With just a little over a year left in his term, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon is looking at a very different criminal landscape than when he took office in 2006, with the dominance of a handful of hegemonic groups replaced by a criminal free-for-all.
Perhaps the most obvious change in Mexico today is the relative decline of the large gangs that controlled the nation’s criminal scene five, or even two, years ago. The Sinaloa Cartel, which united capos like Joaquin Guzman, Juan Jose Esparragoza, Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ismael Zambada, and Ignacio Coronel as recently as 2008, has been beset by assaults from adversaries and strife within the group, especially the defection of Beltran Leyva and his network.
As a result, their sphere of influence is less absolute than in the past. Durango state, which has long been under Sinaloa control, has witnessed fighting between different wings of Gente Nueva and Los Ms, both of whom first came up at the service of Guzman and his allies. The fighting between the Durango factions is at least partly responsible for the hundreds of bodies found in mass graves outside the state capital, as well as a wave of violence in the city itself.
The Pacific state of Jalisco, which was under Coronel’s control until he died in a shootout with federal troops last year, is now being contested by a handful of groups channeling their efforts through local gangs. Even in Sinaloa itself, where one would expect Guzman’s power to be untested, he has been mocked by “narcomantas” in recent months.
The Gulf Cartel, which is, along with Sinaloa, the most venerable in Mexico, has spent the last 18 months battling to maintain its territory, following the its 2009 split with the Zetas. Its control over Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Veracruz, typically the group’s stronghold, has been subjected to a fierce challenge from the Zetas.
The Juarez Cartel, which was the nation’s most powerful 15 years ago and was still one of the foremost groups in 2006, today appears to be a spent force, suffering the attrition of three years of fighting with Sinaloa over Juarez. Vicente Carrillo, the group’s longtime boss, is rumored to be retired, and the gang that has sustained the group’s combat with Sinaloa since 2008 -- La Linea -- appears to be in steep decline. The murder rate in Juarez, the most violent city in Mexico since the fighting between the two gangs began, has dropped significantly over the past several months, which some say is a product of the Juarez Cartel’s inability to continue fighting.
Determining the current status of the Tijuana Cartel is perhaps the most difficult. Long one of the country’s most notorious gangs, the Tijuana Cartel today operates with a lower profile than in the era of Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix. A perceived drop in violence in 2009 was attributed to the town’s takeover by Teo Garcia, who was said to be working on behalf of Guzman. Yet with Garcia’s 2010 arrest, it’s no longer clear that Sinaloa controls this vital border crossing.
Furthermore, while Fernando Sanchez Arellano, the nephew of Ramon and Benjamin and the current leader of the organization, may not receive as much press as other Mexican gangsters, this is likely a conscious decision rather than a sign of weakness. While its liberal use of violence turned the Tijuana Cartel into one of the Mexican government’s foremost targets in the early 2000s, the present iteration of the group seems focused on moving its merchandise northward while remaining beneath the government’s radar screen.
In short, the traditional “cartels” remain among the biggest gangs in the country, and their presence internationally is as strong as ever, but their slice of the pie within Mexico appears to be shrinking. The flip side of the erosion of the big groups has been the emergence of a constellation of smaller groups, many of whom got their start in the service of the historic gangs before striking out on their own. The Zetas and the Familia are the two most notorious, and both grew to be considered equals to the traditional gangs mentioned above.
But the phenomenon extends well beyond these newly arrived titans to lesser known groups like the South Pacific Cartel, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, the Resistencia, the Jalisco Cartel, and the Mano con Ojos, as well as La Linea, Los M's, and Gente Nueva, and many others. These groups typically begin as wholly subordinate divisions of the larger gangs, but they don’t often remain so. Soon enough, they either challenge or overwhelm their former bosses.
In addition to the multiplication of groups, the territorial breakdown has also shifted, with some gangs setting up shop far from their original locations. The Zetas, who have aggressively expanded west and south over the past several years, are emblematic of this phenomenon, but they are not alone. The Familia expanded from its Michoacan roots into Guanajuato, Mexico State, and even Veracruz, on the other side of the country. As a result of the fighting with their erstwhile Sinaloa allies, the Beltran Leyvas moved from their traditional turf in Mexico’s northwest to a handful of cities much further south.
This expansionism -- often encouraged by government pressure, particularly takedowns of capos -- creates conflict with pre-existing groups in a territory, and often leads to their displacement. The defeated group, in turn, shifts its resources elsewhere, often by moving into areas where it previously had a limited presence, and clashing with the gang already established in that region. As a result, the expansion and conflict is a self-perpetuating cycle, as the different gangs crash into each other like pool balls around a billiard table.
For Mexico, the violent collisions have grown more frequent even as the pool balls are getting smaller. Eventually, the pool table will settle and the smaller gangs should pose less of a threat to government institutions and civilian populations, but that day could yet be a long way off. In the meantime, the violent volatility of the past several years seems likely to continue well into the next presidential administration.