Mexico Security Memo: A New Conflict in Northern Sinaloa
May 15, 2013 | 0730 Print - Text Size +
Recent body dumps and targeted attacks in northern parts of Sinaloa state reveal an unfolding conflict among regional organized criminal groups with backing from some of Mexico's major cartels. Since April, media outlets have attributed at least two body dumps in Los Mochis, Ahome municipality's largest city, to a group calling itself La Mochomera. The group's origins and allegiances remain unclear, but the escalating violence in the state suggests that a new challenge to Los Mazatlecos -- the current dominant organization in Ahome -- is underway.
According to social media reports, La Mochomera is a remnant of the former Beltran Leyva Organization, a Sinaloa-based cartel that split in 2009. The group has reportedly been fighting Los Mazatlecos, another Beltran Leyva Organization remnant that wrested control of parts of northern Sinaloa state over the past year. In 2012, Los Mazatlecos emerged as a regional challenger to Sinaloa Federation in Sinaloa state, and the group operates in some of the few areas in the state outside of Sinaloa's control.
The ability of Los Mazatlecos to counter the far stronger the Sinaloa Federation has been partly a result of its cooperation with La Linea and Los Zetas, two of the Sinaloa Federation's principal rivals. Before the breakup of the Beltran Leyva Organization, Los Zetas allied with some of the cartel's leaders, including Alfredo Beltran Leyva. Since the split, Los Zetas have maintained a working relationship with many of the remnant groups, most notably Los Mazatlecos, whose operations in Sinaloa state have allowed Los Zetas to make occasional incursions into territories controlled by the Sinaloa Federation and afforded access to the Sierra Madre Occidental, a lucrative region for illicit drug production.
But the recent violence in Ahome indicates that La Mochomera is distinct from Los Mazatlecos. On April 20, authorities discovered six bodies inside an abandoned vehicle in Los Mochis, along with a narcomanta signed ostensibly by "El Dos Letras," presumably the nickname of the leader of La Mochomera. The message contained a threat to Ahome police chief Jesus Carrasco Ruiz and accused him of colluding with organized criminals. Then on May 4, authorities discovered another six bodies near Los Mochis and another narcomanta apparently signed by El Dos Letras. On May 9, a group of gunmen in Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, a community in Guasave municipality, ambushed a convoy ferrying the police chief to the city of Culiacan along Highway 15.
In light of the recent threats against Carrasco Ruiz and the Ahome police, the May 9 attack can likely be linked to the body dumps on April 20 and May 4. The ability to ambush an armored police convoy with a high number of gunmen suggests the involvement of a more substantial regional criminal group, rather than a local gang. Thus, La Mochomera could be receiving support from an outside organization looking to counter Los Mazatlecos. It is also possible that the new group splintered from Los Mazatlecos or perhaps is a Los Mazatlecos faction still working to defend the group's territory.
Stratfor has been unable to confirm whether the escalating conflict in northern Sinaloa state is indeed between La Mochomera and Los Mazatlecos as reported. If La Mochomera is aligned with or a part of Los Mazatlecos, then the recent violence could be the result of defensive operations against a rival, likely the Sinaloa Federation. If La Mochomera is challenging Los Mazatlecos, Los Zetas will likely respond to ensure its capabilities to conduct operations in the state and the Sierra Madre Occidental and to counter the Sinaloa Federation in the rival cartels' nationwide conflict. This would prolong high levels of violence for the foreseeable future.
Editor's note: As part of a refocusing of our Mexico coverage to include more analysis of the geopolitical, economic and energy-related issues affecting the country, Stratfor is discontinuing publication of our weekly Mexico Security Memo. We will continue to publish analyses pertaining to the security situation in Mexico, but we will do so when events warrant the coverage rather than simply once a week.
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Read more: Mexico Security Memo: A New Conflict in Northern Sinaloa | Stratfor
Understanding Pena Nieto's Approach to the Cartels
Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 04:00 Print - Text Size +
By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's approach to combating Mexican drug cartels has been a much-discussed topic since well before he was elected. Indeed, in June 2011 -- more than a year before the July 2012 Mexican presidential election -- I wrote an analysis discussing rumors that, if elected, Pena Nieto was going to attempt to reach some sort of accommodation with Mexico's drug cartels in order to bring down the level of violence.
