Barrio Azteca, a prison gang born in the Texas jail system, is becoming a major player in the Mexican underworld and the “X-factor” in the battle for Ciudad Juarez, Mexican officials told InSight Crime.

The group has as many as 5,000 members in the Juarez area alone. It works with the city’s multitude of smaller gangs, and has gained a more permanent role in the movement of drugs across the border since members of the traditional power broker family, the Carrillo Fuentes of the famed Juarez Cartel, vacated the area due to fighting with rivals in the Sinaloa Cartel.

The battle scarred the city and shook the Mexican underworld. Its multilayered nature makes it difficult to decipher, even as its first phase appears to be receding in the rear view mirror.

*This is the second article in a four-part series on violence in Ciudad Juárez. Read the other chapters here and download the full PDF.

Ostensibly, the fight pitted the Juarez and the Sinaloa criminal organizations against each other (see “How Juarez’s Police, Politicians Picked Winners of Gang War“). Juarez used its armed wing, La Linea, which is made up of current and former police officers. Sinaloa sent the so-called Gente Nueva, or “New Arrivals,” who are professional assassins, themselves plucked mostly from the ranks of the federal police and military.

Both the Gente Nueva and La Linea drew foot soldiers from local gangs to fill out their units: the Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos worked with the Gente Nueva; Barrio Azteca with La Linea. For the Juarez Cartel, Barrio Azteca was a fitting partner.

Flying ‘Kites’ and Expanding to the ‘Free World’

Barrio Azteca started in 1986 in the El Paso jails, where it built a reputation as organized, disciplined, and fiercely loyal to its own. According to a 2011 US federal indictment filed against 35 Azteca members, the group refers to itself as “Familia Azteca” and demands that its members prioritize gang business over all other affairs.

It enforces a set of “sacred rules” that establish hierarchies, means of ascension, and discipline for those who disobey. Punishments are meted out to members and their families alike. The federal indictment says that Barrio Azteca killed the step-daughter of one member they believed was cooperating with law enforcement; the wife and parents of another suspected informant were also kidnapped and killed.

Its tough image helped Barrio Azteca expand throughout the southwest and northeast. According to the FBI’s 2011 gang threat assessment, Barrio Azteca has cells in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Texas, and controls drug distribution in the border city of El Paso. Texas authorities say it operates in New Mexico as well, and has over 3,000 members in the United States.

The leaders in jails communicate via official postal services and telephone, and use relatives and friends to pass coded messages called “kites” that relay orders to those in the “free world.”

Texas authorities say that Barrio Azteca was so effective that it worked as an extension of the Juarez Cartel. Its members “facilitate the movement of people and drugs in the United States; procure weapons, vehicles and other material for the cartel; and carry out acts of violence and other criminal activity on the cartel’s behalf,” the 2011 Texas Gang Threat Assessment (pdf) said.

Barrio Azteca operates on both sides of the border, but the leadership of the organization is in the US jails. The federal indictment quotes one member telling another in telephone conversation that the “money is made ‘south,’ but the power is in the United States.”

Barrio Azteca’s Juarez Operation

It’s not clear when the Barrio Azteca began operating in large numbers in Juarez. The group certainly expanded after 1996, when the United States changed immigration legislation and began deporting immigrant ex-cons en masse to places like Mexico. Like the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, Mexico received thousands of gang members who have strengthened their presence and extended their reach across borders. (For a more thorough account of this phenomenon, see “Gangs, Deportation and Violence in Central America.”)

A former prison director in Chihuahua, Gustavo de la Rosa, said that Barrio Azteca had begun exerting control over the jails in that state with precision and discipline by the early 2000s. Azteca members have crew cuts, and must follow strict rules on drug consumption. This modus operandi impressed the local power brokers — the Carrillo Fuentes Organization, aka the Juarez Cartel — which began using the Aztecas as enforcers around the same time.

During the war with the Sinaloa Cartel, which began in 2007, this role cost Barrio Azteca dearly: thousands died in the fighting in the years that followed, many of them Aztecas, intelligence officials told InSight Crime; top Barrio Azteca leaders were jailed or fled to other areas. Of the 35 indicted leaders named on the 2011 federal indictment, for instance, only two remain at large; 24 have pleaded guilty.

In many ways, Barrio Azteca dug its own hole. It was responsible for killing 15 teenagers at a party in January 2010, an event that exploded in the Mexican government’s face when President Felipe Calderon suggested that the slain teens were connected to organized crime. This preceded a second massive federal troop buildup whose main target would be Barrio Azteca and the Juarez Cartel’s armed wing, La Linea, who many perceived as the most violent of the warring factions.

On March 13, 2010, Barrio Azteca members followed two vehicles with diplomatic plates leaving a birthday party, then ambushed them, killing a US consulate official, her spouse and the spouse of another consulate official. The incident ramped up US efforts and pressure on the Mexican government to go after Barrio Azteca in Juarez.

But the Aztecas were also outwitted by their rivals. One Mexican intelligence official — who, like the others in this story, requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media — said there were several key distinguishing features that gave the Gente Nueva a tactical and operational edge. The group had more training and better weaponry; they were also more disciplined, using older model vehicles and refraining from nocturnal activities.

