracturing into more geographically compact, regional crime networks. This trend, which we are referring to as "Balkanization," has continued for more than two decades and has impacted all of the major cartel groups in Mexico. Indeed the Sinaloa Federation lost significant assets when the organizations run by Beltran Leyva and Ignacio Coronel split away from it. Los Zetas, currently the other most powerful cartel in Mexico, was formed when it split off from the Gulf cartel in 2010. Still these two organizations have fought hard to resist the trend of fracturing and have been able to grow despite being affected by it. This led to the polarized dynamic observed in 2011 when these two dominant Mexican cartels effectively split Mexican organized crime in two, with one group composed of Los Zetas and its allies and the other composed of the Sinaloa Federation and its allies.
This trend toward polarization has since been reversed, however, as Balkanization has led to rising regional challenges to both organizations since 2012. Most notable among these is the split between the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Sinaloa Federation. The Sinaloa Federation continues to struggle with regional crime groups for control in western Chihuahua state, northern Sinaloa state, Jalisco state and northern Sonora state. Similarly, Los Zetas saw several regional challengers in 2012. Two regional groups saw sharp increases in their operational capabilities during 2012 and through the first quarter of 2013. These were the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar.
The Beltran Leyva Organization provides another example of the regionalization of Mexican organized crime. It has become an umbrella of autonomous, and in some cases conflicting, groups. Many of the groups that emerged from it control specific geographic areas and fight among each other largely in isolation from the conflict between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation. Many of these successor crime groups, such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos are currently fighting for their own geographic niches. As its name implies, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco mostly acts in Acapulco, while Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos mostly act in Morelos state.
The ongoing fragmentation of Mexican cartels is not likely to reverse, at least not in the next few years. Despite this, while Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation continue to face new rivals and suffer from internal splintering, their resources are not necessarily declining. Neither criminal organization faces implosion or a substantial decline as a transnational criminal organization as a result of rising regional challengers. Both Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation continue to extend their drug trafficking operations on a transnational level, increasing both their influence and profits. Still, they will continue to face the new reality, in which they are forced to work with -- or fight -- regional groups.
In Hidalgo state, a former Zetas stronghold, the Knights Templar have made significant inroads, although violence has not risen to the level of that in the previously mentioned states. Also, the turf war within Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas states between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas that began when Los Zetas split from the Gulf cartel in 2010 continues.
In light of Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero's dissent from Los Zetas and the death of former leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano, Zetas leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales could face organizational integrity issues during 2013. Signs of such issues appeared in Cancun during the first quarter when some members of Los Zetas reportedly broke from the group and adopted the Gulf cartel name. Besides possible minor dissent, a seemingly new rival has emerged in Tabasco state to counter Los Zetas. A group called Pueblo Unido Contra la Delincuencia, Spanish for "People United Against Crime," carried out a series of executions in Tabasco state throughout the first quarter, but the group's origins and significance remain unclear. No indicators of substantial splintering among Los Zetas have emerged since the Velazquez split.