Such rumors were certainly understandable, given the arrangement that had existed for many years between some senior members of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party and some powerful cartel figures during the Institutional Revolutionary Party's long reign in Mexico prior to the election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party in 2000. However, as we argued in 2011 and repeated in March 2013, much has changed in Mexico since 2000, and the new reality in Mexico means that it would be impossible for the Pena Nieto administration to reach any sort of deal with the cartels even if it made an attempt.
But the rumors of the Pena Nieto government reaching an accommodation with some cartel figures such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera have persisted, even as the Mexican government arrests key operatives in Guzman's network, such as Ines Coronel Barreras, Guzman's father-in-law, who was arrested May 1 in Agua Prieta, Mexico. Indeed, on April 27, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest published a detailed article outlining how U.S. authorities were fearful that the Mexican government was restructuring its security relationship with the U.S. government so that it could more easily reach an unofficial truce with cartel leaders. Yet four days later, Coronel -- a significant cartel figure -- was arrested in a joint operation between the Mexicans and Americans.
Clearly, there is some confusion on the U.S. side about the approach the Pena Nieto government is taking, but conversations with both U.S. and Mexican officials reveal that these changes in Mexico's approach do not appear to be as drastic as some have feared. There will need to be adjustments on both sides of the border while organizational changes are underway in Mexico, but this does not mean that bilateral U.S.-Mexico cooperation will decline in the long term.
Opportunities and Challenges
Despite the violence that has wracked Mexico over the past decade, the Mexican economy is booming. Arguably, the economy would be doing even better if potential investors were not concerned about cartel violence and street crime -- and if such criminal activity did not have such a significant impact on businesses operating in Mexico.
Because of this, the Pena Nieto administration believes that it is critical to reduce the overall level of violence in the country. Essentially it wants to transform the cartel issue into a law enforcement problem, something handled by the Interior Ministry and the national police, rather than a national security problem handled by the Mexican military and the Center for Research and National Security (Mexico's national-level intelligence agency). In many ways the Pena Nieto administration wants to follow the model of the government of Colombia, which has never been able to stop trafficking in its territory but was able to defeat the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels and relegate their successor organizations to a law enforcement problem.
The Mexicans also believe that if they can attenuate cartel violence, they will be able to free up law enforcement forces to tackle common crime instead of focusing nearly all their resources on containing the cartel wars.
Although the cartels have not yet been taken down to the point of being a law enforcement problem, the Pena Nieto administration wants to continue to signal this shift in approach by moving the focus of its efforts against the cartels to the Interior Ministry. Unlike former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was seen leading the charge against the cartels during his administration, Pena Nieto wants to maintain some distance from the struggle against the cartels (at least publicly). Pena Nieto seeks to portray the cartels as a secondary issue that does not demand his personal leadership and attention. He can then publicly focus his efforts on issues he deems critically important to Mexico's future, like education reform, banking reform, energy reform and fostering the Mexican economy. This is the most significant difference between the Calderon and Pena Nieto administrations.
Of course it is one thing to say that the cartels have become a secondary issue, and it is quite another to make it happen. The Mexican government still faces some real challenges in reducing the threat posed by the cartels. However, it is becoming clear that the Pena Nieto administration seeks to implement a holistic approach in an attempt to address the problems at the root of the violence that in some ways is quite reminiscent of counterinsurgency policy. The Mexicans view these underlying economic, cultural and sociological problems as issues that cannot be solved with force alone.
Mexican officials in the current government say that the approach the Calderon administration took to fighting the cartels was wrong in that it sought to solve the problem of cartel violence by simply killing or arresting cartel figures. They claim that Calderon's approach did nothing to treat the underlying causes of the violence and that the cartels were able to recruit gunmen faster than the government could kill or capture them. (In some ways this is parallel to the U.S. government's approach in Yemen, where increases in missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles have increased, rather than reduced, the number of jihadists there.) In Mexico, when the cartels experienced trouble in recruiting enough gunmen, they were able to readily import them from Central America.
