Reports are removed after 6 months.
May 22, 2012 | 2226 GMT
Since the Sinaloa Federation announced its incursion into Los Zetas-controlled Nuevo Laredo by displaying seven dismembered bodies with a narcomanta in the border city March 26, the cartels and their allies have waged a dueling campaign of such displays.
The victims in the displays have been low-level cartel members -- if they had cartel connections at all -- meaning their killings offered little tactical advantage to their executioners. Instead, these public displays of violence are intended to convey messages to the public, to undermine their rivals' support bases and to put pressure from military and law enforcement on their rivals.
Narcomantas are useful for spreading disinformation, particularly when paired with large displays of corpses. This is because authorities rarely verify claims of authorship on narcomantas, which provides a low-risk opportunity for organized criminal groups to create a narcomanta and attribute it to whomever they wish. Typically, the cartels falsely attribute narcomantas to rivals to attract or deflect pressure from law enforcement or the military.
The well-publicized May 13 display of 49 dismembered bodies in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon state, was followed two days later by narcomantas signed by Los Zetas in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Nuevo Leon states denying Zetas involvement in the Cadereyta display. However, on May 18 the Mexican military detained local Zetas plaza boss Daniel de Jesus Elizondo Ramirez, also known as "El Loco," who is accused of orchestrating the display and who reportedly told authorities that Zetas leaders Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales ordered the killings. He added that they hoped to pin the blame for the killings on their rivals.
The display of 49 bodies in the Zetas stronghold of Cadereyta would be unusual for the group, which typically employs significant displays of violence only in rival territory. Like any organized criminal group, the Zetas would not want to draw increased military operations to their territory by carrying out public displays of violence there. This and information from Stratfor sources that elements of the Gulf cartel carried out the Cadereyta massacre leaves who carried out the display unclear. Regardless of the who the culprits are, this event is marked by intentional disinformation, since only one message can be true: Either Los Zetas were framed, or the subsequent messages denying Los Zetas responsibility are a lie.
On May 4, 14 dismembered bodies were displayed outside the Association of Customs Agents in Nuevo Laredo with a narcomanta addressed to local officials and signed "El Chapo." Cartels such as Los Zetas that enjoy unchallenged operational control of a plaza typically receive support from local authorities. Los Zetas' rivals in Nuevo Laredo clearly hope to overcome this advantage by using tactics such as body dumps to terrify officials cooperating with Los Zetas into abandoning that support.
The cartels also use such displays to influence the general public. Cartels obtain recruits and extort money from the public. Knowing that Los Zetas have a challenger in the plaza, residents in Nuevo Laredo may become less inclined to support them since doing so could mean winding up in a body dump. Los Zetas responded in kind May 9 by displaying 18 dismembered bodies in the Sinaloa Federation stronghold of Guadalajara.
All signs suggest that the dueling body dumps will continue as Los Zetas, the Sinaloa Federation and their respective allies continue to wage an information operation campaign. Operations intended to undermine rivals as seen in Nuevo Laredo and operations intended to sow disinformation as seen in Cadereyta will continue, leaving what is actually going on more difficult to deduce.
May 2, 2012 | 1242 GMT
Firefights between organized criminal elements and the Mexican military erupted early April 28 in several villages of the Choix and El Fuerte municipalities of northern Sinaloa state. The conflict continued through at least April 30, with some uncorroborated reports claiming that fighting is still ongoing. As the battle went on, gunmen reportedly fled into the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range of neighboring Chihuahua state.
The hostilities have unfolded in remote mountain villages, making details of the battle few and conflicting. The military has said at least 27 people have been killed, including one soldier and one municipal police officer. Unofficial accounts report far more casualties. Federal authorities said April 29 that the military has seized several high-powered rifles, grenades, tactical vests and three vehicles from the gunmen. The vehicles had been designed to resemble a Federal Police vehicle, a state police vehicle and a military vehicle.
Fights between organized criminal elements and the military do not typically last several days, indicating the gunmen are defending valuable turf. However, some unverified media reports have suggested that the attempted arrest of a high-ranking member of the former Beltran Leyva Organization sparked the fight and may have been the goal of the operation.
Choix is in the Sierra Madre Occidental, an area often referred to as Mexico's Golden Triangle, where marijuana and opium poppies are grown. Particularly in Sinaloa, the mountains have long served as a stronghold for high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Federation and the Beltran Leyva Organization, both of which originated farther south in the state. Choix is not of particular value in the transit of illicit drugs. This means the gunmen likely are defending fields used for growing illicit drugs or labs used in their production, or are defending a high-level leader of their organization.
Canadian Drug Trafficker Killed in Mexico
Two gunmen opened fire on Canadian drug trafficker Thomas Gisby on April 27 in a Starbucks in a mall in Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit state. The gunmen reportedly waited for Gisby in the Starbucks. When he arrived, they stood up and fired sidearms at him, wounding him twice before fleeing.
According to Canadian officials, Gisby had ties to several drug trafficking organizations in Vancouver, British Colombia, including the United Nations gang and the Dhak group. He also worked with Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers for the last two decades. Gisby arrived in the Nayarit area three months ago, after surviving an assassination attempt in Whistler, British Colombia. In that incident, an explosive detonated in his RV on Jan. 16. While authorities have not yet revealed the motive or identity of the culprits in the Nuevo Vallarta attack, the evidence suggests Gisby was targeted in a hit.
Gisby is the sixth Canadian citizen linked to organized crime to be killed in Mexico during the last few years. The last such murder occurred Jan. 16 in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, with the death of United Nations gang member Salih Abdulaziz Sahbaz. Sahbaz died the same day Gisby's RV was bombed in Whistler. Canadian authorities at the time linked the RV bombing to a turf war between organized criminal groups in Vancouver. Both Sahbaz and Gisby in turn were linked to the murder of a Vancouver-based gangster in August 2011, a killing that escalated into a turf war in Vancouver between an alliance of the Dhak, Dupre and United Nations groups against an alliance of the Hells Angels, Independent Soldiers and Red Scorpions.
While Gisby's murder could be an act of retaliation from his Canadian rivals, both Gisby and Sahbaz dealt with several organized criminal groups in Mexico. This means their deaths could have been connected with their relations to Mexican organized crime.
