For many crime watchers, the fighting in Juarez that cost nearly 10,000 people their lives over a four year stretch was a battle of the titans: the Juarez Cartel versus the Sinaloa Cartel. But beneath that analysis is the deeper question of who pushes the levers of power in Mexico.
The question is even more complicated in Juarez, a border city where several layers of power brokers are still seeking to impose their will on one another and control this lucrative plaza. These include large criminal groups, local and federal police, the army, the state Attorney General’s Office, politicians, and street gangs.
Sinaloa versus Juarez
As the story goes, beginning in early 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel began to corral the Juarez Cartel in the city and then used a hit-and-run strategy to attack it within the city’s limits. (For a full account of this, see "The Legacy of Sinaloa Cartel Lieutenant 'El Flaco'.") After taking control of the larger drug trafficking corridors on the outskirts of the city, professional hitmen, going by the name “Gente Nueva,” or “New Arrivals,” chipped away at the Juarez Cartel’s money-making apparatus: the drug distribution centers and safehouses.
Some empirical analysis seems to bear this out. A study by Carlos Vilalta and Robert Muggah (pdf) that mapped the city’s most violent areas in 2009 and 2010 found a heavy concentration of homicides in poor areas where drug dens are prevalent. (See "Ciudad Juarez: Mapping the Violence").
Having lost some of their main money-making centers, the increasingly desperate Juarez Cartel operatives turned to kidnapping and extortion to fund their battle. (Vilalta and Muggah’s study shows that “middle class” areas also came under fire.)
This violence against the middle class pitted the locals against the Juarez Cartel and its operatives, making them easier targets for the authorities. Dozens of top-level Juarez operatives were killed or arrested. The Juarez Cartel leadership fled and splintered. The Sinaloa Cartel settled into positions of power, and has since imposed its will on the city.
But this analysis falls short on two fronts. The first concerns violence amongst gangs in Juarez. The city has some 900 street gangs, many of whom serve as cannon fodder for international drug trafficking organizations, but many of whom remain as independent operators seeking to exploit the growing local drug market.
In May 2010, at the height of the violence, police commander Facundo Rosas Rosas told InSight Crime that most of the fighting was between these gangs who were battling for the lower level “turf” -- part of which was related to the fight amongst the cartels, but part of which was not.
Secondly, we must consider the role of state actors, namely politicians, prosecutors, police and military commanders -- the so-called “guarantors” of the underworld.
When the Sinaloa Cartel declared war on the Juarez Cartel in 2008, it did so by placing a banner on a monument to fallen police officers. The banner -- entitled “For those who did not believe” -- listed the names of four police officers who’d been assassinated (see image, above). A section below that -- subtitled “For those who still don’t believe” -- listed 17 more officers, who were still alive. All were supposedly members of La Linea, the Juarez Cartel’s armed wing.
Police operatives were, in many ways, the guarantors of order in the city's underworld. For a price, they provided physical protection for personnel, illegal goods and services, and a modicum of assurance that no one would prosecute these personnel. Control them, and you controlled the underworld. Remove them, as began to happen from the very onset of the violence, and you had chaos.
The traditional power broker, the Juarez Cartel, had established equilibrium in the city by paying these guarantors. It co-opted the local political class, such as mayors, city and state representatives, and the police: La Linea was drawn almost exclusively from active and retired police officers. It also rendered the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office powerless, or worse, depending upon who you ask.
For its part, the Sinaloa Cartel depended on different guarantors, namely members of the military and the federal police. (The most complete accounting of this tendency can be found in Anabel Hernandez’s book, “Los Señores del Narco;” see also National Public Radio’s 2010 special report, which was based, in part, on Hernandez’s reporting.)
However, whether federal or local, these guarantors also have their own dynamics, their own leaders, their own inertia, and their own battles. There was, to be sure, a natural tension between these guarantors in Juarez. The ones at the top, the higher-level politicians and political operatives, wanted to get paid more than the lower-level operatives. The lower echelons, namely the mid-level police commanders and investigators, naturally felt slighted.
This tension may help explain why La Linea emerged in the first place. The group was in essence the police's way of guaranteeing that they would get their fair share. It's not a coincidence that other armed wings with ties to the security forces, such as the Zetas, emerged around the same time. Like La Linea, from the beginning they felt the need to have their own structure, name, and rules. That way they could ensure more return for their labor.
First Fissures, then a Rupture
There are many options to choose from when identifying the detonator for Juarez’s violence. For some, the battle dates back to 2004, when suspected Sinaloa operatives working for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman killed the Juarez Cartel leader, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes. The Juarez Cartel responded by killing Guzman’s brother.
But that dispute seemed to subside, at least for a time, and members of both cartels continued to operate in the area. What’s more, La Linea appeared to be guaranteeing the business of both the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, collecting what’s known as “piso,” or a toll, from both groups on merchandise traveling through the Juarez Valley.
