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MEXICO

La Unión Tepito

LA UNIÓN TEPITO / LATEST UPDATE NOVEMBER 12, 2020 EN

La Unión Tepito is a large criminal group indigenous to Mexico City, named after one of the capital’s largest neighborhoods. It is currently the city’s dominant criminal force, funding itself from microtrafficking, human trafficking and extortion. It has recently found its dominance seriously contested, however, by both its local nemesis, the Fuerza Anti-Unión, and the incursion of larger Mexican cartels.

History

From the 1990s to the early 2010s, the leading gang in Mexico City was the Tepito Cartel, who rose to power using their ties to the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) and its chief enforcer Edgar Valdes Villareal, alias "La Barbie." The BLO’s decline in the late 2000s, however, led to a concurrent loss in status for the Tepito Cartel, inviting the arrival of competing groups, such as La Unión Tepito.

Formed between 2009 and 2012 by defectors from declining groups such as the BLO and Familia Michoacána, possibly on the initiative of Valdes Villareal, La Unión Tepito quickly challenged the Tepito Cartel for control over both the Tepito neighborhood and large parts of Mexico City, using targeted acts of violence to assert its dominance and push out other groups, including cells of large national organizations like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.

In October 2012, six local drug retailers believed to have worked for the Sinaloa Cartel were executed in the street. In May 2013, 12 people were kidnapped from a bar in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa, including relatives of Tepito Cartel leaders. In both cases, La Unión Tepito was blamed. By the end of the ensuing gang war, La Unión Tepito was the predominant criminal force in Mexico City.

Besides taking over drug retail spots across Mexico City, including Tepito itself, La Unión began extorting local businesses, often using “gota a gota,” or “drop by drop,” amethod of offering high-interest loans to small business owners and street vendors with the threat of physical violence for those who could not pay.

Taking over the center of the capital meant access to not just shops and street vendors, but also bars and nightclubs. Extorting these businesses was particularly profitable, allowing drug retailers to operate inside and forcibly recruit employees as dealers or lookouts. La Unión Tepito also developed ties to local police, granting the group a measure of impunity and forewarning with regard to law enforcement action.

By 2017, however, a rival criminal group would emerge named the Fuerza Anti-Unión, which would challenge La Unión’s dominance. Two theories exist about the Fuerza Anti-Unión: that they either arose as a vigilante group formed by business owners to combat La Unión’s extortion or as a splinter group from La Unión Tepito itself.

Either way, the Fuerza Anti-Unión acted little differently from its supposed enemy, establishing close relations with high-ranking members of Mexico City’s Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (Secretaría de Seguridad Ciudadana – SSC) while violently competing to control the city’s drug retail and extortion economies, particularly in the municipalities of Álvaro Obregón, Tlalpan and Cuauhtémoc.

In June 2018, two dismembered bodies and a “narco-manta” (narco-banner) were found on Mexico City’s bustling Avenida Insurgentes, with a message from La Unión Tepito threatening the Fuerza Anti-Unión leader. It was only the most visible manifestation of a surge in violence that month, confirmed by Mexico City’s head of government José Ramón Amieva to be caused by clashes between the two groups.

La Unión Tepito remained stronger than its rivals, however, expanding its extortion operations into wealthier parts of the city where it could demand higher amounts, sometimes up to 50,000 pesos a week (around $2,600). In April 2019, hundreds of local shopkeepers signed a letter pleading for Mexico City authorities to take action against La Unión, with the leader of the association warning shopkeepers might be forced to form a self-defense group if nothing was done. One week later, he was shot seven times by armed men and killed.

In October 2019, a police raid captured 31 Unión members and uncovered two synthetic drug laboratories. The raid was triggered by reports of collusion between gang members and city authorities, according to Mexico City Security Secretary Omar García Harfuch, who claimed to have a list of around 120 police officers that may have collaborated with La Unión. Though 27 of those captured were later released, it did mark a turning point in La Unión’s fortunes.

Since then, it has had to contend with the increased presence in Mexico City of the country’s second -argest criminal group, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). In the last year, the CJNG have come to supply microtraffickers with drugs in nine of Mexico City’s 16 districts, CJNG members directly extort businesses in the Historic Center, long a key Unión Tepito territory, and the new Fuerza Anti-Unión leader reportedly maintains strong ties with the CJNG, including being supplied with drugs, arms and hitmen to wage its war against La Unión Tepito.