Several Canadian organized criminal groups import illegal drugs from Mexican drug cartels. According to a U.S. indictment of Clayton Rouche, the former leader of the United Nations gang arrested in 2009, the United Nations gang would export marijuana into the United States. The revenue from the sale of marijuana would then be used to purchase cocaine coming from Mexico for distribution into Vancouver, Canada. Both Sahbaz and Gisby thus represent examples of the contacts used by Canadian gangs to conduct business with Mexico's transnational criminal organizations.
April 25, 2012 | 1228 GMT
Ongoing Turf War in Nuevo Laredo
Authorities discovered 14 dismembered bodies carefully arranged in front of a narcomanta (a message from drug traffickers) signed "El Chapo" in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, on April 18. The display resembled a March 28 incident in Nuevo Laredo. Like the March incident, the April 18 letter denounces Miguel "Z-40" Trevino and claims Nuevo Laredo for the Sinaloa Federation.
As Stratford has stated, violence in the lucrative Nuevo Laredo plaza most likely will escalate as Los Zetas come under pressure to respond to the Sinaloa incursion. According to Stratfor sources, Los Zetas have started to move leadership from places like Guadalajara to Nuevo Laredo to defend their plaza from Sinaloa and the Gulf cartel, specifically in northeastern Nuevo Laredo, and from military and law enforcement operations.
La Linea Attacks in Chihuahua Continue
At least 10 gunmen in five vehicles opened fire in El Colorado, a bar in the La Granja neighborhood of Chihuahua city, Chihuahua state, killing 15 individuals April 20. According to witnesses, the gunmen asked for several men before opening fire on bar patrons when they did not find the men they sought. Since then, at least two narcomantas have appeared in Chihuahua saying that La Linea leaders allegedly were behind the shooting. Meanwhile, authorities have said the attack was retaliation for the arrest of one La Linea founder, El Pariente, in Queretaro state.
The attack is a continuation of a violence arising from a turf war between the Sinaloa Federation and Juarez cartel splinter groups, the most active of which has been the New Juarez Cartel. While the bodycount is among the highest in 2012 for a single attack in Chihuahua, the attack does not show a change in the capabilities or tactics of Sinaloa's rivals.
CJNG Fights on in New Territories
Authorities found three executed men along the Zitacuaro-Morelia highway in Michoacan state April 20. Along with the bodies, the authorities found a narcomanta attributing the killings to the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG).
As Stratfor has stated, CJNG has begun a turf war in Michoacan with the Knights Templar. As long as CJNG continues to engage the Knights Templar in Michoacan, such intergang violence will continue.
April 16, 2012 | 1218 GMT
Editor's Note: In this interim report on Mexico's drug cartels, we assess important developments in the drug war during the first quarter of 2012 and what they could mean for the rest of the year.
In our 2012 annual cartel report, we noted that Mexico's two pre-eminent cartels, western Mexico's Sinaloa Federation and eastern Mexico's Los Zetas, progressively brought lesser and geographically disparate groups under their influence throughout 2011. Indeed, by the end of the year Sinaloa had begun to rely on its affiliate groups, most notably the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), to combat its Zetas rivals, while Los Zetas more frequently worked with local groups with knowledge of and contacts in their regions to combat Sinaloa. This trend has largely continued through the first quarter of 2012.
But more important than the continuance of this trend is the way it shapes the overall security situation in Mexico. With the increased use of affiliate groups comes the freedom to attack and defend against one's rivals without thought of geographic constraints. Violence between Los Zetas and Sinaloa can occur virtually anywhere, including their respective traditional strongholds, eroding any sense of sanctuary they may have once enjoyed. For years the battle lines in Mexico's drug war have been blurred, but they are perhaps more blurred now than ever before.
Evidence of these indistinct battle lines can be seen throughout Mexico. For example, Sinaloa has used La Barredora as a proxy in the turf war in Acapulco, Guerrero state, and it has used the CJNG at the vanguard of its offensive against Los Zetas in Veracruz state. We also believe it may be using the Gulf cartel to confront Los Zetas in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states.
This may help explain the patterns of violence seen in Mexico throughout the first quarter of 2012. Overall violence remained high, with notable developments of targeted assassinations and firefights in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state; in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state; and in Mexico's central and Pacific states, such as Jalisco and Guerrero.
The potential showdown between Los Zetas and Sinaloa in Mexico's northeast could give rise to more inter-cartel violence, as could the continued presence of the CJNG in the southeast. So far, southwest and northwest Mexico remain relatively less violent than other parts of the country, but recent developments there may also lead to greater inter-cartel violence.
In the next quarter, we expect smaller groups to continue to polarize around the two cartel hegemons, though one phenomenon -- the rapid rise in power of two particular affiliate groups -- could challenge this trend if they turn against their current patron.
Geography and Drug Trafficking
The polarity of Mexico's criminal landscape in some ways is a byproduct of the country's geography, which lends itself to distinct trafficking corridors that run parallel on either side of the country. Los Zetas primarily control corridors along the Gulf coast that stretch from the Yucatan Peninsula to Nuevo Laredo -- the busiest commercial point of entry into the United States on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Sinaloa Federation controls the corridors along the Pacific coast that run up through Ciudad Juarez and then west into Tijuana, Baja California. The Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa ally, controls the lateral corridor from Matamoros to Reynosa.
While geography helped polarize the country's criminal elements, the geographic divide does not constitute a warfront along which battles take place exclusively. In the Mexican drug war, violence can erupt anywhere. Even with operational control over a specific plaza, or distribution hub, a cartel still may have to defend itself from belligerent criminal groups. Such is the case with Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation. Both groups have seen conflict in the territories they control, and in Sinaloa territory there are separate conflicts among groups at war with one another.
Because the battle lines are never static, offensive campaigns conducted by Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation can be expected to route violence to any number of regions, including those in the two organization's strongholds and trafficking corridors. But as the two groups continue to compete for these corridors, the rise of two affiliate groups, the Knights Templar (KT) and the CJNG, could add a new dimension to this conflict.
Both groups are Sinaloa affiliates, but the KT's association with Sinaloa appears to be looser than that of the CJNG's; the former is bound to Sinaloa by their mutual enemy, Los Zetas. Both appear to have come to prominence during the past three months. The KT appears to have solidified its control over its former parent organization, La Familia Michoacana (LFM). In doing so, it has been able to extend its reach to areas farther from its home territory, such as Acapulco. Meanwhile, the CJNG has conducted operations in at least seven states, and the group has also demonstrated the tactical capability of maintaining a strong presence in Veracruz.