More fissures began to open in 2006, when a high level ex-police agent broke with the head of La Linea, alias “JL.” This began a scramble between the large organizations to gain control of as many guarantors as possible (see Sandra Rodriguez’s book, “La Fabrica del Crimen,” for more on this). In this scramble, as another version goes, the Juarez Cartel started to overcompensate the top end of this structure, angering members at the lower end, thus adding to the fissures.
At the same time, Juarez incorporated a new component: the Barrio Azteca, a powerful street gang that controlled the prison system and street level distribution networks. This new actor tried to impose order on the old guard, establishing a clear accounting structure and military hierarchy. The Juarez Cartel also tried to monopolize control of the area and some of its new revenue streams, namely local drug distribution and extortion.
The result of these various dynamics was an all-out rupture. Some members of La Linea aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel also incorporated pieces of the federal police and army into its scheme, and these forces provided an incredible boost for the group when they arrived in the city.
The evidence regarding this alliance is anecdotal. However, when the military and the federal police arrived in 2008, violence levels were spiking; rather than calming the situation, the violence worsened while these two federal actors remained in Juarez. This period saw the mass incarceration of Aztecas and the capture of numerous high-level members of La Linea.
The Juarez Cartel was able to hold the Sinaloa group at bay as long as it maintained some control over the upper echelon guarantors. But in the stretch between 2008 and 2011, the Juarez Cartel’s guarantors were in flux: the municipal and state police were purged, restocked and are now being purged to a lesser extent again; the municipal and state governments had elections and are filled with both recently elected and recently appointed officials; the state Attorney General’s Office has changed personnel at the top and middle management levels.
The guarantors were also being targeted. As promised, the Sinaloa Cartel eliminated seven of the police listed on the banner who “still don’t believe.” The list’s other “executables” as they became know in Juarez, fled. Another 200 members of the police were killed during the violence, according to Sandra Rodriguez’s excellent account of this fight in her book, “La Fabrica del Crimen.”
Sinaloa also attacked the upper levels, most notably the Attorney General’s Office and other judicial operatives, including Mario Angel Gonzalez, brother of state Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez. Mario Gonzalez was killed after being kidnapped and facing a videotaped interrogation, in which he admitted being part of La Linea. (see video, below). Patricia Gonzalez’s nephew was also killed in a mysterious incident.
In the process the Juarez Cartel lost its leverage, and the tide shifted in Sinaloa's favor. By 2011, the die was cast and intelligence officials were calling Sinaloa the victor.
Towards a New Equilibrium?
The chaotic state of criminal organizations in Ciudad Juarez makes it difficult to determine whether the city is moving towards a new equilibrium, or drifting towards another phase of violence and re-accommodation.
Murders in Juarez by Month
Source: Fiscalia General de Justicia - Zone Norte del Estado de Chihuahua
Recent statistics would suggest the former. Last year was the least violent 12-month stretch since 2007, with the state government registering 740 murders. Homicide levels are a fifth of what they were at the beginning of 2011.
Naturally, some analysts and authorities have focused on the criminal groups to explain why homicides have dropped so quickly. The common sentiment is that the Sinaloa Cartel and its local operatives have established control over various key corridors in the city by buying off enough guarantors to dominate the plaza.
Evidence of this, intelligence analysts and operatives say, is that the cartel is collecting “piso.” This is the levy placed on other organizations that use the territory to do business, most commonly passing illegal drugs through the area. Government intelligence officials told InSight Crime that they had recently captured members of the rival Familia Michoacana moving drugs through Juarez, and that when asked, the suspects said they were paying piso to the Sinaloa Cartel.
But is this new equilibrium sustainable? The new order is not the same as the old. Sinaloa’s guarantors are now the ones in flux, which could leave them vulnerable to challenges from the rival Juarez Cartel, or even an upstart like the Barrio Azteca. (See "Barrio Azteca Gang Poised for Leap into International Drug Trade"). The military is no longer a presence, and the federal police are reducing their role.
In addition, Sinaloa can no longer count on the traditional local guarantors either. Some remain in the pocket of the Juarez Cartel, which is still lurking and threatening to make a push back into the city.
Others appear to be changing uniforms, literally. The municipal police, formerly the key guarantor for the Juarez, is now a wild card. Its chief, Julian Leyzaola, has illustrated unprecedented resolve (see "Police use Brute Force to Break Crime's Hold on Juarez"). The state Attorney General’s Office is working in close collaboration with federal Mexican and US authorities and chipping away at what’s left of La Linea in the city.
But the gains feel shaky, especially after a prolonged period of extreme violence. This violence exploded with such force -- going from around 300 murders per year to over 3,500 in 2010 -- that even the most optimistic of Juarez residents seem to be waiting for the next round of fighting to begin.