However -- and this is very significant -- this holistic approach does not mean that the Pena Nieto administration wants to totally abandon kinetic operations against the cartels. An important pillar of any counterinsurgency campaign is providing security for the population. But rather than provoke random firefights with cartel gunmen by sending military patrols into cartel hot spots, the Pena Nieto team wants to be more targeted and intentional in its application of force. It seeks to take out the networks that hire and supply the gunmen, not just the gunmen themselves, and this will require all the tools in its counternarcotics portfolio -- not only force, but also things like intelligence, financial action (to target cartel finances), public health, institution building and anti-corruption efforts.
The theory is that by providing security, stability and economic opportunity the government can undercut the cartels' ability to recruit youth who currently see little other options in life but to join the cartels.
To truly succeed, especially in the most lawless areas, the Mexican government is going to have to begin to build institutions -- and public trust in those institutions -- from the ground up. The officials we have talked to hold Juarez up as an example they hope to follow in other locations, though they say they learned a lot of lessons in Juarez that will allow them to streamline their efforts elsewhere. Obviously, before they can begin building, they recognize that they will have to seize, consolidate and hold territory, and this is the role they envision for the newly created gendarmerie, or paramilitary police.
The gendarmerie is important to this rebuilding effort because the military is incapable of serving in an investigative law enforcement role. They are deployed to pursue active shooters and target members of the cartels, but much of the crime affecting Mexico's citizens and companies falls outside the military's purview. The military also has a tendency to be heavy-handed, and reports of human rights abuses are quite common. Transforming from a national security to a law enforcement approach requires the formation of an effective police force that is able to conduct community policing while pursuing car thieves, extortionists, kidnappers and street gangs in addition to cartel gunmen.
Certainly the U.S. government was very involved in the Calderon administration's kinetic approach to the cartel problem, as shown by the very heavy collaboration between the two governments. The collaboration was so heavy, in fact, that some incoming Pena Nieto administration figures were shocked by how integrated the Americans had become. The U.S. officials who told Dana Priest they were uncomfortable with the new Mexican government's approach to cartel violence were undoubtedly among those deeply involved in this process -- perhaps so deeply involved that they could not recognize that in the big picture, their approach was failing to reduce the violence in Mexico. Indeed, from the Mexican perspective, the U.S. efforts have been focused on reducing the flow of narcotics into the United States regardless of the impact of those efforts on Mexico's security environment.
However, as seen by the May 1 arrest of Coronel, which a Mexican official described as a classic joint operation involving the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican Federal Police, the Mexican authorities do intend to continue to work very closely with their American counterparts. But that cooperation must occur within the new framework established for the anti-cartel efforts. That means that plans for cooperation must be presented through the Mexican Interior Ministry so that the efforts can be centrally coordinated. Much of the current peer-to-peer cooperation can continue, but within that structure.
Consolidation and Coordination
As in the United States, the law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Mexico have terrible problems with coordination and information sharing. The current administration is attempting to correct this by centralizing the anti-cartel efforts at the federal level and by creating coordination centers to oversee operations in the various regions. These regional centers will collect information at the state and regional level and send it up to the national center. However, one huge factor inhibiting information sharing in Mexico -- and between the Americans and Mexicans -- is the longstanding problem of corruption in the Mexican government. In the past, drug czars, senior police officials and very senior politicians have been accused of being on cartel payrolls. This makes trust critical, and lack of trust has caused some Mexican and most American agencies to restrict the sharing of intelligence to only select, trusted contacts. Centralizing coordination will interfere with this selective information flow in the short term, and it is going to take time for this new coordination effort to earn the trust of both Mexican and American agencies. There remains fear that consolidation will also centralize corruption and make it easier for the cartels to gather intelligence.
Another attempt at command control and coordination is in the Pena Nieto administration's current efforts to implement police consolidation at the state level. While corruption has reached into all levels of the Mexican government, it is unquestionably the most pervasive at the municipal level, and in past government operations entire municipal police departments have been fired for corruption. The idea is that if all police were brought under a unified state command, called "Mando Unico" in Spanish, the police would be better screened, trained and paid and therefore the force would be more professional.