The New Barrio Azteca

The Aztecas appear to have learned some valuable lessons from the years of battles, and gained experience that may make them the strongest force in the region in the coming years. They now use older cars and better-trained units, Mexican intelligence officials said. Perhaps more importantly, they seem to be redefining their relationship with their former bosses.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the long-time leader of the Juarez Cartel, has absconded and may have retired. Other members of the family and criminal syndicate are said to be disputing his crown. Numerous members of La Linea have also been killed or arrested, and, along with the Carrillo Fuentes family, are thought to be hiding in the neighboring Sonora state.

What’s left of the structure in Juarez is the Aztecas. They occupy their traditional territory in the eastern neighborhoods, and control a portion of the southwestern edge of the city near the mountain range that juts from this mostly flat terrain, shows a map from Mexico’s intelligence agencies obtained by InSight Crime — see below for our version of the data from the map.

There they control the local drug distribution market, extortion, human smuggling and other smaller illegal businesses. They gained market share in some of these businesses during their time working with the Juarez Cartel, in a process that Southern Pulse calls “criminal technology transfer” (see Southern Pulse video, below). Their dominance, if not their presence, is total in these areas.

Barrio Azteca’s Modus Operandi

Juarez has an estimated 900 gangs operating ranging in size from 20 to the nearly 5,000 members of Barrio Azteca. The gangs in Aztecas-controlled areas operate under its purview, forming part of an elaborate and disciplined money-making system that resembles a well run local franchise.

At the apex of Barrio Azteca are generals (known as “Capo Mayor” in the United States) who seek to control from the top down. They are older, between 45 and 50, and “lifers,” intelligence officials say. This is a small group: two or three in jail; five or six in the “free world.” They run the group by committee. All decisions must be made by consensus. No consensus means no action is taken.

Below the generals are captains. These are the mid-level commanders who run the “mini-plazas” to generate revenue. They are beholden to the generals in every sense. Their main job in this scheme is to collect from the lieutenants and keep the financial books.

The lieutenants, for their part, have numerous sergeants. These sergeants are a mix of Aztecas and non-Aztecas. They receive orders from the lieutenants who, depending on the area, request a fixed quota per week from these local underworld operators. The sergeants then employ the so-called “indios,” or soldiers, to gather this revenue. As the revenue is passed upwards, each level takes its cut.

The revenue streams are split into two large chunks. On the one hand is local drug distribution, which authorities estimate to represent a little more than half of the group’s local revenue. On the other side is everything else: from extortion to human smuggling to car theft and weapons trafficking.

The Aztecas’ revenue is significant, and they have developed ways to undermine police efforts to slow the pace of regeneration and growth. Most drug sales, for instance, are now delivered directly to the consumer. The orders are placed by phone using coded language that sounds like a fast food order: “pollo asado” (grilled chicken) means an order for cut cocaine; “pollo crudo” (raw chicken) is an order for pure cocaine to cook and resell as a derivative.

The order is sent by numerous messengers in cars or on motorbikes and even bicycles. These “indios” are often underage and carry little more than a couple of doses, so if they are caught they will not be prosecuted. (Mexican law defines personal dosage as those carrying, for example, less than 5 grams of marijuana — see article 479 of law here – pdf; it defines “intent to distribute” as carrying 1,000 times the amount of the personal dosage — see law here).

Those who are caught and prosecuted fall into a different sort of net: Mexico’s jails. This may be where Barrio Azteca is at its best. In the Juarez jails, the Aztecas have a general, a military head and a public relations representative. On a visit, one government official recalled that Barrio Azteca’s public relations man, and not the jail’s director, gave him the official tour.

“The director [of the jail] said they had their own system,” the official told InSight Crime.

The visitor said the Aztecas area was clean and orderly. He contrasted it with the disorderly Mexicles/Artistas Asesinos patio, which he said was filthy and chaotic.

The difference is critical, especially for the uninitiated. As the new inmates, their thoughts turn to self-preservation. The Aztecas offer the best option. After doing their time, these recruits return to the streets, now under strict orders of their Azteca generals, captains, lieutenants and sergeants. Membership is for life.

Becoming International Distributors?

The next step for Barrio Azteca is to consolidate its hold on the illegal drugs moving through Juarez. This may take time. The Sinaloa Cartel remains the dominant international trafficking network in the region. Barrio Azteca would have to seek to accommodate or displace that hefty rival if it were to play a larger role. Accommodation seems the more likely path at the moment.

What’s more, the US side seems to only have experience moving smaller consignments. The 2011 federal indictment talks of 1 and 2 kilo packages of cocaine and heroin moving through the United States.

But this may already be changing. In one case, the indictment says Barrio Azteca was moving 18 pounds of heroin to New York City. Barrio Azteca has infrastructure and personnel in place in the United States, and can use its large numbers and physical control of much of Juarez to demand an increasingly large share of the international drug trade.

No other street gang is so close to making this leap. And the irony is that the battle for Juarez may have accelerated the process.

View Larger Map in Google Maps


Barrio Azteca area of influence

Artistas Asesinos / Mexicles area of influence

 Linea area of influence

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...