The Cárteles Unidos (CU) is a criminal organization that was born out of an alliance between the Cartel de Tepalcatepec, Los Viagras and other groups to combat advances made by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) into Mexico's state of Michoacán. It operates under a name previously used by other allied groups in the state to combat the Zetas.
The CU is known for its involvement in illicit economies across Michoacán's Tierra Caliente region and efforts to keep the CJNG out of the state in an ongoing bloody turf war.
The roster of those working under the banner of “Cárteles Unidos” to combat a common enemy trying to break into Michoacán state has changed multiple times.
In 2010, Sinaloa Cartel leader, Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, brought together members of the Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel and Knights Templar using this name. The grouping allied itself with Milenio Cartel members and operatives of the Familia Michoacana to stop the advance of the Zetas into the states of Michoacán and Jalisco.
The CJNG publicly declared war on the Cartel del Abuelo - a group local to Michoacán's southwestern municipality of Tepalcatepec, which began as a self-defense group but moved into drug trafficking - in mid-August 2019. Later that month, an hours-long firefight between the two groups forced businesses and schools to close, left 11 wounded and nine dead in Michoacán's western municipalities of Ixtlán and Tepalcatepec.
In May 2020, media reports began to circulate that leader of the Cartel del Abuelo, Juan José Farías Álvarez, had called on vigilante groups in four municipalities across Michoacán to unite and resist the CJNG. Knowing it would be unable to win this battle alone, the Cartel del Abuelo joined forces with another CJNG rival, Los Viagras.
Once a self-defense group, Los Viagras are now a known criminal enterprise. Intelligence reports have stated they engage in hired assassinations, extortion targeting ranchers and lime farmers, as well as marijuana and synthetic drug trafficking.
Since forming, the CU has been locked in an ongoing battle with the CJNG in western Michoacán, largely causing bloodshed in municipalities across its Tierra Caliente region. The allied group is fighting to keep control over drug trafficking routes running through the state and its share in local illicit economies including drug production and the extortion of avocado producers.
In September 2020, CU operatives drove a military tank through the town of Bonifacio Moreno (also known as "El Aguaje") in Michoacán's southwestern municipality of Aguililla. At the time, they recorded themselves warning off CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” after allegedly killing a number of CJNG operatives.
Two months later, local residents reported presumed members of Los Viagras had been digging trenches around the municipalities of Tepalcatepec and Coalcomán to stop CJNG vehicles from entering.
Clashes between the two groups escalated again as 2020 came to an end. In early December, after the CJNG stormed a CU safe house in Los Reyes, armed confrontations between the two groups spread to three other municipalities: Cotija de la Paz, Tocumbo and Tingüindín. In Los Reyes, this battle reportedly involved multiple shootouts between operatives fighting aboard 40 trucks.
The CU's stake in the synthetics drug trade has been a constant source of the ongoing conflict. In March 2021, a former mayor of the town of Aguililla was arrested for his role in brokering a multimillion-dollar deal on behalf of the CU to deliver half a ton of methamphetamine hidden in concrete tiles and house paint to south Florida by truck. Soon after, members of the CJNG – one of the main producers of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine – reportedly stormed Aguililla.
The CU is led by Juan José Farías Álvarez, alias “El Abuelo.” In his role as leader of the Cartel del Abuelo, he called for vigilante groups in four municipalities across Michoacán to unite and resist “invasion.”
Farías Álvarez is no stranger to the state’s criminal landscape. He has been involved in Michoacán’s underworld since the 1990s, previously leading a self-defense group battling the Knights Templar from the Tierra Caliente region. Security forces and witnesses recognized him as a "regional commander" of the Milenio Cartel. Federal officials have previously claimed he intimidated authorities to build a wall of impunity around the organization.
