A spate of recent arrests in Morelos has confirmed the belief that the South Pacific Cartel (SPC) is the gang behind the March 28 murder of seven people, including Juan Francisco Sicilia, whose father Javier is a noted journalist and poet. The confusion that followed Sicilia’s death illustrates just how fragmented and chaotic the underworld is getting in Mexico.

Initial reports held that the Gulf Cartel was behind the killing sparking a wave of anti-crime protests across Mexico. But authorities later contradicted that stance after banners, or so-called “narcomantas,” distancing the Gulf network from the episode appeared in the city of Morelos, just south of Mexico City, in the days following.

On April 14, Rodrigo Elizalde (pictured above), allegedly a member of the SPC and a participant in the Sicilia murder, was abducted, beaten, and left tied up in a pickup truck by members of the Gulf Cartel, who subsequently alerted the local military base of Elizalde’s whereabouts.

Upon his arrest, Mexican authorities say Elizalde confessed to his role in the murder of Sicilia and his friends. One of the Gulf henchmen said to be responsible for Elizalde’s abduction was himself arrested by the Federal Police days later.

The confusion speaks volumes about Mexico’s current turmoil. Big groups have spawned subgroups that have spawned subgroups, which are battling for control over large port cities such as Acapulco, and transit and storage centers such as Morelos. These cities have two levels of trafficking happening simultaneously: that of large, bulk shipments that are moving north to the United States; and the smaller, but growing quantities that are for sale on the local market.

The battles are playing out various playing fields as well. Mexican officials say the Gulf and South Pacific Cartels are the two principal groups contesting the south-central state of Morelos, which has been the site of a significant increase in violence related to organized crime in recent years.

One of Mexico’s newer gangs, the SPC formed around the remnants of Arturo Beltran Leyva’s trafficking network, the Beltran Leyva Organization, and is evidence of the ongoing fragmentation of Mexico’s drug-trafficking industry. In addition to Morelos, the SPC has a heavy presence in Acapulco, another site of a recent surge in drug violence due mostly to its large local drug market. The group today is controlled by Jesus Radilla and Hector Beltran Leyva, Arturo’s brother.

The breakdown of the large groups has contributed to this violence. Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed in a shootout with elements of the Mexican navy in Cuernavaca, Morelos in December 2009. His death followed a split with former ally Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” which placed their networks in a fierce ongoing battle across the country.

Because of the fighting, Beltran Leyva, like Guzman, a Sinaloan with a strong presence in Mexico’s northwest, shifted his resources south, as Chapo’s control over their native region eventually proved insuperable.

Another erstwhile pillar of the Beltran Leyva network, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, turned himself into the federal police in August, further shaking the foundation of the Mexican underworld, and creating the impetus for the rise of new groups.

The Gulf Cartel, in contrast, is one of Mexico’s most venerable trafficking organizations, but it too is enveloped in turmoil thanks to an ongoing conflict with the Zetas, a group that got its start as the militarized wing of the Gulf Cartel under former boss Osiel Cardenas. (Cardenas was arrested in 2003, and extradited four years later to the U.S., where he was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2010.)

The fighting between the two groups, which began in early 2010, has sparked vicious battles in the northeastern region of Mexico, including Monterrey, one of Mexico’s most economically vibrant cities.

While Gulf traffickers have long had a presence around many different regions of Mexico, reports of Gulf gunmen fighting in cities far from the traditional northeastern base — Cuernavaca and Acapulco being two of the more prominent ones — have grown more common.

The emergence of the South Pacific Cartel and the spread of the Gulf Cartel are illustrative of recent shifts in the Mexican drug trade over the past several years. In addition to the SPC, a number of other gangs, such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, the Hand with Eyes, the Knights Templar, and the Resistance have also formed in different regions around the country.

This fragmentation has made for a chaotic situation on the ground, illustrated most recently by the confusion surrounding Sicilia’s death. Mexico, it seems, is at a loss as to where to point the finger.

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