Two factions associated with the Sinaloa Cartel have turned their guns on each other in Durango, raising questions about the cohesiveness of Mexico's largest criminal organization, and whether the divide goes all the way to the top.
In a "narcomanta," or banner, displayed in Durango in mid-March, Los·M and Gente Nueva, which are respectively linked with Sinaloa bosses Ismael Zambada Garcia and Joaquin Guzman Loera, accused traffickers Felipe Cabrera and Noel Salgeiro of "heating up the plaza" of Durango, the state's capital city. The expression typically refers to an attempt by a gang to take over a town under rival control, through targeting competitors, attacks on government facilities, riots in local jails, and other violent tactics. The mantas gave the groups associated with Cabrera and Salgeiro 24 hours to leave the area.
That was followed by a pair of videos uploaded online in March, showing men dressed in military garb interrogating hit men allegedly working for Salgeiro. In one of the videos, two triggermen said that they had been in Durango just a month, after being sent with orders to heat up the plaza.
The dispute seems to indicate an internal split within Gente Nueva. Salgeiro and Cabrera are leaders of Gente Nueva, though their base of operations has typically been Parral, Chihuahua, a state that neighbors Durango. Yet Gente Nueva was alongside Los M at the bottom of the narcomanta, indicating some ownership of the message. Under this theory, Cabrera and Salgeiro represent a minority wing of Gente Nueva that has lost support among of the higher-ups in Sinaloa.
Gente Nueva started as a band of gunmen working for Guzman, alias "El Chapo," and has since earned notoriety for its role in the ongoing violence in Juarez. Guzman's gang has been pitted against the La Linea in Juarez, which occupies a similar role for the Juarez Cartel of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, in addition to other local groups. Violence in Juarez has left more than 600 people dead so far this year, after 2010 in which more than 3,000 people were murdered.
The strife within Gente Nueva has also led to speculation about the relationship between Zambada and Chapo Guzman. The two men are, along with Juan Jose Esparragoza, alias "El Azul," the pillars of the Sinaloa Cartel. No credible reports of bad blood between them have emerged. But in the drug trade, of course, friendship is often temporary, and virtually always comes second to business. With billions of dollars at stake, a rupture between the two is far from impossible.
While the Sinaloa Cartel is often portrayed as the most stable of the major organizations in Mexico, it has not been exempt from internal strife. In 2008, bad blood between Guzman and erstwhile ally and fellow Badiraguato, Sinaloa native Arturo Beltran Leyva, led to a major split in the gang, and a reordering of the nation’s drug trade, as each party sought new alliances. The fallout killed Guzman's son in 2008. Beltran Leyva ultimately shifted his operations south to Cuernavaca, where he was killed by Mexican marines in 2009.
Durango is attractive both as a pathway and as a producer state. Along with Chihuahua and Sinaloa, it forms part of the largely lawless Golden Triangle, a mountainous region notorious for poppy and marijuana cultivation. Durango is also an easy drive from Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, two of the largest border crossings, which makes it strategically advantageous for anyone seeking to send drugs into the U.S.
Because of its appeal to organized crime, Durango is commonly counted among the most violence-ridden states in Mexico. The state was in the news last week when a mass grave containing 37 bodies was discovered near the state capital.
Rumors that Chapo is living in Durango have been circulating for years. Most famously, in 2009, the state's archbishop accused authorities of ignoring his existence on a ranch in the area. More recently, the DEA told press in mid-April that Guzman was in Durango.