Despite working with the same organization, the two groups declared a turf war on each other Feb. 16. Sinaloa's response to this potential turf war will be important to watch. A split from Sinaloa by one of these large and increasingly capable criminal organizations could disrupt the polarity currently in place in Mexico.
Another notable development in the first quarter of 2012 pertains to drugs seizures. Two seizures in particular were among the largest of their kind.
On Feb. 1, the Mexican military seized 3.6 metric tons (nearly 8,000 pounds) of a dark liquid containing opium paste in Coyuca de Catalan, Guerrero state. The seizure of opium paste was the largest ever in Mexico. Then on Feb. 8, authorities announced the largest methamphetamine seizure in world history -- roughly 15 metric tons -- at a ranch outside Guadalajara. The seizures indicate a concerted effort to produce illicit drugs on an industrial level.
Status of Mexico's Major Cartels
In the first quarter of 2012, the Sinaloa Federation aggressively challenged Los Zetas in various parts of the country. Sinaloa responded to Zetas incursions on its territory by conducting a counteroffensive of its own, using its affiliate and allied groups to attempt to strike Los Zetas in their own territory. So far this counteroffensive has not caused Sinaloa to lose operational control of its territories.
Sinaloa's far-reaching assassination squads, particularly the CJNG, have been problematic for Los Zetas. The CJNG has maintained a presence in the Zetas stronghold of Veracruz since September 2011, when 35 bodies were dumped onto a busy road in the Boca del Rio neighborhood. (The incident is believed to have been carried out by the CJNG at the behest of Sinaloa.) The CJNG has continued to conduct operations in the city throughout the first quarter of 2012, claiming responsibility for several assassinations.
On Feb. 3 the CJNG announced its presence in Acapulco at the service of Sinaloa's leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, demonstrating the group's reach and its utility for Sinaloa. The group also has conducted operations in areas where Los Zetas are known to have interest, such as Durango, Michoacan, Colima and Morelos states.
Evidence of a Sinaloa offensive against Los Zetas in the latter's most vital plaza of Nuevo Laredo also appeared in the first quarter of 2012. On March 26, Mexican authorities found at least seven dismembered bodies in Nuevo Laredo accompanied by three narcomantas ostensibly signed by Guzman claiming the city as his own. Notably, this is not the first time Sinaloa has attempted to take Nuevo Laredo. From 2004 to 2008, Nuevo Laredo saw its highest ever levels of violence as Sinaloa fought the Gulf cartel and its then-enforcer group, Los Zetas.
But control of one plaza does not translate into control of an entire trafficking corridor, which is why the Sinaloa offensive is targeting other plazas leading to Nuevo Laredo. As the CJNG firmly established itself in Veracruz state, inter-cartel violence rose in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state -- a valuable transportation hub between Veracruz and Nuevo Laredo -- possibly from joint Gulf cartel-Sinaloa activity in the city. As violence between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas continues, it is becoming apparent that Los Zetas are confronting a significant challenge in maintaining the Monterrey plaza.
Furthermore, Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, saw a spike in inter-cartel violence with a series of grenade attacks and shootouts in March. While attribution for these incidents is currently unknown, it should be noted that Ciudad Victoria, like Monterrey, lies on the route from Veracruz to Nuevo Laredo. It is possible that the Sinaloa offensive is targeting the major links along Los Zetas' trafficking corridor.
However, Sinaloa activity in 2012 has not been entirely offensive. The group is dealing with multiple Zetas incursions on its territory and with confrontations with Mexican authorities. Sinaloa is constantly defending itself in key locations, such as Guadalajara, Jalisco state, and Sinaloa, Culiacan state, and areas of Zacatecas and Durango states, just as it is attacking Los Zetas in the east.
The CJNG, and Sinaloa by extension, suffered a significant loss in Guadalajara, an important western transportation hub, when CJNG leader and founder Erick "El 85" Valencia Salazar was captured by Mexican authorities. Should the CJNG's operations suffer from Valencia's arrest, Sinaloa will have to defend the city with internal resources or bring in another affiliate organization to act in its stead. On March 17, a man's body was hung from a bridge in Guadalajara purportedly signed "Z-40"; this could foretell heightened Zetas activity in the Guadalajara plaza.
As we noted in our annual report, the Mexican military's campaign against Los Zetas has resulted in a number of arrests and seizures but to date has shown a negligible effect on the group's operations. However, it is possible that Los Zetas' rivals, specifically Sinaloa and its affiliate groups, upped their pressure in Veracruz, Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria and Nuevo Laredo due to perceived weakness caused by the military campaign.
Despite this pressure, Los Zetas have yet to suffer any territorial losses since losing Reynosa in 2010. While they make every effort to defend their territory, they will continue to focus their efforts on Nuevo Laredo. With more trucks entering the United States here than anywhere else along the border, Nuevo Laredo presents the greatest opportunity for cartels to traffic illicit goods. This makes Nuevo Laredo indispensible for Los Zetas, who will fiercely defend the plaza against any incursion.
In early March, the Mexican army killed Gerardo "El Guerra" Guerra Valdez, Los Zetas' plaza boss for Nuevo Laredo, and then captured his replacement, Carlos Alejandro "El Fabiruchis" Gutierrez Escobedo. It is unclear how badly these leadership losses will hamper Los Zetas' ability to fend off Sinaloa's incursion. But if Sinaloa follows through with its purported threats against Los Zetas in Nuevo Laredo, violence in the city will increase sharply. This could affect legitimate companies operating in the city or shipping goods up U.S. Interstate Highway 35.
Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion
After the July 2010 death of Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, the Sinaloa Federation's boss for Jalisco state, several groups emerged to fill the resultant power vacuum.
The most prominent of those groups was the CJNG. Valencia, the group's founder, succeeded Coronel and assumed control of his own splinter group. Under Valencia's leadership, the CJNG oversaw drug trafficking through Jalisco state and expanded its operations into several other states.
What is most striking about the CJNG is how rapidly it expanded -- likely a result of its affiliation with Sinaloa and of the resources available to it from having been part of Coronel's well-funded organization. In mid-2011, the CJNG operated solely around Guadalajara. Shortly thereafter, its area of operation included Veracruz, Guerrero, Morelos, Colima, Guanajuato and Michoacan states. It took the CJNG roughly six months to spread from coast to coast, becoming one of Mexico's most widely operating criminal groups in the process. The CJNG is unlikely to forfeit any territory in the next quarter.