Leadership

As of November 2020, La Unión Tepito’s current leader is reported to be Rául Rojas Molina, alias “El Mi Jefe.”

A key lieutenant of one of La Unión’s former leaders, Roberto Moyado Esparza (a.k.a.“El Betito”), who was arrested in 2018, Rojas Molina has climbed the ranks since his incarceration in 2010 for armed robbery and crimes against public health and is currently linked to 38 homicides, 18 of which he allegedly carried out.

He has taken over since the May 2020 arrest of leader Brandon Alexis Flores, alias “El Junior," brother of Oscar Andrés, alias "El Lunares," who was leader until his arrest in January 2020. Rojas Molina’s two closest subordinates are thought to be known as "El Manzanas" and "El Elvis," respectively in charge of La Unión’s extortion and microtrafficking operations.

Yet while there will almost certainly be a replacement leader if Rojas Molina falls, the high turnover rate of La Unión’s leadership does come at a cost, contributing to increased fragmentation within the group and the emergence of different factions.

Geography

La Unión Tepito is a highly localized criminal group, deriving its power from the social and even familial bonds it shares with certain Mexico City communities. Besides its heartland in the rough and central neighborhood of Tepito, it retains some sort of presence in all of Mexico City’s 16 districts, with a strong presence in the districts of Cuauhtémoc, Iztapalapa, Benito Juárez, Miguel Hidalgo and Venustiano Carranza, particularly in the Historic Centre and Zona Rosa.

Outside of Mexico City, the group maintains lower-scale micro-trafficking and sometimes extortion operations in surrounding states, such as Hidalgo, Querétaro, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz and the State of Mexico.

Allies and Enemies

Despite being formed by members of several declining organizations, La Unión Tepito has many enemies and few allies. It has long fended off competition from the smaller Mexico City gangs, such as the Tláhuac Cartel and Los Rodolfos, who seek to wrest away a larger share of the city’s microtrafficking and extortion economies and its turf war with the Fuerza Anti-Unión continues unabated.

Meanwhile, reports suggest the CJNG is directly sending men to take over key Unión territory in Mexico City. According to Óscar Balderas, a Mexican journalist and expert in organized crime, "the CJNG has an aggressive expansion plan that requires controlling the points that La Unión Tepito has today, such as the walking corridor behind the National Palace, the areas of La Merced, Mixcalco and Lagunilla."

Most recently, drug tunnels were discovered under the Central de Abastos, Mexico’s largest market, allegedly operated by the Fuerza Anti-Unión with CJNG support. The former had reportedly installed 50 members in the market to control drug sales and extortion rackets, thereby challenging La Unión’s control of this important economic and criminal hub.

Furthermore, the CJNG is reportedly arming not just the Fuerza Anti-Unión, but also some of the city’s gangs in their fight against La Unión Tepito, most notably the Tláhuac Cartel. Finally, there are signs the long-time presence of Sinaloa Cartel cells in Mexico City may be growing, adding yet another powerful competitor to the criminal mix.

Prospects

La Unión Tepito faces an uncertain future. It remains in a dominant position in Mexico City but it may struggle to stand up to the CJNG, particularly if the group continues to smooth its entrance into Mexico City by supporting the Fuerza Anti-Unión. While La Unión’s individual members will have ample opportunity to defect and live, such a criminal coalition represents an existential threat to La Unión Tepito as a group.

The same is true of the heightened law enforcement efforts against La Unión Tepito since Mexico City’s Secretary of Citizen Security, Omar García Harfuch, took over in 2019. According to Harfuch, La Unión Tepito has been broken up into “atomized cells” since then, which though overly optimistic, does reflect the group’s increased targeting by law enforcement.

La Unión’s main hope rests upon its home advantage around Tepito. Balderas’ notes that it "is a criminal group made up of…locals who, in the beginning, partnered to defend their neighborhood from external threats. That makes them known and even loved by the population."

In order for the CJNG to take that place, therefore, “it must break with very deep ties - even family members - of La Unión Tepito with the center of Mexico City. And if something distinguishes this area of ​​the city, it is its roots in friends and family. Their only alternatives would be to ‘buy’ loyalties (with a lot of money that the CJNG does have) or to bend them with violence."

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