ditor's Note: This week's Security Weekly summarizes our quarterly Mexico drug cartel report, in which we assess the most significant developments of the third quarter of 2014 and provide a forecast for the fourth quarter. 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.
By Tristan Reed
Mexico Security Analyst
The Mexican government continued its string of arrests of high-level crime bosses during the third quarter of 2014. Since Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in 2012, leaders of crime syndicates from across Mexico have been falling to federal troops with unusual frequency, including top-tier bosses from Sinaloa, Michoacan and Tamaulipas states, beginning with the arrest of Los Zetas top leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales in July 2013. It has become clear that the Pena Nieto administration is leaving no organized crime group free from government pressure. This trend will dominate the evolution of Mexico's organized crime landscape in the fourth quarter.
With the exception of Trevino, troops focused primarily on northwestern crime bosses operating under the Sinaloa Federation's umbrella in the last half of 2013 and well into the first half of this year, most notably with the February arrest of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera. Over the past three months, federal forces turned their sights to an alliance consisting of the Juarez cartel, Los Zetas and remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization, a grouping poised to supplant the declining Sinaloa Federation.
On Aug. 9, federal troops captured Enrique Hernandez Garcia, a Beltran Leyva Organization operator and the reported point of contact for the three allied cartels. Hernandez's brother, Francisco (aka "El 2000") is a high-level Beltran Leyva member who played an integral role in providing support to Beltran Leyva Organization remnant groups in Sonora state using gunmen from Los Zetas and the Juarez cartel. Federal troops in northern Sinaloa state also aggressively pursued the Beltran Leyva Organization successor group Los Mazatlecos in the third quarter.
But the alliance's most noteworthy leaders, such as top boss Fausto "El Chapo Isidro" Meza Flores, managed to evade capture until Hector "El H" Beltran Leyva was arrested Oct. 1 in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato state. Hector, the brother of Beltran Leyva Organization founders Alfredo and Arturo Beltran Leyva, was the most senior Beltran Leyva Organization operator to be captured or killed since the December 2009 death of Arturo during a firefight with Mexican marines. Federal forces built on this success by capturing Juarez cartel chief Vicente Carrillo Fuentes on Oct. 9 in Torreon, Coahuila state.
Federal forces also proceeded with operations in Tamaulipas state during the past quarter, where they continued to find substantial success in targeting leaders of the various Gulf cartel-aligned gangs. Farther south, federal troops are actively pursuing the Knights Templar in Michoacan state, though that group is a shadow of what it once was, with Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez its sole remaining top leader.
Each time a high-level leader is captured or killed, the question of succession naturally arises. The consequences of each succession vary widely from group to group. For example, the arrest of Trevino had a low organizational impact on Los Zetas, while massive, violent organizational splits occurred within the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Sinaloa Federation after the January 2008 arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva. Since the arrests of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and Hector Beltran Leyva happened less than a month ago, the extent of the fallout from each remains to be seen. Regardless of how things play out, the typically cohesive structures of Mexican cartels will continue to dissolve, creating a balkanized organized criminal landscape.
The Gulf Cartel Splinters
The Gulf cartel is perhaps the most obvious example of this devolution. Before 2010, the cartel was one of the two most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico, along with the Sinaloa Federation. Either directly or through alliances, it controlled nearly half of Mexico.
In 2010, however, Los Zetas split from the Gulf cartel, leaving the latter with just a portion of its former territory. By 2011, the Gulf cartel had split into two competing factions: Los Rojos and Los Metros. The following year, after several leadership losses at the hands of federal troops, the cartel broke down further into at least three factions in Tamaulipas, while a Los Zetas splinter group known as the Velazquez network emerged, rebranding itself as the "Gulf cartel."
The original Gulf cartel has continued to fragment to the extent that numerous, oft-competing groups -- all of them largely referred to as factions of the Gulf cartel -- sometimes can be found operating in the same neighborhood of a given city. Despite this decentralization, under the management of these various factions, organized criminal activity in Tamaulipas state has continued apace.