Given the CJNG's expansive reach and tactical capabilities, its allegiance to the Sinaloa Federation is important to consider. Tactically, the CJNG has matured into a formidable adversary for the well-trained and well-armed Los Zetas. Geographically, the CJNG works throughout Mexico's central and Pacific states -- areas crucial for the Sinaloa Federation's smuggling routes and production of illicit drugs. Evidence suggests that the CJNG and Sinaloa have a solid working relationship, but the level of autonomy the CJNG truly possesses is unknown.
Since the beginning of the year, the CJNG began to focus on another large criminal group: the Knights Templar. On March 21, a video emailed anonymously to a Mexican news agency -- ostensibly it was sent by the CJNG -- denounced the KT. Specifically, the video announced the CJNG would commence operations against its rivals in Michoacan and Guerrero states, and it claimed former LFM leaders Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzalez was still alive and leading the KT.
The CJNG, like Los Zetas, tends to publicly display violence to announce its arrival, so violence will follow the group wherever it goes. This will make the group easy to track. Violence will continue unabated in areas with an established CJNG presence so long as the group continues to confront its rivals, specifically Los Zetas.
For several months we have documented the infighting within the Gulf cartel and the ascendance of one of its factions, Los Metros, over the opposing faction, Los Rojos. The Gulf cartel appeared strong at the beginning of 2011, but it seemed to be on an inevitable path of degradation in 2012.
However, in the past three months the Metro faction of the Gulf cartel has apparently rebounded, evidenced by operations against its former enforcer group and current rival, Los Zetas, in Ciudad Victoria and Monterrey. The group's efforts may not have been made independently; as stated, the Gulf cartel's increased operations against Los Zetas appear to have been aided a great deal by external factors, such as Sinaloa patronage, and the Mexican government's focused campaign against Los Zetas.
While rumors of a new Sinaloa-Los Metros alignment remain uncorroborated, such an alignment would be a logical development: It would prolong the Gulf cartel's survival. It would also present a noteworthy challenge to Los Zetas in areas vital for the flow of drugs and reinforcements to the crucial Nuevo Laredo plaza. But at present, Los Zetas still control most of northeast Mexico and the transportation corridors leading to it.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel
The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization, also known as the Juarez cartel, has shown no sign of returning to its former status as one of Mexico's largest organized criminal groups. In fact, it is unclear how much control it has over the Juarez plaza; most of the plaza appears to be under Sinaloa's domain. However, in the first quarter of 2012 a group calling itself the New Juarez Cartel (NCJ) made a startling announcement through narcomantas posted throughout the city. Composed of remnants of La Linea, the former enforcer group for the VCF, and other criminal elements, the NCJ pledged to murder a municipal police officer every day until the police force ended their alleged support of NCJ rivals. The group killed several police officers in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua but fell well short of its quota.
The NCJ has not demonstrated the same level of sophistication as La Linea, a decline that probably stems from the splintering of the VCF due to Sinaloa's successes in Juarez. La Linea's capabilities degraded markedly after the arrest of its top leader, Jesus Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez, in July 2011, and his subsequent replacement by Jesus Antonio "El Coman Dos" Rincon Chavero. For its part, the NCJ employs relatively elementary tactics, such as drive-by shootings and hitting isolated soft targets like off-duty police officers.
Without external support from Los Zetas or another Sinaloa Federation rival, the NCJ -- indeed, any other incarnation of residual VCF elements -- will be unable to reassert itself against Sinaloa in Ciudad Juarez. In the meantime, the NCJ will likely continue targeting the security infrastructure in both Juarez and Chihuahua, leading to sustained levels of targeted violence. With Sinaloa controlling most of the roads leading to Juarez, the NCJ is probably unable to move significant quantities of illicit drugs across the border. Like La Linea, the NCJ will have to resort to kidnapping and extortion to fund its operations -- a continuing problem for the people and businesses of Juarez.
Since its split from LFM in January 2011, the KT continues to assert control over LFM's former territories. Though severely weakened, LFM has not been completely wiped out, and clashes between the two groups take place intermittently in Michoacan, Mexico, Morelos and Guerrero states. Like the CJNG, the group has actively expanded its territory since its inception, remaining active in Michoacan, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Mexico and Morelos states.
The KT has not experienced any significant pressure from Mexican authorities over the last quarter -- with a few notable exceptions. In February, Mexican authorities seized a total of 3.6 metric tons of methamphetamine from three separate drug laboratories in Donato Guerra, Mexico state. Media reports have suggested the drugs belonged to the KT -- a fair suggestion, given that the KT is very active in the area in which the seizures were made. Seizures of this size suggest the KT is producing massive quantities of a high-value drug -- if in fact the caches belonged to them. This is a significant development because financial wealth correlates with the capabilities of a criminal organization.
As stated in our annual report, the Sinaloa Federation had been using the KT to prevent Los Zetas from gaining a foothold in the central and Pacific states. However, activity over the last quarter indicates the KT was focused on continuing its fight against LFM and engaging in a turf war with the CJNG. The KT's conflict with the CJNG is a recent development, whereby both groups have denounced one another through narcomantas and videos. For example, in February KT posted several narcomantas throughout Guanajuato state warning the CJNG to stay out of the state. On March 16, the CJNG had announced its presence via narcomantas in Leon, Guanajuato state.
Violence between the CJNG and the KT remains infrequent, but conflicts from turf wars likely will develop between the two groups in the central and Pacific states of Mexico in the next quarter.
The KT remains active purveyors of its unique form of propaganda. The group utilizes pamphlets, narcomantas, a publicized code of ethics and ceremonial uniforms to win the allegiance of the populace. Through narcomantas posted April 2, the KT claimed to have worked with street vendors to lower the prices of meat and tortillas for residents in Michoacan state. By reaching out to the public, the KT hopes to curry favor with the public -- a move that could ease resistance to its illicit activities while providing an ideal recruiting environment.
There has been minimal reported activity of the remaining groups we catalogued in our annual report, such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Cartel Pacifico Sur and the Arellano Felix Organization. Long beleaguered by the turf war in Acapulco, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco has shown no signs of activity save for a handful of arrests by Mexican authorities.