This concept of police consolidation at the state level is not a new idea; indeed, Calderon sought to do so under his administration, but it appears that Pena Nieto might have the political capital to make this happen, along with some other changes that Calderon wanted to implement but could not quite pull off. To date, Pena Nieto has had a great deal of success in garnering political support for his proposals, but the establishment of Mando Unico in each of Mexico's 31 states may perhaps be the toughest political struggle he has faced yet. If realized, Mando Unico will be an important step -- but only one step -- in the long process of institution building for the police at the state level.
Aside from the political struggles, the Mexican government still faces very real challenges on the streets as it attempts to quell violence, reassert control over lawless areas and gain the trust of the public. The holistic plan laid out by the Pena Nieto administration sounds good on paper, but it will still require a great deal of leadership by Pena Nieto and his team to bring Mexico through the challenges it faces. They will obviously need to cooperate with the United States to succeed, but it has become clear that this cooperation will need to be on Mexico's terms and in accordance with the administration's new, holistic approach.
Read more: Understanding Pena Nieto's Approach to the Cartels | Stratfor
U.S., Mexico: The Decline of the Colorado River
May 13, 2013 | 0703 Print - Text Size +
A ring of bleached sandstone caused by low water levels during a six-year drought surrounds Lake Powell, a Colorado River reservoir near Page, Arizona David McNew/Getty Images
An amendment to a standing water treaty between the United States and Mexico has received publicity over the past six months as an example of progress in water sharing agreements. But the amendment, called Minute 319, is simply a glimpse into ongoing mismanagement of the Colorado River on the U.S. side of the border. Over-allocation of the river's waters 90 years ago combined with increasing populations and economic growth in the river basin have created circumstances in which conservation efforts -- no matter how organized -- could be too little to overcome the projected water deficit that the Colorado River Basin will face in the next 20 years.
In 1922, the seven U.S. states in the Colorado River Basin established a compact to distribute the resources of the river. A border between the Upper and Lower basins was defined at Lees Ferry, Ariz. The Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) was allocated 9.25 billion cubic meters a year, and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) was allotted 10.45 billion cubic meters. Mexico was allowed an unspecified amount, which in 1944 was defined as 1.85 billion cubic meters a year. The Upper and Lower basins -- managed as separate organizations under the supervision of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- divided their allocated water among the states in their jurisdictions. Numerous disputes arose, especially in the Lower Basin, regarding proper division of the water resources. But the use of (and disputes over) the Colorado River began long before these treaties.
As the United States' territory expanded to the west, the Colorado River briefly was considered a portal to the isolated frontier of the southwestern United States, since it was often cheaper to take a longer path via water to transport goods and people in the early 19th century. There was a short-lived effort to develop the Colorado River as the "Mississippi of the West." While places like Yuma, Ariz., became military and trading outposts, the geography and erratic flow of the Colorado made the river ultimately unsuitable for mass transportation. Navigating the river often required maneuvering around exposed sand banks and through shallow waters. The advent of the railroad ended the need for river transport in the region. Shortly thereafter, large and ambitious management projects, including the Hoover Dam, became the river's main purpose.
Irrigation along the river started expanding in the second half of the 19th century, and agriculture still consumes more water from the Colorado than any other sector. Large-scale manipulation of the river began in the early 20th century, and now there are more than 20 major dams along the Colorado River, along with reservoirs such as Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and large canals that bring water to areas of the Imperial and Coachella valleys in southern California for irrigation and municipal supplies. User priority on the Colorado River is determined by the first "useful purposing" of the water. For example, the irrigated agriculture in California has priority over some municipal water supplies for Phoenix, Ariz.
Inadequate Supply and Increasing Demand
When the original total allocation of the river was set in the 1920s, it was far above regional consumption. But it was also more than the river could supply in the long term. The river was divided based on an estimated annual flow of roughly 21 billion cubic meters per year. More recent studies have indicated that the 20th century, and especially the 1920s, was a time of above-normal flows. These studies indicate that the long-term average of flow is closer to 18 billion cubic meters, with yearly flows ranging anywhere from roughly 6 billion cubic meters to nearly 25 billion cubic meters. As utilization has increased, the deficit between flow and allocation has become more apparent.