While he has been arrested on different occasions, Farías Álvarez has avoided spending time behind bars. He was arrested in 2009 on weapons and drugs charges. He was accused of controlling drug trafficking activities in the municipalities of Tepalcatepec, Sahuayo, Jiquilpan and Aguililla, as well as executing members of the Zetas and Familia Michoacana. Although he was sentenced to three years in prison, he had already served the time while on remand and his conviction was later quashed on appeal.
He was arrested again in May 2018, when the Attorney General's Office accused him of crimes against health and carrying weapons for the exclusive use of the Army. Residents blocked roads to demand his release, which came days later.
Interestingly, Farías Álvarez once allied himself with the CJNG as it initially moved into Michoacán. But this was long forgotten when the CJNG launched a series of bloody assaults against the Cartel del Abuelo in 2019, with El Mencho reportedly issuing a personal statement threatening Farías Álvarez.
Despite his clash with the CJNG boss, Farías Álvarez still has some powerful connections. His brother Uriel, alias “El Paisa,” is a former mayor of Tepalcatepec and a founder of vigilante groups in that municipality. And in 2014, "El Abuelo" met with the Mexican government’s special security envoy to Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo Cervantes.
Carlos Sierra Santana, and his brother Nicolás, alias "El Gordo," are the known leaders of Los Viagras, suggesting he plays a senior role in the CU.
The CU maintains an exclusive presence in Michoacán, given its deep roots there. Its principal objective is to defend its stake in illicit economies across the state's Tierra Caliente region by keeping the CJNG out.
Tepalcatepec is a stronghold for the CU. The southwestern municipality sits along a strategic drug trafficking route. To the southeast, the Pacific coast town of Acapulco in Guerrero state and the Port of Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán are important. Precursor chemicals and drugs arrive there before transiting north through Michoacán and into Guadalajara, before reaching the United States.
The municipality of Aguililla – also in southwestern Michoacán – is a hotly contested area that has been overrun by the CU and CJNG. Members of the CU have recorded themselves parading military tanks through the town of Bonifacio Moreno, also known as "El Aguaje." They have also reportedly left dead bodies of CJNG operatives in the town's streets. Since then, the CJNG appears to have moved in.
In February 2021, members of the CU opened fire on CJNG operatives to stop them taking control of the towns of La Bocanda (just west of El Aguaje), and La Estanzuela, in the state's northern region.
Allies and Enemies
The CU was born out of its desire to fight off its sworn enemy, the CJNG, and keep control of Michoacán's drug trade. This enmity is also underpinned by a personal rivalry between CU leader Farías Álvarez and former ally, El Mencho.
The ongoing rivalry has been behind most violence in the state in 2020 and 2021. It has led to regular shootouts and displays of military might from both sides. The CU has dug trenches to keep the CJNG from encroaching on its strongholds. Meanwhile, the CJNG has retaliated by stealing military tanks. Both groups reportedly want access to drones to monitor their territories and attack each other with explosives as part of an ongoing arms race.
This rivalry has also manifested itself as a war of words. Both sides have repeatedly posted threatening videos to address each other. And the CJNG publicly blamed the CU for a May 2021 road assault in Tepalcatepec which used weaponized drones packed with homemade explosives.
The CU is a strategic alliance in itself, counting on cooperation between the groups that form it.
Érick Valencia Salazar, alias “El 85,” has reportedly joined up with the group on occasion to help in its fight agains the CJNG, despite having previously allied with El Mencho.
Groups like the CU possess crucial information on safe houses, escape routes and enemy operatives, giving them a strategic advantage. The allied organization already has the loyalty of residents, which is critical to gathering intel and makes the CJNG’s potential takeover evermore difficult.
While local residents may not have an interest in accepting the CJNG, the battle looks unlikely to end in the near future. It is likely to cause more bloodshed, as neither side looks likely to back down anytime soon.
When the ongoing conflict does come to an end, so might the CU one way or another. Alliances formed in the past under this banner have been successful in ousting organizations trying to break into Michoacán’s illicit economies, most notably the Zetas.
But if the most recent incarnation of the CU manages to kick the CJNG out of the state, it may repeat history and fragment back into individual groups.