The first quarter saw no reported activity by Cartel Pacifico Sur. As we noted in the annual report, the group may be focusing on smuggling for revenue while assisting its Los Zetas allies. There has also been no reported activity of the Arellano Felix Organization, which remains a subsidiary of the Sinaloa Federation
Polarization and Sustained Violence in Mexico's Cartel War
January 24, 2012
Editor's Note: In this annual report on Mexico's drug cartels, we assess the most significant developments of 2011 and provide updated profiles of the country's powerful criminal cartels as well as a forecast for 2012. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain through our Mexico Security Memo, quarterly updates and other analyses we produce throughout the year.
As we noted in last year's annual cartel report, Mexico in 2010 bore witness to some 15,273 deaths in connection with the drug trade. The death toll for 2010 surpassed that of any previous year, and in doing so became the deadliest year ever in the country's fight against the cartels. But in the bloody chronology that is Mexico's cartel war, 2010's time at the top may have been short-lived. Despite the Mexican government's efforts to curb cartel-related violence, the death toll for 2011 may have exceeded what had been an unprecedented number.
According to the Mexican government, cartel-related homicides claimed around 12,900 lives from January to September -- about 1,400 deaths per month. While this figure is lower than that of 2010, it does not account for the final quarter of 2011. The Mexican government has not yet released official statistics for the entire year, but if the monthly average held until year's end, the overall death toll for 2011 would reach 17,000. Though most estimates put the total below that, the actual number of homicides in Mexico is likely higher than what is officially reported. At the very least, although we do not have a final, official number -- and despite media reports to the contrary -- we can conclude that violence in Mexico did not decline substantially in 2011.
Indeed, rather than receding to levels acceptable to the Mexican government, violence in Mexico has persisted, though it seems to have shifted geographically, abating in some cities and worsening in others. For example, while Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, was once again Mexico's deadliest city in terms of gross numbers, the city's annual death toll reportedly dropped substantially from 3,111 in 2010 to 1,955 in 2011. However, such reductions appear to have been offset by increases elsewhere, including Veracruz, Veracruz state; Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state; Matamoros, Tamaulipas state; and Durango, Durango state.
Over the past year it has also become evident that a polarization is under way among the country's cartels. Most smaller groups (or remnants of groups) have been subsumed by the Sinaloa Federation, which controls much of western Mexico, and Los Zetas, who control much of eastern Mexico. While a great deal has been said about the fluidity of the Mexican cartel landscape, these two groups have solidified themselves as the country's predominant forces. Of course, the battle lines in Mexico have not been drawn absolutely, and not every entity calling itself a cartel swears allegiance to one side or the other, but a polarization clearly is occurring.
Geography does not encapsulate this polarization. It reflects two very different modes of operation practiced by the two cartel hegemons, delineated by a common expression in Mexican vernacular: "Plata o plomo." The expression, which translates to "silver or lead" in English, means that a cartel will force one's cooperation with either a bribe or a bullet. The Sinaloa Federation leadership more often employs the former, preferring to buy off and corrupt to achieve its objectives. It also frequently provides intelligence to authorities, and in doing so uses the authorities as a weapon against rival cartels. Sinaloa certainly can and does resort to ruthless violence, but the violence it employs is merely one of many tools at its disposal, not its preferred tactic.
On the other hand, Los Zetas prefer brutality. They can and do resort to bribery, but they lean toward intimidation and violence. Their mode of operation tends to be far less subtle than that of their Sinaloa counterparts, and with a leadership composed of former special operations soldiers, they are quite effective in employing force and fear to achieve their objectives. Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections. This contrasts starkly with the culture of other cartels, including Sinaloa.
Status of Mexico's Major Cartels
The Sinaloa Federation lost at least 10 major plaza bosses or top lieutenants in 2011, including its security chief and its alleged main weapons supplier. It is unclear how much those losses have affected the group's operations overall.
One Sinaloa operation that appears to have been affected is the group's methamphetamine production. After the disintegration of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) in early 2011, the Sinaloa Federation clearly emerged as the country's foremost producer of methamphetamine. Most of the tons of precursor chemicals seized by Mexican authorities in Manzanillo, Colima state; Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state; Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan state; and Los Mochis and Mazatlan, Sinaloa state, likely belonged to the Sinaloa Federation. Because of these government operations -- and other operations to disassemble methamphetamine labs -- the group apparently began to divert at least some of its methamphetamine production to Guatemala in late 2011.
In addition to maintaining its anti-Zetas alliance with the Gulf cartel, Sinaloa in 2011 affiliated itself with the Knights Templar (KT) in Michoacan, and to counter Los Zetas in Jalisco state, Sinaloa affiliated itself with the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). Sinaloa also has tightened its encirclement of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization in the latter's long-held plaza of Ciudad Juarez. There are even signs that it continues to expand its control over parts of Juarez itself.
By the end of 2011, Los Zetas eclipsed the Sinaloa Federation as the largest cartel operating in Mexico in terms of geographic presence. According to a report from the Assistant Attorney General's Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime, Los Zetas now operate in 17 states. (The same report said the Sinaloa Federation operates in 16 states, down from 23 in 2005.) While Los Zetas continue to fight off a CJNG incursion into Veracruz state, they did not sustain any significant territorial losses in 2011.
Los Zetas moved into Zacatecas and Durango states, achieving a degree of control of the former and challenging the Sinaloa Federation in the latter. Both states are mountainous and conducive to the harvesting of poppy and marijuana. They also contain major north-south transportation corridors. By mid-November, reports indicated that Los Zetas had begun to assert control over Colima state and its crucial port of Manzanillo. In some cases, Los Zetas are sharing territories with cartels they reportedly have relationships with, including the Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS), La Resistencia and the remnants of LFM. But Los Zetas have a long history of working as hired enforcers for other organizations throughout the country. Therefore, having an alliance or business relationship with Los Zetas is not necessarily the equivalent of being a Sinaloa vassal. A relationship with Los Zetas may be perceived as more fleeting than Sinaloa subjugation.
On the whole, Los Zetas remained strong in 2011 despite losing 17 cell leaders and plaza bosses to death and arrest. Los Zetas also remain the dominant force in the Yucatan Peninsula. However, the CJNG's mass killings of alleged Zetas members or supporters in Veracruz have called into question the group's unchallenged control of that state.
In response to the mass killings in Veracruz, Los Zetas killed dozens of CJNG and Sinaloa members in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, and Culiacan, Sinaloa state. Aided by La Resistencia, these operations were well-executed, and the groups clearly invested a great deal of time and effort into surveillance and planning.
