The year 2010 saw a series of major successes in the governments’ attempts to fight organized crime. From Mexico to Colombia, several top level criminals were captured or downed in combat. But for every success, there were setbacks and troubling signs of what 2011 may bring.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the Felipe Calderon administration’s gamble to fight the large criminal syndicates in Mexico is turning the corner or spiraling out of control. The country’s attorney general’s office (PGR) announced in mid-December that homicides connected to criminal activities reached 12,456 between January and November. That number, according to officials consulted by InSight, may reach 15,000 before the year ends, compared to 9,635 during all of 2009.

In all, over 30,100 have been killed in incidents related to organized crime since Calderon took office in December 2006, a four-year period that many Mexicans are saying is their Vietnam.

These statistics will test the Mexicans’ patience with this administration and may cost the National Action Party (PAN) the presidency in 2012. The high homicide rate led to a revival of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in July’s regional and local elections. The PRI won nine of twelve governorships up for grabs and control of the lower house of congress.

Those elections illustrated just how vulnerable regional politicians were. Days before in Tamaulipas, a group of cars carrying the PRI gubernatorial candidate, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, to the airport was ambushed by an armed caravan. Torre Cantu was assassinated on the side of the road, along with eight members of his team. A mayoral candidate in another province was beheaded, and four bodies were hung from a bridge on election day. The assassinations highlighted an important fact: that the battle for control of Mexico is as much a political as it is a military battle.

To be sure, if 2010 illustrated anything it was that the struggle to control the “plazas,” the ubiquitous term Mexicans use to describe the trafficking corridors, centers on controlling the local political and police posts. But survival may depend on having higher-level connections.

These battles played out throughout the country. Federal authorities killed three major traffickers: Ignacio Coronel, alias “Nacho,” in July; Anthony Cardenas Guillen, alias “Tony Tormenta,” in November; and Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Mas Loco,” in December. They arrested several more, including Carlos Beltran Leyva in January; Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie,” in August; and Sergio Villareal, alias “El Grande,” in September.

All of these actions debilitated the larger criminal organizations, in particular the Familia Michoacana and the Gulf Cartel, but did not cripple them. And for every victory, there seemed to be a setback. Judges ruled against the government in cases against several top level traffickers already jailed, including Vicente Carrillo Leyva, alias “El Ingeneiro,” a top level member of the Juarez Cartel, and Sandra Avila Beltran, a.k.a. “La Reina del Pacifico,” the reputed money manager for the Beltran Leyva Organization, arrested in 2007.

And then there is Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” the elusive head of the Sinaloa Cartel, the hemisphere’s most powerful and omnipresent criminal organization. The government says it’s looking, but at least two books published this year say Guzman has been protected by Calderon’s government.

Meanwhile, homicides keep rising. Ciudad Juarez topped 3,000 homicides this year, which includes a U.S. consulate worker and her husband who were ambushed by a gang that works closely with the Juarez Cartel on both sides of the border. These deaths illustrate the rising power of local gangs in the fight to control the “plazas.” Provinces, such as Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, are suffering their highest homicide rates ever, mostly due to the fighting between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas criminal gang, the former enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, which definitely split in January after Gulf members assassinated a Zeta commander. Sinaloa, Michoacan, Oaxaca and Jalisco all continue to be battlegrounds.

Mexican authorities say the increased violence is due to the fragmentation of these groups as their top leaders are captured and killed. And there are some indications that Mexican groups have sought permanent refuge in neighboring countries to avoid capture by the state or fighting their counterparts. The most obvious example is Guatemala, where President Alvaro Colom called for a state of siege in December in the embattled province of Alta Verapaz in order to retake control from the Zetas criminal gang and their local Guatemalan allies, who are using the province as a depot, dispatch and strategic headquarters to coordinate criminal activities. But other Central American states, particularly Honduras and El Salvador, are also feeling the pinch.

Indeed, the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — is the most violent place on earth that is not at war. And maps of the homicides show the highest murder rates in precisely the most heavily used trafficking corridors. Corruption, as much as overwhelming force, may be playing a big role in how much influence the larger criminal gangs have in this vulnerable zone.

The Mexican government has also sent in more army troops to try and quell the violence in places like Michoacan and Chihuahua, and it has proposed placing the municipal police forces under the direction of the state governments. But in Mexico, little seems to be working, and Mexican citizens are starting to wonder aloud if it’s time for a change.