In the second and third quarters of 2014, two of the factions collapsed into subfactions. The Gulf cartel faction in Tampico fell apart between April and May, sparking a sharp increase in violence in southern Tamaulipas state prior to the start of sweeping security operations in May. Later, after several leadership losses, the Rio Bravo faction -- one of two factions competing for control of Reynosa -- effectively collapsed. Its rival, which operated in towns just west of Reynosa with ties to the Velazquez network, also suffered several leadership losses at the hands of rival groups and the authorities. Now, organized crime-related violence in Tampico and Reynosa resemble conflicts between powerful street gangs more than past conflicts between Mexican transnational criminal organizations.
If government pressure persists, Mexico's other criminal organizations -- even cartels such as Los Zetas that have retained considerable power and a cohesive structure -- will meet the same splintered fate as the Gulf cartel. For these groups, fragmentation is a natural result of prolonged and consistent government pressure. Not all splits will spark new conflicts, however, since newly independent subgroups may decide to cooperate, as has been the case with some Beltran Leyva Organization subgroups and Gulf cartel factions like those in Matamoros and Tampico. Moreover, even though Tamaulipas state now contains numerous distinct criminal groups, the opportunities for illicit profit that gave rise to the Gulf cartel in the first place will remain. The successor groups will continue the criminal operations.
Setbacks for Sinaloa, Opportunities for Rivals
Though the Sinaloa Federation's current woes began to emerge in 2012, the decentralization of the cartel did not become obvious until 2014. The cartel has not devolved into competing crime groups in the same fashion as the Gulf cartel, but Sinaloa's regional crime bosses have increasingly demonstrated their autonomy from top-tier leaders in areas such as Sonora and Baja California states, particularly Tijuana.
As Stratfor predicted in an Aug. 12 Mexico Security Weekly, the breakdown of the Sinaloa Federation has created opportunities for crime bosses under the Juarez-Los Zetas-Beltran Leyva Organization alliance to absorb territories or criminal operations, through either violent takeovers or business deals with individual Sinaloa lieutenants. Such was the case in southern Sonora state in 2012, when Sinaloa lieutenant Sajid Emilio "El Cadete" Quintero Navidad waged war on another Sinaloa lieutenant, Gonzalo "El Macho Prieto" Inzunza Inzunza, before then allying with Trinidad "El Chapo Trini" Olivas Valenzuela, the leader of a Beltran Leyva Organization remnant group.
The Juarez-Beltran Leyva Organization-Los Zetas alliance will begin adjusting to the arrests of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and Hector Beltran Leyva in the fourth quarter. Possible reactions include withdrawal from the alliance or further splits within its constituent parts. Rather than substantial adjustments like these during the fourth quarter, however, the members of the alliance are more likely to work to hold together. This could see subgroups such as La Linea of the Juarez cartel and Los Mazatlecos of the Beltran Leyva Organization become the alliance's points of contact for their respective groups. Should the arrests of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and Hector Beltran Leyva diminish the overall capabilities of their respective criminal organizations, Los Zetas may take charge of the general direction of the alliance given that the cartel has, by far, the widest reach of any of the three members.
The likelihood of increased violence resulting from the third-quarter arrests alone is slim. While there is a small chance that these captures will weaken the alliance -- or create that perception among its rivals -- no rival organizations are currently capable of mounting an interregional offensive. The Sinaloa Federation, for example, is too fragmented. Northwest Mexico, Chihuahua state and the Bajio region are the areas most likely to see a deterioration of security related to the shift in alliance dynamics this quarter. But any resulting violence probably will be isolated to areas where regional crime bosses operating under an umbrella group like the Sinaloa Federation will face off with alliance-affiliated bosses for control of relatively small territories. Any such fighting in the fourth quarter is unlikely to draw in Mexico's larger entities.
The Mexican government will continue pursuing criminal leaders throughout the country in the fourth quarter. It has become increasingly apparent that the Pena Nieto administration is intent upon continuing to flatten the structure of organized crime as a whole in Mexico. This means that more, albeit much less powerful, criminal bosses will emerge nationwide. New security concerns can arise with such a trend, since there will be more leaders fighting one another and participating in criminal activities targeting business interests and bystanders. But the crime bosses behind such violence will be far more vulnerable to government pressure than their predecessors, given the relative weakness of the new crop -- though to keep them in check the government will need to help Mexican states strengthen their public safety institutions.
Editor's Note: The full version of our quarterly cartel update is available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.
Read more: Mexico's Drug War: Criminal Groups Splinter as Bosses Fall | Stratfor