HomeNewsAnalysisFragmenting Criminal Gangs: Mexico Follows Colombia

Fragmenting Criminal Gangs: Mexico Follows Colombia


Mexico's security situation is looking increasingly like that of Colombia several years ago --  indicating that it might be possible to predict the future of Mexico's criminal groups based on what Colombia's underworld is like now. 

A new report by El Universal outlines how each of Mexico's largest criminal organizations has fractured in recent years, due to the capture or killing of high-profile leaders, as well as internal rivalries.

The report, based on information from Mexico's Attorney General's Office (PGR), states that there are nine cartels now operating in the country, and an additional 45 criminal cells that work for these larger organizations, carrying out activities ranging from gasoline theft to extortion to kidnapping. These numbers were previously obtained from the PGR last year by Mexican newspaper Excelsior

The report by El Universal includes a breakdown for how several of Mexico's major criminal groups -- the Tijuana Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) and the Gulf Cartel among them -- have been transformed by this fragmentation, and now operate more like networks of loosely affiliated cells rather than coherent organizations. 

Graphic below by El Universal shows the leaders of the nine cartels recognized by the Attorney General's Office, and the cartel areas of operation.


InSight Crime Analysis

With the splintering of its once hegemonic cartels and the emergence of smaller groups that contract themselves out for various criminal jobs, Mexico in 2015 does not look that dissimilar from Colombia circa 2008 to 2011. 

During that time, Colombia saw a plethora of criminal groups emerge after the demobilization of its right-wing paramilitary forces. The government called these groups BACRIM, from the Spanish acronym for "criminal bands." In 2009, Colombian security forces counted nine such groups in the country. There were other, higher counts released around this time -- for its 2011 report, Colombian think-tank Indepaz counted five major BACRIM and eight smaller groups. 

SEE ALSO:  Colombia News and Profiles

Now, Colombia's police only recognize three BACRIM, while the Ombudsman's Office says there are seven. At first glance, this might seem like a promising omen for Mexico -- just keep focusing on breaking up the fragments of the drug trafficking organizations, and soon the country will face a more manageable number of criminal groups. 

However, the reality is more complex. In Colombia, while once prominent BACRIM like the Paisas, the ERPAC, or the Rastrojos have lost significant strength or else either faded away entirely, there has also been a shift in how Colombia's criminal groups operate. Many BACRIM have now been absorbed by their more powerful rivals.

Take Colombia's most powerful criminal organization, the Urabeños. They are a criminal network, made up of multiple smaller groups or nodes, dedicated to a wide range of criminal activities, and while they may call themselves the "Urabeños," they have little connection to the group's central command. Those who make up this central command have the greatest military experience and the best connections when it comes to the transnational drug trade -- but what they don't have is direct control over these smaller, contractor groups who are renting out the Urabeños "franchise" name.

SEE ALSO:  The Victory of the Urabeños

What this "franchise" model means for Colombia is that the government really cannot measure its success against drug trafficking organizations by counting how many large-scale groups remain. The structure of the BACRIM -- and how they operate -- requires a more nuanced understanding. 

Mexico may yet follow down a similar path. Currently, Mexico's splinter groups are still ferociously fighting each other for territory. In the coming years, the country may see something like the "pax mafioso" that Colombia is currently witnessing. Granted, there are still plenty of different criminal "splinter" groups present in Colombia -- the difference is that many of them are falling in line with the Urabeños' franchise model, and they are not battling violently over territorial control. 

Some might say that the emergence of a splinter group like the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG, for its Spanish initials) speaks to a very different set of challenges facing Mexico. The CJNG, after all, was once a faction of the now-defunct Milenio Cartel. It is now brazenly challenging the state and prompting some concern that it is now the most dangerous group in the country. Ultimately, however, these concerns are unwarranted -- the CJNG's use of brutal violence will likely attract the same kind of attention that proved to be the Zetas' undoing.

Ultimately, while some of Mexico's splinter groups may flare up like the CJNG and strike out dramatically against the state, there is little future for them in pursuing such a strategy. Adherence to a franchise-like model like that seen in Colombia may yet prove to be far more sustainable.

Mexico has already lived through the same kind of criminal fragmentation previously seen in Colombia. Now it remains to be seen whether Mexico's multiple splinter groups will begin to collaborate with each other in different criminal franchises, with one particular drug trafficking organization at the center of it all -- and it is not too difficult to guess which one.  The Sinaloa Cartel has been very adept at avoiding confrontation with the security forces and avoiding the indiscriminate violence that is the hallmark of their Zetas rivals.

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