Mexico’s Drug War: Persisting Violence and a New President

Mexico’s Drug War: Persisting Violence and a New President is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Editor’s Note: This week’s Security Weekly summarizes our annual Mexico drug cartel report, in which we assess the most significant developments of 2012 and provide updated profiles of the country’s powerful criminal cartels as well as a forecast for 2013. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain through our Mexico Security Memo, quarterly updates and other analyses that we produce throughout the year as part of the Mexico Security Monitor service.

In 2013, violence in Mexico likely will remain a significant threat nationwide to bystanders, law enforcement, military and local businesses. Overall levels of violence decreased during 2011, but cartel operations and competition continued to afflict several regions of Mexico throughout 2012. These dangers combined with continued fracturing among cartels, such as Los Zetas, could cause overall violence to increase this year.

A New President

2013 will be the first full year in office for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who campaigned on promises to stem cartel violence. The most significant of his initiatives is his plan to consolidate and restructure federal law enforcement in Mexico. Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has introduced legislation that would switch oversight of the federal police, among other entities, away from the Public Security Secretariat to the Interior Ministry. The president also announced plans to bring the state police from each of Mexico’s 31 states under a unified federal command. Pena Nieto has frequently stated his plans to create a national gendarmerie that would serve as a supplemental paramilitary force for tackling violent organized criminal groups. During a Dec. 17 conference, he announced that this new organization initially would have 10,000 personnel trained by the Mexican army.

But 2013 is not likely to see any significant changes as a direct result of Pena Nieto’s domestic security policies since they will take time to produce results. For example, the gendarmerie would not likely become an effective operational force until after 2013, because training requires time. Even after such a gendarmerie is up and running, it would face many of the same issues encountered after previous efforts to create new law enforcement bodies. And restructuring law enforcement at the federal level does nothing to address one of the main factors driving Mexico’s cartel violence, namely the continual fracturing of organized criminal groups. After his Dec. 1 inauguration, Pena Nieto indicated that the almost 50,000 military troops conducting operations against organized crime will continue in their current role in the near term, reinforcing our forecast that there will not be observable changes as a result of his new policies in the first quarter of 2013.

Overall Violence

Homicides and other violent activity in Mexico including kidnappings, extortion, assaults and robberies linked to cartels did not increase in 2012, ending a trend of increasing annual homicides since 2006. But the drop does not indicate any significant shift toward peace among Mexican cartels. Inter-cartel turf wars in Ciudad Juarez, once one of the most violent areas of Mexico, have continued to decline in violence since 2010. Similarly, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas states have also seen reductions in violence.

Other forms of cartel-related violence, including kidnappings, extortion and open conflicts with authorities, remained high during 2012 and are likely to increase. Inter-cartel violence thus remains a significant security threat to many of Mexico’s urban areas, specifically in the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Jalisco, Coahuila and Michoacan.

Status of Mexico’s Major Cartels

Los Zetas

Los Zetas remained the most active, widely operating criminal organization in Mexico in 2012. While the group did not expand its area of operations in 2012, the organization did solidify its operations in states where it had a significant presence, such as Jalisco, and demonstrated notable violent acts in other states, such as Sinaloa.

Perhaps the most significant shift within Los Zetas involved a transition in its top leadership. It became apparent in 2012 that No. 2 leader Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales had gradually surpassed his former boss, Zetas leader and founding member Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano, for control of the group.

Although Los Zetas have been resilient in the face of previous leadership losses, this does not mean the transition to Trevino will happen without a struggle in 2013.

Los Zetas consist of semi-autonomous cells operating throughout their area of operations, with high-level leaders like Trevino coordinating the cells. Should any of these cells question Trevino’s leadership, violent rifts within the organization could emerge. For example, in the summer of 2012, Zetas leader in north-central Mexico Ivan “El Taliban” Velazquez Caballero went to war with Lazcano and Trevino. Despite his arrest, Velazquez’s network is still at war with Los Zetas, posing an increased threat to their control over Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Coahuila states.

Trevino must ensure that no similar betrayal by his plaza bosses occurs again, since such defections offer Zetas rivals, such as the Gulf cartel or Sinaloa Federation, a potential ally against Los Zetas. Should a new rift form during 2013, violence likely would increase substantially in any area where Los Zetas are confronted by those former Zetas. But if the leadership can maintain cohesion, Los Zetas will remain one of the two dominant criminal organizations in Mexico during 2013.

Gulf Cartel

By the beginning of 2012, the Gulf cartel had been reduced to operating in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states, where violence between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas continued. The Gulf cartel also continued to suffer significant losses from targeted military operations and to suffer from an internal divide between two factions, Los Rojos and Los Metros. But violence between the factions apparently has been minimal, and the Gulf cartel has continued to function as a single organization.

Supporting the Gulf cartel against Los Zetas is a strategic necessity for the Sinaloa Federation and the Knights Templar, allowing them to bolster their hold over their lucrative trafficking routes and counter the aggressive expansion of Los Zetas. It also forces the Zetas into a two-front war, disrupting their offensives against Sinaloa and the Knights Templar in the west.

The Gulf cartel received another significant boost to its war with Los Zetas when former Zetas plaza boss Velazquez declared war on Los Zetas, confirmed in August 2012.

On the downside, whoever has assumed control over Gulf cartel operations is likely dependent on the group’s main allies to maintain control. For the time being, this has likely turned the Gulf cartel into an operational arm of its much stronger allies, and the Gulf cartel can remain viable only as long as the Knights Templar or Sinaloa Federation continue to back it. Unless Los Zetas suffer substantial losses, whether due to rival incursions, another organizational split or military operations, the Gulf cartel will not likely regain independence in its operational capabilities during 2013.

Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation retained its areas of operation again in 2012. Through alliances with smaller criminal organizations, such as the Gulf cartel, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (although a divide between it and the Sinaloa Federation may have developed in the second half of 2012) and the Knights Templar, the Sinaloa Federation continued its assault on its principal rival nationwide, Los Zetas.

In addition to maintaining its areas of operation, the Sinaloa Federation continued to solidify control over the highly lucrative plazas of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua city, Chihuahua state, after pushing out its principal rival in the region, the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization, also known as the Juarez cartel. The Sinaloa Federation’s success correlated with a substantial drop in homicides in the two cities.

Although 2012 saw continued Sinaloa successes in Ciudad Juarez and sustained assaults against Los Zetas via proxy groups, the group did experience intensified regional conflicts in its strongholds. During the summer of 2012, Los Mazatlecos — a group with ties to the former Beltran Leyva Organization — demonstrated substantial and increasing influence in northern Sinaloa state. Meanwhile, as the Sinaloa Federation pushed the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization and La Linea, its allied enforcer arm, out of Ciudad Juarez, La Linea revived its hope of surviving as a criminal organization by focusing on control of transportation routes and areas of illicit drug production in the Sierra Madre Occidental in western Chihuahua state. While the Sinaloa Federation has not been able to eject La Linea from western Chihuahua state, it can maintain its organization through its control of a substantial percentage of the drug trade throughout Mexico.

Indicators also emerged of new challenges to Sinaloa control in northern Sonora state. Cities such as Puerto Penasco, Agua Prieta and Sonoyta saw increased executions and shootouts indicative of inter-cartel violence during 2012, suggesting a rival of the Sinaloa Federation is contesting drug trafficking routes into the United States through northern Sonora state. It is uncertain who this rival is, though La Linea and Los Mazatlecos are possible suspects.

Despite the regional conflicts within the Sinaloa Federation’s areas of operation, nothing suggests the criminal organization’s trafficking operations are under any significant threat. Violence in its regional conflicts with smaller organizations such as La Linea in western Chihuahua state and Los Mazatlecos in northern Sinaloa state will likely persist through 2013. The rural nature of the contested regions means that violence should not become as intense as that seen in urban turf wars throughout Mexico.

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

2012 saw a continued expansion of the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion into several Mexican states, including Morelos, Colima, Michoacan, Guerrero and Quintana Roo. As a byproduct of its acquired geographic reach, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion began taking control of drug trafficking routes for itself and local criminal enterprises like extortion and retail drug sales in areas such as Veracruz city or Colima state.

This expansion brought the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and another Sinaloa Federation ally, the Knights Templar, into the same operational spaces, such as Michoacan, Guerrero and Guanajuato states. By April 2012, it had become apparent that the Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion had begun a war with each other. It is unclear what role, if any, the Sinaloa Federation may have had with the conflict between its two allies.

Several factors suggest the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion splintered from the Sinaloa Federation in 2012. The organization rapidly expanded in 2012 into a prominent cartel — and thus a possible future rival for other criminal groups. Its conflict with another Sinaloa Federation ally as well as several narcomantas in Jalisco state and statements by a rival criminal leader of La Resistencia also contribute to the splinter theory. But there are no indications so far that a rivalry has formed between the two groups.

Nothing suggests the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion’s areas of operation have been reduced or that the group’s ability to traffic drugs has been hindered. If in addition to its current geographic reach in Mexico, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion is capable of delivering illicit drugs into the United States, the group essentially would have access to the same levels of the supply chain as Mexico’s dominant cartels.

Knights Templar

During 2012, the Knights Templar solidified itself as the successor to La Familia Michoacana, from which it split in 2011. The Knights Templar now operates as the dominant criminal organization of Michoacan state and as a significant criminal actor in states such as Morelos, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Guerrero and southeastern Jalisco. It is unclear in what capacity and where La Familia Michoacana continues to exist. Although sporadic violence between the Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana may occur in 2013, it is unlikely that La Familia Michoacana will regain any of its footholds in a battle against the Knights Templar without substantial help from another major criminal organization, such as Los Zetas. The Knights Templar might even absorb the remainder of La Familia Michoacana in 2013.

The Knights Templar has become increasingly public about its conflict with Los Zetas. While there have been no explicit indications of expanding violence between the two organizations, it is certainly possible that the Knights Templar will begin assaulting Los Zetas in the latter’s strongholds during 2013. Even without a direct conflict between Knights Templar gunmen and Zetas gunmen in Zetas-controlled territories, it is likely the Knights Templar is supporting the Gulf cartel in its conflict against Los Zetas by sending gunmen to the northeast to support Gulf cartel efforts.

Authorities have targeted lower-level Knights Templar members in response to brazen acts of coordinated violence by the group. But arrests so far will likely have a minimal impact on the group due to the low-level status of those detained.

Since there are currently no indicators that the operational capabilities of the Knights Templar are under threat by a rival organization, the group will likely continue its heavy propaganda campaign in multiple states of Mexico in 2013. Additionally, should the Knights Templar confront Los Zetas in a more direct manner than supporting an allies’ conflict, such as by attempting to take control of territory itself, violence would likely increase more in the northeastern states. Furthermore, retaliatory attacks conducted by Los Zetas against the Knights Templar in the Michoacan area could be expected.

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