Total allocations of river resources for the Upper and Lower basins and Mexico plus water lost to evaporation adds up to more than 21 billion cubic meters per year. Currently, the Upper Basin does not use the full portion of its allocation, and large reservoirs along the river can help meet the demand of the Lower Basin. Populations in the region are expected to increase; in some states, the population could double by 2030. A study released at the end of 2012 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted a possible shortage of 3 billion cubic meters by 2035.
The Colorado River provides water for irrigation of roughly 15 percent of the crops in the United States, including vegetables, fruits, cotton, alfalfa and hay. It also provides municipal water supplies for large cities, such as Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, accounting for more than half of the water supply in many of these areas. Minute 319, signed in November 2012, gives Mexico a small amount of additional water in an attempt to restore the delta region. However, the macroeconomic impact on Mexico is minimal, since agriculture accounts for the majority of the river's use in Mexico but only about 3 percent of the gross domestic product of the Baja Norte province.
There is an imbalance of power along the international border. The United States controls the headwaters of the Colorado River and also has a greater macroeconomic interest in maintaining the supply of water from the river. This can make individual amendments of the 1944 Treaty somewhat misleading. Because of the erratic nature of the river, the treaty effectively promises more water than the river can provide each year. Cooperation in conservation efforts and in finding alternative water sources on the U.S. side of the border, not treaty amendments, will become increasingly important as regional water use increases over the coming decades.
Conservation Efforts Along the Colorado
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation oversees the whole river, but the management of each basin is separate. Additionally, within each basin, there are separate state management agencies and, within each state, separate regional management agencies. Given the number of participants, reaching agreements on the best method of conservation or the best alternative source of water is difficult. There are ongoing efforts at conservation, including lining canals to reduce seepage and programs to limit municipal water use. However, there is no basin-wide coordination. In a 2012 report, the Bureau of Reclamation compiled a list of suggested projects but stopped short of recommending a course of action.
A similar report released in 2008 listed 12 general options including desalinization, vegetation management (elimination of water-intensive or invasive plants), water reuse, reduced use by power plants and joint management through water banking (water is stored either in reservoirs or in underground aquifers to use when needed). Various sources of water imports from other river basins or even icebergs are proposed as options, as is weather modification by seeding clouds in the Upper Basin. Implementation of all these options would result in an extra 5 billion cubic meters of water a year at most, which could erase the predicted deficit. However, this amount is unlikely, as it assumes maximum output from each technique and also assumes the implementation of all proposed methods, many of which are controversial either politically or environmentally and some of which are economically unviable. Additionally, many of the methods would take years to fully implement and produce their maximum capacity. Even then, a more reasonable estimate of conservation capacity would likely be closer to 1 billion-2 billion cubic meters, which would fall short of the projected deficit in 2035.
The Potential for New Disputes
Conflict over water can arise when there are competing interests for limited resources. This is seen throughout the world with rivers that traverse borders in places like Central Asia and North Africa. For the Colorado River, the U.S.-Mexico border is likely less relevant to the competition for the river's resources than the artificial border drawn at Lees Ferry.
Aside from growing populations, increased energy production from unconventional hydrocarbon sources in the Upper Basin has the potential to increase consumption. While this amount will likely be small compared to overall allocations, it emphasizes the value of water to the Upper Basin. Real or perceived threats to the Upper Basin's surplus of water could be seen as threats to economic growth in the region. At the same time, further water shortages could limit the potential for economic growth in the Lower Basin -- a situation that would only be exacerbated by growing populations.
While necessary, conservation efforts and the search for alternative sources likely will not be able to make up for the predicted shortage. Amendments to the original treaty typically have been issued to address symptomatic problems. However, the core problem remains: More water is promised to river users than is available on average. While this problem has not come to a head yet, there may come a time when regional growth overtakes conservation efforts. It is then that renegotiation of the treaty with a more realistic view of the river's volume will become necessary. Any renegotiation will be filled with conflict, but most of that likely will be contained in the United States.
Read more: U.S., Mexico: The Decline of the Colorado River | Stratfor