Splinters of once-powerful criminal cartels are causing havoc in the central state of Morelos, in an example of how much of Mexico’s violence is now driven by newly formed, local gangs who appear to act without a long-term survival strategy.

In the most recent wave of violence, at least five people were killed and another 15 wounded after attacks on several bars across the state on May 25 and 26. At several of the attack sites, authorities reported finding banners signed by one of Mexico’s newer criminal groups, Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), making threats against two rival gangs.

This latest massacre is a reminder that Morelos has not been spared by Mexico’s cartel wars, even though the territory has traditionally been treated by drug traffickers as a place to relax and do business in peace. The second smallest state in the country is a favored vacation spot for residents of the capital, thanks to its year-round warm climate. Nevertheless, the total number of homicides in the state almost doubled between 2009 and 2010, according to data kept by national statistics agency INEGI. The latter was the most violent year on record, with 487 homicides by INEGI’s count.

But it is not the amount of violence in Morelos that makes the state emblematic of Mexico’s current conflict. After all, its homicide statistics hardly compare to those of the country’s most violent states. More noteworthy are the identities of the criminal groups driving Morelos’ crime wave: they are fragments of once-mighty drug cartels that broke into competing factions after their leaders were killed or arrested. Morelos is a microcosm of what is happening across Mexico: as the underworld splinters, smaller groups have emerged to fight bitterly over the spoils, driving up violence rates in unexpected places.

Frequently, the origins of these younger gangs are murky. The Guerreros Unidos, which has been blamed for the most recent attacks in Morelos, is a good example. The group first appeared in December 2011, claiming responsibility for the killing of three men in state capital Cuernavaca. The group was initially rumoured to be a rebellious spin-off from the Familia Michoacana, a cartel that split into two major factions after its leader was killed in 2010. Officials have said Guerreros Unidos is an alliance of former members of the Zetas and the Familia, which would explain the name “United Warriors.”

Some of Guerrero Unidos’ public statements echo the Familia’s moralistic discourse, which would support the government’s account. A banner hung in Taxco, Guerrero, in early May claimed that the Guerrero Unidos were different from rival gangs who “dedicate themselves to kidnapping, extortion, charging taxes, and killing innocent people.” This type of rhetoric was frequently used by the Familia to distinguish themselves from their rivals the Zetas, whom they tried to depict as worse, more violent criminals. But the Guerreros Unidos have also stated that the Familia Michoacana is one of their main rivals, according to a banner left at one of their kill sites last weekend, local newspaper Diario de Morelos reported.

In several banners, the Guerreros Unidos has stated that its aim is to rid Guerrero and Morelos of another rival group, the Rojos, and it is likely that last weekend’s bar attacks were linked to this conflict. The Rojos are particularly representative of how Mexico’s once-hegemonic gangs have gone through several generations of leadership in just a few short, extremely bloody years. The Rojos originally acted as enforcers and kidnappers for crime lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, until their leader, Jesus Nava Romero, alias “El Rojo,” was killed alongside Arturo in a shootout with the Mexican Navy in December 2009.

Following Arturo’s death, the Rojos regrouped and may have drawn new recruits from a gang of assassins once known as the Pelones de Guerrero, previously based in Guerrero state and Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente region. While the heir to the Beltran Leyva Organization, Hector, tried to maintain control over the central Mexican region and renamed his organization the South Pacific Cartel (CPS), the Rojos and the Pelones sided with Hector’s rival, Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie,” former leader of the Pelones. After Villareal was jailed, the fusion between the Rojos and the Pelones settled in Cuernavaca and continued fighting their main challenger, the Familia Michoacana, for control of the Morelos plaza.

As Proceso points out, much of the current conflict between the Rojos, the Familia, and the Guerreros Unidos is over control of a drug trafficking corridor between Cuernavaca and Chilpancingo, Guerrero. This is a strategic route connecting Cuernavaca to Acapulco and the Pacific coast (see map, below).

It is telling that the Morelos plaza is being fought over at all. The region has a long history of housing drug traffickers, but the tradition is one of a peaceful occupation, with emphasis on bribing public officials and adhering to territorial agreements, rather than fighting viciously for outright control. In the early 1990s, Juarez Cartel leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes was able to operate comfortably in the state thanks to his links to the former governor and the judicial police. Later on, the Sinaloa Cartel purchased much of the same protection. Even elusive Sinaloa leader Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” lived more or less openly in Cuernavaca for a time, as Proceso details.

New generation groups like the Guerreros Unidos and the Rojos have broken with this tradition, engaging in open war in Morelos. This has drawn plenty of attention from the security forces and the federal government, which announced a $23 million security surge on May 9, intended to pacifiy the state. The former rulers of Morelos — the old-school traffickers like Esparragoza and the Beltran Leyvas — thought the strategically useful space was best treated as neutral territory, with criminal activity assuming a low profile to avoid attention. But given the current state of Mexico’s fragmenting underworld, splinter groups like the Guerreros Unidos have little choice but to fight fiercely for whatever slice of territory they can hold on to, even though doing so may threaten their chance of long-term survival.

View Chilpancingo, Guerrero in a larger map

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.