The Gulf Cartel
The Gulf cartel (CDG) was strong at the beginning of 2011, holding off several Zetas incursions into its territory. However, as the year progressed, internal divisions led to intra-cartel battles in Matamoros and Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. The infighting resulted in several deaths and arrests in Mexico and in the United States. The CDG has since broken apart, and it appears that one faction, known as Los Metros, has overpowered its rival Los Rojos faction and is now asserting its control over CDG operations. The infighting has weakened the CDG, but the group seems to have maintained control of its primary plazas, or smuggling corridors, into the United States. (CDG infighting is detailed further in another section of this report.)
La Familia Michoacana
LFM disintegrated at the beginning of 2011, giving rise to and becoming eclipsed by one of its factions, the Knights Templar (KT). Indeed, by July it was clear the KT had become more powerful than LFM in Mexico. The media and the police continue to report that LFM maintains extensive networks in the United States, but it is unclear how many of the U.S.-based networks are actually working with LFM rather than the KT, which is far more capable of trafficking narcotics. It appears that many reports regarding LFM in the United States do not reflect the changes that have occurred in Mexico over the past year; many former LFM leaders are now members of the KT. Adding to the confusion was the alleged late-summer alliance between LFM and Los Zetas. Such an alliance would have been a final attempt by the remaining LFM leadership to keep the group from being utterly destroyed by the KT. LFM is still active, but it is very weak.
The Knights Templar
In January 2011, a month after the death of charismatic LFM leader Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno, two former LFM lieutenants, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez and Enrique Plancarte, formed the Knights Templar due to differences with Jose de Jesus "El Chango" Mendez, who had assumed leadership of LFM. In March they announced the formation of their new organization via narcomantas in Morelia, Zitacuaro and Apatzingan, Michoacan state.
After the emergence of the KT, sizable battles flared up during the spring and summer months between the KT and LFM. The organization has grown from a splinter group to a dominant force over LFM, and it appears to be taking over the bulk of the original LFM's operations in Mexico. At present, the Knights Templar appear to have aligned with the Sinaloa Federation in an effort to root out the remnants of LFM and to prevent Los Zetas from gaining a more substantial foothold in the region through their alliance with LFM.
Independent Cartel of Acapulco
The Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA) has not been eliminated entirely, but it appears to have been severely damaged. Since the capture of CIDA leader Gilberto Castrejon Morales in early December, the group has faded from the public view. CIDA's weakness appears to have allowed its in-town rival, Sinaloa-affiliated La Barredora, to move some of its enforcers to Guadalajara to fend off the Zetas offensive there. The decreased levels of violence and public displays of dead bodies in Acapulco of late can be attributed to the group's weakening, and we are unsure if CIDA will be able to regroup and attempt to reclaim Acapulco.
Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion
After the death of Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel in July 2010, his followers suspected the Sinaloa cartel had betrayed him and broke away to form the CJNG. In spring 2011, the CJNG declared war on all other Mexican cartels and stated its intention to take control of Guadalajara. However, by midsummer, the group appeared to have been reunited with its former partners in the Sinaloa Federation. We are unsure what precipitated the reconciliation, but it seems that the CJNG was somehow convinced that Sinaloa did not betray Coronel after all. It is also possible CJNG was convinced that Coronel needed to go. In any case, CJNG "sicarios," or assassins, in September traveled to the important Los Zetas stronghold of Veracruz, labeled themselves the "Matazetas," or Zeta killers, and began to murder alleged Zetas members and their supporters. By mid-December, the CJNG was still in Veracruz fighting Los Zetas while also helping to protect Guadalajara and other areas on Mexico's west coast from Zetas aggression.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel
The VCF, aka the Juarez cartel, continues to weaken. A Sinaloa operative killed one of its top lieutenants, Francisco Vicente Castillo Carrillo -- a Carrillo family member -- in September 2011. The VCF reportedly still controls the three main points of entry into El Paso, Texas, but the organization appears unable to expand its operations or move narcotics en masse through its plazas because it is hemmed in by the Sinaloa Federation, which appears to have chipped away at the VCF's monopoly of the Juarez plaza. The VCF is only a shadow of the organization it was a decade ago, and its weakness and inability to effectively fight against Sinaloa's advances in Juarez contributed to the lower death toll in Juarez in 2011.
Cartel Pacifico Sur
The CPS, headed by Hector Beltran Leyva, saw a reduction in violence in the latter part of 2011 after having been very active in the first third of the year. We are unsure why the group quieted down. The CPS may be concentrating on smuggling for revenue generation to support itself and assist its Los Zetas allies, who provide military muscle for the CPS and work in their areas of operation. Because of their reputation, Los Zetas receive a great deal of media attention, so it is also possible that the media attributed violent incidents involving CPS gunmen to Los Zetas.
Arellano Felix Organization
The November arrest of Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, the AFO's chief enforcer, was yet another sign of the organization's continued weakness. It remains an impotent and reluctant subsidiary of the Sinaloa Federation, unable to reclaim the Tijuana plaza for its own.
2011 Forecast in Review
In our forecast for 2011, we believed that the unprecedented levels of violence from 2010 would continue as long as the cartel balance of power remained in a state of flux. Indeed, cartel-related deaths appear to have at least continued apace.
Much of the cartel conflict in 2011 followed patterns set in 2010. Los Zetas continued to fight the CDG in northeast Mexico while maintaining their control of Veracruz state and the Yucatan Peninsula. The Sinaloa Federation continued to fight the VCF in Ciudad Juarez while maintaining control of much of Sonora state and Baja California state.
We forecast that government operations and cartel infighting and rivalry would expose fissures in and among the cartels. This prediction held true. The Beltran Leyva Organization no longer exists in its original form, its members dispersed among the Sinaloa Federation, the CPS, CIDA and other smaller groups. As noted above, fissures within LFM led to the creation of two groups, LFM and the KT. The CDG also now consists of two factions competing for control of the organization's operations.
