The Juárez Cartel is responsible for smuggling tons of narcotics from Mexico into the United States throughout its long and turbulent history, and the group’s intense rivalry with the Sinaloa Cartel helped turn Juarez into one of the most violent places in the world.
The Juárez Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico. Since its beginnings, the cartel has focused on drug trafficking, but has expanded into other criminal activities such as human trafficking, kidnapping, local drug distribution and extortion. Based in the city of Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, northern Mexico, the Juárez Cartel is also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (VCFO), after its leader.
The origins of the Juárez Cartel go back to the 1980s, when the Ciudad Juarez area was under Rafael Aguilar Guajardo’s control. Aguilar Guajardo worked closely with the Guadalajara Cartel, and after the arrest of the cartel’s leader, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, he was granted control of Juárez. Amidst mysterious circumstances, Aguilar Guajardo was killed in Cancún in 1993. His lieutenant, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” quickly assumed control.
Juárez Cartel Factbox
The organization grew exponentially under Carrillo Fuentes. More prone to negotiate than fight, Carrillo Fuentes reconstructed Félix Gallardo’s old network and more. Eventually, he controlled at least half of all Mexican trafficking and even extended his operations to Central America and into South America, including Chile and Argentina. Carrillo’s alias, “Lord of the Skies,” aptly described his method: using commercial and parcel traffic, the Juárez Cartel moved thousands of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico by air, then into the United States by land. Carrillo Fuentes furthered his reach by establishing his own distribution networks in the U.S. He died, abruptly, in 1997, while getting plastic surgery, leaving behind a well structured cartel but a void at the top.
Amado’s brothers, Vicente and Rodolfo, took over but a power struggle quickly ensued. After some infighting, the two brothers, and their nephew Vicente Carrillo Leyva, established a firm command. In 2002, they allied with Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” a former member of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police; Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo”; the Beltrán Leyva brothers; and Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.” Authorities called them the “Federation,” but the partnership would not last. After Rodolfo killed two of Guzmán’s associates for not paying him to use the Juárez corridor, Guzmán gathered his allies and told them simply that Rodolfo, alias “El Niño de Oro,” had to die. Faced with a choice, Guzmán’s partners chose him. Rodolfo was killed with his wife as they walked out of a movie theatre in September 2004. Guzmán’s brother, Arturo, was killed just a few months later. The war was on, and Mexico still has not recovered.
The Juárez Cartel has a large and longstanding transportation, storage and security operation throughout the country. It counts on its ability to co-opt local and state law enforcement, especially the judicial or ministerial police (detectives) and the municipal forces. It has long collected a tax for letting groups use its “plaza,” or drug trafficking corridor, and relied on alliances to operate nationwide. But the new modus operandi in the country, that of using small, more sophisticated armies to control swaths of territory, has made it hard for this group to compete. While its two main gangs, La Línea and the Aztecas, are formidable, they have had difficulty keeping pace with their competitors that work for the Sinaloa Cartel. La Línea, which does the street-level enforcement, has been particularly hard hit. Ciudad Juárez saw a decline in murders in 2011, with homicides dropping to a two-year low in May, which some attribute to the diminishing power of La Linea. The enforcement arm, like other failing drug traffickers, may have made an alliance with the Zetas. However, some analysts have suggested that it is the Juárez Cartel which is in decline and La Línea which is ascendant.
The Juarez Cartel has also created the Linces, a group made up by approximately 80 deserters from the Army’s Special Forces, who are in charge of protecting cartel members and transporting drugs.
Today, the Juárez Cartel is still battling rival groups in its traditional stronghold around Ciudad Juárez. More than 1,200 homicides were committed there in 2018 alone, marking the first time the border city had recorded more than 1,000 murders since 2011, when the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels were deadlocked in a bloody war for control of the strategic border town.
The current violence is likely driven by the Juárez Cartel’s splinter factions, as well as the local street gangs that such groups use as enforcers and soldiers in order to secure territory for small-scale drug dealing, as well as trafficking larger shipments across the border.
In November 2019, the La Línea faction of the Juárez Cartel was linked to the brutal massacre of nine dual US-Mexican citizens from a cross-border Mormon community. The killings put a spotlight on how these so-called “small armies,” or the groups like La Línea that emerged as part of the outsourcing of security by Mexico’s most dominant cartels, have surged to play a critical role in controlling territory for larger groups.
In recent years, the Juárez Cartel has fragmented into smaller splinter factions like La Línea, who appear to play more of a role in controlling territory formerly held by the group.
Luis Carlos Vázquez Barragán, alias “El 20,” was leading the faction and allegedly taking direct orders from Carrillo Fuentes before his death, helping the Juárez Cartel move large drug shipments across the US-Mexico border, as well as planning and carrying out targeted assassinations. However, Mexican authorities arrested him in Chihuahua in 2010.
Since then, it’s not immediately clear who holds the top position within La Línea’s ranks.
At the height of its power, the cartel operated in nearly 21 states and its main areas of influence included Sinaloa, Durango, Jalisco, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Colima, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Puebla, Morelos and Mexico City.
The cartel maintains a firm foothold in Ciudad Juárez and the Valle de Juárez, which remains the key corridor for transporting illegal drugs into the United States. It still has some measure of control over the local and state police, as well as some politicians. It has turned to local gangs to be its enforcers, changing the dynamic in the area and increasing violent confrontation with its rivals.
The group’s drug trafficking operations are carried out by establishing two main fronts on both sides of the US-Mexico frontier. La Línea and the Linces control transport to the US-Mexican border and the other gang, the Aztecas, manages the US side, with operations in El Paso, Dallas and Austin.
Allies and Enemies
In its regions of influence, the Juárez Cartel has turned to local gangs to be its enforcers, changing the dynamic in these areas and increasing violent confrontation with its rivals. To push back its main rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, it has turned to its former rivals in the Beltrán Leyva Organization and the Zetas. It has also sought more direct contact with drug sources in Colombia, namely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Most recently, a bloody battle has resurged in the border state of Chihuahua between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, likely over control over key smuggling routes into the United States. A Sinaloa Cartel-linked group known as Los Salazar operating in Sonora state, and the Juárez Cartel-faction known as La Línea operating in Chihuahua state, have been battling each other heavily in recent years.
Another group to emerge as of late and test the Juárez Cartel’s control along the border has been the Nuevo Cartel de Juárez. The group has allegedly allied with the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) and helped them muscle into the area. That said, the Juárez Cartel’s La Línea faction and the Sinaloa Cartel’s Los Salazar faction appear to have far more influence than the newly arrived rivals.
Despite recent news reports about its decline, the Juárez Cartel remains one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico and the region. Small cells carry out different types of operations ranging from transportation to distribution of drugs; street gangs, mostly in the north, act as the enforcement wing and are involved in human trafficking and kidnapping operations.
That said, the Juárez Cartel as it was once known is a shadow of its former self. Fragmentation has dogged the group for the past few years, and it seems like the armed wings it developed for security purposes now have more sway in the border regions under the group’s control.