A high-ranking Tijuana Cartel lieutenant was arrested last week, sparking commentary that the trafficking organization is on the ropes. Not so fast; experts have said this since 2002, but the group has proved resilient.
Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, “El Ruedas,” was arrested on Friday in Tijuana after he attempted to kill a cartel defector. The man survived, fleeing the hospital after treatment, and Sillas was arrested by police.
Some have hailed this as the final "nail in the coffin" for the Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO). Sillas was an important enforcer lieutenant during the group's internecine conflict from 2008-2010. He was known as a violent, hot-tempered leader who fought against break-away cells led by Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo.”
However, Sillas’ importance in the AFO in recent years may not have been as great as some media have portrayed it. The post-2010 Tijuana reality has been a truce between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellano Felix Organization led by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero." According to Zeta Magazine, Sillas was involved in the kidnapping of three relatives of Sinaloa lieutenant Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," in October 2010. This may have caused the AFO to shun Sillas in order keep the peace, although it is possible that they faked his exclusion in order prevent a conflagration with the Sinaloa Cartel.
Sillas’ brother was also arrested earlier this year in Palmdale California in an alleged murder-for-hire plot ordered by Sillas himself from Mexico. This indicates that Sillas’ international capability had already been limited by law enforcement efforts.
The question remains: Will Sillas' arrest upset the organized crime balance of power in Tijuana?
The Nature of the Tijuana Truce
Explaining the decrease in violence in Tijuana since 2009 is not straightforward. In broad strokes, the general consensus among analysts is that the Sinaloa Cartel and the AFO have reached a truce after the elimination of cells led by Teodoro Garcia Simental “El Teo” arrested in January 2010.
Three versions of what that truce might look like have emerged from interviews carried out by InSight Crime over the last year. The first scenario is that the Sinaloa Cartel, desiring a peaceful business environment, pays the AFO a tax to operate in the plaza. In the second scenario the AFO pays the Sinaloa Cartel to operate in the area, while the third describes the Tijuana region as an open plaza, not controlled by any one group. Given the low levels of violence, scenario three appears least likely; an arrangement between traffickers must be keeping the killings under control. Scenario two is plausible, but most experts lean toward scenario one, that the AFO charges the Sinaloa Cartel to operate, despite the AFO’s supposedly weakened state.
See chart, left, using data from the Mexican Secretaria de Seguridad Publica.
A recent FBI gang report listed the AFO and Sinaloa Cartel as rivals. This is puzzling because it is at odds with the prevailing narrative explaining the relatively low levels of violence in the Tijuana corridor as a result of a truce/non-aggression pact between the groups, if not outright cooperation. Why the various law enforcement agencies involved in compiling this report categorized Sinaloa-AFO relations as a rivalry is not clear, given the success of the non-aggression pact apparently functioning in the area. They may have based their judgement on the long historical animosity between the two cartels, and the risk that they could engage in all-out conflict, plunging Tijuana into Ciudad Juarez-style violence, if the pact breaks down.
The Future of the AFO
The Sillas arrest does not appear to be important enough to upset the balance of power and undermine the truce seemingly in place in the region, but only time will tell. While many have predicted the demise of the AFO, its future may be less stark.
Assuming no major conflagration between the Sinaloa Cartel and the AFO, the AFO is likely to continue its activities as a low profile trafficking organization with deep ties to U.S. street and prison gangs. These long term relationships of trust with U.S. prison gangs like La Eme (some associates of which have referred to the Sinaloa Cartel as too “ruthless”) could provide AFO members with a long term niche. In this scenario, AFO members would not be wiped out in conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel, but could instead be slowly absorbed by the rival group, making themselves useful through their trafficking contacts.
*Stacey Cooper recently graduated from the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego with a Master’s Degree in Peace and Justice Studies, and is currently working at USD as a research assistant. Nathan Jones is a University of California, Irvine, PhD in political science, IGCC dissertation fellow, and an adjunct instructor of international relations at the University of San Diego.