We also forecast that the degree of violence in the country was politically unacceptable for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his ruling National Action Party. Calderon knew he would have to reduce the violence to acceptable levels if his party was going to have a chance to continue to hold power after he left office in 2012 (Mexican presidents serve only one six-year term). As the 2012 presidential election approaches, Calderon is continuing his strategy of deploying the armed forces against the cartels. He has also reached out to the United States for assistance. The two countries shared signals intelligence throughout the year and continued to cooperate through joint intelligence centers like the one in Mexico City. The U.S. military also continues to train Mexican military and law enforcement personnel, and the United States has deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Mexican airspace at Mexico's behest. The Mexican military was in operational command of the UAV missions.
As we have noted the past few years, we also believed that Calderon's continued use of the military would perpetuate what is referred to as the three-front war in Mexico. The fronts consist of cartels against rival cartels, the military against cartels, and cartels against civilians. Indeed, in 2011 the cartels continued to vie for control of ports, plazas and markets, while deployments of military forces increased to counter Los Zetas in the states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Veracruz; to combat several groups waging a bloody turf war in Acapulco, Guerrero state; and to respond to conflicts arising between the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas and their affiliate groups in Nayarit and Michoacan states.
While Los Zetas were hit hard in 2011, the Mexican government's offensive against the group was unable to damage it to the extent we believed it would. Despite losing several key leaders and plaza bosses, as noted previously, the group maintains its pre-eminence in the east. This is largely due to the ease with which such groups can replenish their ranks.
One of the ways in which Mexico's cartels, including Los Zetas, replenish their ranks is with defected military personnel. Around 27,000 men and women desert the Mexican military every year, and about 50 percent of the military's recruiting class will have left before the end of their first tour. In March 2011, the Mexican army admitted that it had "lost track of" 1,680 special forces personnel over the past decade (Los Zetas were formed by more than 30 former members of Mexico's Special Forces Airmobile Group). Some cartels even reportedly task some of their own foot soldiers to enlist in the military to gain knowledge and experience in military tactics. In any case, retention is clearly a serious problem for the Mexican armed forces, and deserting soldiers take their skills (and oftentimes their weapons) to the cartels.
In addition, the drug trade attracts ex-military personnel who did not desert but left in good standing after serving their duty. There are fewer opportunities for veterans in Mexico than in many countries, and understandably many are drawn to a lucrative practice that places value on their skill sets. But deserters or former soldiers are not the only source of recruits for the cartels. They also replenish their ranks with current and former police officers, gang members and others (to include Central American immigrants and even U.S. citizens).
2012 Forecasts by Region
Northeast Mexico saw some of the most noteworthy cartel violence in 2011. The primary conflict in the region involved the continuing fight between CDG and Los Zetas, who were CDG enforcers before breaking away from the CDG in early 2010. Los Zetas have since eclipsed the CDG in terms of size, reach and influence. In 2011, divisions within the CDG over leadership succession came to the fore, leading to further violence in the region, and we believe these divisions will sow the group's undoing in 2012.
The CDG began to suffer another internal fracture in late 2010 when the Mexican army killed Antonio "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen, who co-lead the CDG with Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state. After Cardenas Guillen's death in November 2010, Costilla Sanchez assumed full control of the organization, passing over Rafael "El Junior" Cardenas Vela, the Cardenas family's heir apparent, in the process. This bisected the CDG, creating two competing factions: Los Rojos, loyal to the Cardenas family, and Los Metros, loyal to Costilla Sanchez.
In late 2011, several events exacerbated tensions between the factions. On Sept. 3, authorities found the body of Samuel "El Metro 3" Flores Borrego, Costilla Sanchez's second-in-command, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. Then on Sept. 27, gunmen in an SUV shot and killed a man driving a vehicle on U.S. Route 83, east of McAllen, Texas. The driver, Jorge Zavala of Mission, Texas, was connected to Los Metros.
The Mexican navy reported the following month that Cesar "El Gama" Davila Garcia, the CDG's head finance officer, was found dead in Reynosa. Davila previously had served as Cardenas Guillen's accountant. Then on Oct. 20, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Cardenas Vela after a traffic stop near Port Isabel, Texas. We believe Los Metros tipped off U.S. authorities about Cardenas Vela's location. (Los Metros have every reason to kill Los Rojos leaders, including Cardenas Vela, but cartels rarely conduct assassinations on U.S. soil for fear of U.S. retribution.)
On Oct. 28, Jose Luis "Comandante Wicho" Zuniga Hernandez, believed to be Cardenas Vela's deputy and operational leader in Matamoros, reportedly turned himself in to U.S. authorities without a fight near Santa Maria, Texas. Finally, Mexican federal authorities arrested Ezequiel "El Junior" Cardenas Rivera, Cardenas Guillen's son, in Matamoros on Nov. 25.
By December, media agencies reported that Cardenas Guillen's brother, Mario Cardenas Guillen, was the overall leader of the CDG. But Mario was never known to be very active in the family business, and his reluctance to involve himself in cartel operations appears to have continued after his brother's death. In addition, Costilla Sanchez is reclusive, choosing to run his organization from several secluded ranches. That he is not mentioned in media reports does not mean he has been removed from his position. Given his reclusiveness and Mario Cardenas Guillen's longstanding reticence to involve himself in cartel activity, it seems unlikely that Costilla Sanchez would be replaced. Because Los Metros seemingly have gained the upper hand over Los Rojos, we anticipate that they will further expand their dominance in early 2012.
However, while Los Metros may have defeated their rival for control of the CDG, the organizational infighting has left the CDG vulnerable to outside attack. Of course, any group divided is vulnerable to attack, but the CDG's ongoing feud with Los Zetas compounds its problem. Fully aware of the CDG's weakness, we believe Los Zetas will step up their attempts to assume control of CDG territory.
If Los Zetas are able to defeat the Los Metros faction -- or they engage in a truce with the faction -- they may be able to redeploy fighters to other regions or cities, particularly Veracruz and Guadalajara. Reinforcements in Veracruz would help counter the CJNG presence in the port city, and reinforcements in Guadalajara would shore up Los Zetas' operations and presence in Jalisco state. Likewise, a reduction in cartel-on-cartel fighting in the region would free up troops the Mexican army has stationed in Tamaulipas state -- an estimated force of 13,000 soldiers -- for deployment elsewhere.
Some notable events took place in southeast Mexico in 2011. On Dec. 4 the Mexican army dismantled a Zetas communications network that encompassed multiple cities in Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi and Coahuila states.