Colombia, meanwhile, may be a victim of its own success. The government’s intelligence apparatus continues to score victories against large criminal groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the most important of which came September when a Colombian Air Force bombardment killed Jorge Briceño Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy,” the rebels’ maximum military commander and arguably the heart and soul of the organization.

Suarez was the military strategist and was the architect of much of the financing schemes, including the development of guerrillas’ own distribution networks of cocaine through Venezuela. Another top level commander of the FARC, Pablo Benito Cabrera, alias “Fabian Ramirez,” was reportedly killed in a bombing campaign in December, but authorities have not been able to find his body. Cabrera is the FARC’s connection to distribution networks that use the Pacific Coast to dispatch cocaine, including the Sinaloa, Tijuana and Juarez Cartels.

The government has also steadily debilitated other large, army-like groups like the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), a 1,200-strong force that controls production points in Colombia’s Eastern Plains and dispatches cocaine via airplane through Venezuela. In late December, authorities tracked and killed Pedro Guerrero Castillo, alias “Cuchillo,” in Meta department, in southeast Colombia. They have also arrested and killed several mid-level members of ERPAC, leaving many to wonder what will happen in that power void in the all-important production and dispatching point, the Eastern Plains.

The government has also successfully employed a divide and conquer strategy that has worked to split up several large criminal organizations, including the Oficina de Envigado and the Paisas, two groups that emerged from the old underworld networks stretching back to Pablo Escobar’s days in Medellin. Several top leaders have turned on one another as they wonder who will be the next to turn a deal with Colombian and U.S. authorities, trying to get a lower jail sentences for their cooperation.

The government’s successful offensive has put the larger criminal groups in an awkward position of having to use smaller cells to operate. These groups are also increasingly relying on one another to get their contraband to market. The resulting alliances are incongruous and include former right-wing paramilitary groups who regularly work with left-wing guerrillas like the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The fragmentation of these groups has also created a new, troubling dynamic on the local level. The larger groups are paying the smaller groups – who protect and store product, and serve as hitmen and transporters – in merchandise rather than cash. This shift is having a profound impact in large cities and rural areas, who are seeing consumption rates skyrocket, and a general degradation of security as these smaller groups battle for control of the increasingly lucrative local drug markets.

South America and the Caribbean 

On a regional level, the trend is similar. Smaller groups appear to be operating as part of a larger distribution chain, thereby opening up business opportunities for themselves and creating the circumstances in which violence proliferates side by side with sales.

The increasing power of these smaller distributors was most evident in Jamaica, where Christopher Coke, alias “Dudas,” and his armed gang of followers barricaded themselves into the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood when the government announced it was going to extradite Coke. The weeklong melee left at least 75 dead, and the government embarrassed by revelations that Coke routinely secured the votes that helped Jamaica’s Labour Party and the country’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding win the elections.

The power of the criminal gangs to confront the government head-on is also apparent in Rio de Janeiro, the nominal capital of organized crime in the Southern Cone, where criminal gangs, in apparent concert, paralyzed the city to protest the police’s increased and permanent presence in poorer neighborhoods. Like their counterparts in Jamaica, these gangs rely as much or more on controlling larger drug shipments headed abroad as they rely on selling drugs and extorting local businesses in their own areas of control. And their ability to impose their will using a combination of fear and force, coupled with the populace’s belief that most government efforts are fleeting rather than permanent, make them a difficult problem to uproot.

In 2011, governments will undoubtedly continue to face new challenges and creative responses to their attempts to quell organized criminals. Elections in Guatemala and upcoming elections in Mexico will complicate matters for those countries, in particular Guatemala, which, along with the rest of Central America, may face a more formidable challenge to their stability than during the civil wars of the 1980s.

InSight also expects the United States to continue to place more regionwide emphasis on judicial reform measures and greater intelligence gathering capacity. But some places, particularly in Mexico, appear ill-equipped to implement these changes whilst facing down increasingly powerful and sophisticated armed criminal syndicates.

The violence will therefore most likely increase, even if the lifespan of the capos decreases. Paradoxically, that success may only accelerate the degredation on the ground-level, as smaller groups continue their open and violent turf battles over what little is left of the criminal pie.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...