A report by a Mexican judicial official illustrates that while the country’s drug conflict has become dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, the latter have established control in more territory. But this does not mean that they are now the more powerful of the two.

According to a recent presentation delivered at Mexico’s National Institute of Penal Science by Cuitláhuac Salinas, director of the Assistant Attorney General’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (SIEDO), the mighty Sinaloa Cartel has lost territory to the notoriously violent Zetas drug gang. While the former allegedly operated in 23 of Mexico’s 32 sub national entities (31 states and the federal district in Mexico City) four years ago, now it is only in 16. The Zetas, meanwhile, have established themselves in 17.

Salinas noted that several of these states are contested by these and other organizations, as a map accompanying his presentation (see below) illustrates. The map also shows the areas of primary influence of the four other most powerful Mexican cartels: the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization, and the most noteworthy successor group to the Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar. But what is striking about the map is how little of the country is in the hands of these groups. In comparison to the mighty empires of the Zetas and Sinaloans, none of them have any kind of hegemony in more than four states, most of which are far from the border with the United States.

It should be noted that the map does not account for control at the level of “plazas,” or primary drug smuggling corridors, several of which are still known to be operated by these smaller groups. Still, even in plazas which are not directly dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel or Zetas, the two likely coerce local groups into allowing them to move their product through at favorable rates and with relative ease. In fact, reported recent testimony from a captured Tijuana Cartel boss suggests that such an arrangement currently exists between his organization and the Sinaloa affiliates in Tijuana.

This apparent concentration of power into two main groups in Mexico is nothing new, and has been documented since at least as far back as October, when federal officials announced that the country’s criminal underworld is “dominated” by the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel.

What is new is the insinuation that the Zetas are more powerful than their main rival. Analysts have long considered the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by drug baron Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” to be the foremost drug trafficking organization in the country. Their apparent loss of ground to the Zetas calls this into question.

However, even assuming that Salinas’ report is a perfect representation of Mexico’s criminal landscape, the fact that the Zetas are present in more territory does not necessarily make them more influential. As InSight Crime has pointed out, the nature of criminal control varies from location to location. Just because a drug cartel maintains a physical presence in an area does not automatically mean that they exert authority over the local government.

What’s more, a widespread presence could even have a negative effect on a group’s overall influence. Although analysts like to speak of drug cartels as hierarchical, homogenous groups which battle for control like warring armies, they are in fact comprised of smaller bands that make decisions mostly in response to local incentives. They frequently become involved in small-scale feuds that have nothing to do with orders from the top, so having an especially large, bottom-heavy network of these bands could draw unnecessary attention, inviting a crackdown from law enforcement officials.

Indeed, this could be the exact position that the Zetas are in right now. The group has long been known to focus on establishing direct control over territory and the criminal activities committed within it. As Andrew Selee, director of the Washington, DC-based Mexico Institute told the Associated Press in October: “The Zetas have certainly gotten bigger since they split with the Gulf, but whether that will amount to a long-term ability to control and defend the territories where they have a presence is a little less clear. In reality, they’re much thinner, where Sinaloa is hierarchical and compact.”

This would appear to have given the Sinaloa Cartel an advantage. According to A 2010 special investigation by NPR’s All Things Considered, the number of Sinaloa members captured is disproportionately low in contrast to the number of those arrested from other criminal groups, although the government has denied this. Meanwhile, it has explicitly refocused its security strategy on the Zetas in recent months.

Considering this, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Sinaloans’ more streamlined organization and willingness to cut deals has allowed it to remain the more powerful player in Mexico. While the Zetas may hold more territory, the Sinaloa Cartel maintains connections at all levels of government, including sections of the federal police and military, and its influence does not seem to be going anywhere.

Mexico map