In addition, Veracruz state Gov. Javier Duarte on Dec. 21 fired the city's municipal police, including officers and administrative employees, and gave the Mexican navy law enforcement responsibilities. By Dec. 22, Mexican marines began patrols and law enforcement activities, effectively replacing the police much like the army replaced the police in Ciudad Juarez in 2009 and in various cities in Tamaulipas state in August 2011. We anticipate that fighting between the CJNG and Los Zetas will continue in Veracruz for at least the first quarter of 2012.
We expect security conditions on the Yucatan Peninsula to remain relatively stable in 2012 because there are no other major players in the region contesting Los Zetas' control.
In the southern Pacific coastal states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, we expect violence to be as infrequent in 2012 as it was in 2011. Chiapas and Oaxaca have been transshipment zones for Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation for several years; as such, clashes and cargo hijackings occasionally take place. However, direct and sustained combat does not occur regularly because the two groups tend to use different routes to transport their shipments. The Sinaloa Federation prefers to move its product north on roads and highways along the Pacific coast, whereas Los Zetas' transportation lines cross Mexico's interior before moving north along the Gulf coast.
Pacific Coast and Central Mexico
As many as a dozen organizations, ranging from the KT to local criminal organizations to newer groups like La Barredora and La Resistencia, continue to fight for control of the plazas in Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco states. Acapulco was particularly violent in 2011, and we believe it will continue to be violent through 2012 unless La Barredora is able to exert firm control over the city. Acapulco has been a traditional Beltran Leyva stronghold, and the CPS may attempt to reassert itself there. If that happens, violence will once again increase.
Security conditions worsened in Jalisco state at the end of 2011, and Stratfor anticipates violence there will continue to increase in 2012, especially in Guadalajara, a valued transportation hub. In November, Los Zetas struck the CJNG in Guadalajara in response to the mass killings of Los Zetas members in Veracruz state. The attacks are significant because they demonstrated an ability to conduct protracted cross-country operations. Should Los Zetas establish firm control over Guadalajara, the Sinaloa Federation's smuggling activities could be adversely affected, something Sinaloa obviously cannot permit. Given an increased Zetas presence in Zacatecas, Durango and Jalisco states, and Sinaloa's operational need to counter that presence, we expect to see violence increase in the region in 2012.
Unless a significant military force is somehow brought to bear, we do not expect to see any substantive improvement in the security conditions in Guerrero or Michoacan states.
The cross-country operations performed by Los Zetas indicate that the group's growth and expansion has been more profound than we expected in the face of the government's major operations specifically targeting the organization. Such expansion will pose a direct threat not only to the Sinaloa Federation's supply lines but to its home turf, which stretches from Guadalajara to southern Sonora state.
In northwest Mexico, specifically Baja California, Baja California Sur and Chihuahua states (and most of Sonora state), the Sinaloa Federation either directly controls or regularly uses the smuggling corridors and points of entry into the United States. Security conditions in the plazas under firm Sinaloa control have been relatively stable. Indeed, as Sinaloa tightened its control over Tijuana, violence there dropped, and we expect to see the same dynamic play out in Juarez as Sinaloa consolidates its control of that city. Stability could be threatened, however, if Los Zetas attempt to push into Sinaloa-held cities.
Outside of Mexico
As we noted in the past three annual cartel reports, Mexico's cartels have been expanding their control of the cocaine supply chain all the way into South America. This eliminates middlemen and brings in more profit. They are also using their presence in South America to obtain chemical precursors and weapons.
Increased violence in northern Mexico and ramped-up law enforcement along the U.S. border has made narcotics smuggling into the United States more difficult than it has been in the past. The cartels have adapted to these challenges by becoming more involved in the trafficking of cocaine to alternative markets in Europe and Australia. The arrests of Mexican cartel members in such places as the Dominican Republic also seem to indicate that the Mexicans are becoming more involved in the Caribbean smuggling routes into the United States. In the past, Colombian smuggling groups and their Caribbean partners in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic used these routes. We anticipate seeing more signs of Mexican cartel involvement in the Caribbean, Europe and Australia in 2012.
Government Strategy in 2012
There is no indication of a major shift in the Mexican government's overarching security strategy for 2012; Calderon will continue to use the military against the cartels throughout the year (a new president will be elected in July, but Calderon's term does not conclude until the end of 2012). This strategy of taking out cartel leaders has resulted in the disruption of the cartel balance of power in the past, which tends to lead to more violence as groups scramble to fill the resultant power vacuum. Mexican operations may further disrupt that balance in 2012, but while government operations have broken apart some cartel organizations, the combination of military and law enforcement resources has been unable to dislodge cartel influence from the areas it targets. They can break specific criminal organizations, but the lucrative smuggling corridors into the United States will continue to exist, even after the organizations controlling them are taken down. And as long as the smuggling corridors exist, and provide access to so much money, other organizations will inevitably fight to assume control over them.
Some 45,000 Mexican troops are actively involved in domestic counter-cartel operations. These troops work alongside state and federal law enforcement officers and in some cases have replaced fired municipal police officers. They are spread across a large country with high levels of violence in most major cities, and their presence in these cities is essential for maintaining what security has been achieved.
While this number of troops represents only about a quarter of the overall Mexican army's manpower -- troops are often supplemented by deployments of Mexican marines -- it also represents the bulk of applicable Mexican military ground combat strength. Meager and poorly maintained reserve forces do not appear to be a meaningful supplemental resource.
In short, if the current conditions persist, it does not appear that the Mexican government can redeploy troops to conduct meaningful offensive operations in new areas of Mexico in 2012 without jeopardizing the gains it has already made. The government cannot eliminate the cartels any more than it can end the drug trade. The only way the Mexican government can bring the violence down to what would be considered an acceptable level is for it to allow one cartel group to become dominant throughout the country -- something that does not appear to be plausible in the near term -- or for some sort of truce to be reached between the country's two cartel hegemons, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation.
Such scenarios are not unprecedented. At one time the Guadalajara cartel controlled virtually all of Mexico's drug trade, and it was only the dissolution of that organization that led to its regional branches subsequently becoming what we now know as the Sinaloa Federation, AFO, VCF and CDG. There have also been periods of cartel truces in the past between the various regional cartel groups, although they tend to be short-lived.
With the current levels of violence, a government-brokered truce between Los Zetas and Sinaloa will be no easy task, given the level of animosity and mistrust that exists between the two organizations. This means that it is unlikely that such a truce will be brokered in 2012, but we expect to see more rhetoric in support of a truce as a way to reduce violence.