The capture of the leader of an emerging gang in Guadalajara sparked days of chaos, suggesting the CJNG still has the strength to strike back, but the arrest could mark a changeover of criminal power in Mexico's second largest city.
Following a shootout on Friday, Mexican Army troops arrested Erick "El 85" Valencia Salazar, the alleged leader of the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG), in Zapopan, a wealthy suburb of Guadalajara. Two other men, one of whom the army identified as Valencia’s chief lieutenant, were also detained in the operation. Authorities seized dozens of firearms, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, and 69,000 rounds of ammunition.
In response to the arrest, CJNG members apparently launched a campaign of chaos in Jalisco. According to state officials, 25 vehicles were set on fire and used to block roadways in the hours after the Friday afternoon capture. At least three people were reportedly murdered, though it is not clear how many of those killings were related to Valencia’s arrest.
The CJNG has emerged over the past couple of years as the heir to the network run by Ignacio Coronel, a Sinaloa Cartel capo killed in a shootout with government troops in July 2010. The group operates principally in Pacific coast states like Colima, Michoacan, and Jalisco, but it has also popped up in Veracruz, with a CJNG cell calling itself the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers).
The group’s operations have coincided with some of the most significant accelerations of violence in recent years. Jalisco, where Guadalajara is located, saw murders spike to 1,222 last year, according to Mexican government statistics, up from 888 in 2010 and 570 in 2009. In Veracruz state, the group was blamed for dumping the bodies of scores of murdered Zetas in Boca del Rio and Veracruz city, and was largely responsible for a massive increase in murders linked to organized crime in those two cities. According to analyst Eduardo Guerrero, the number of such killings leaped from nine in 2010 to 185 in 2011 in Veracruz, and from two to 129 in Boca del Rio.
Because of its efforts to extinguish the Zetas, including the release of a threatening video last year with a pseudo-military tinge, the gang has also been interpreted as a symptom of rising paramilitarism. However, the government has been quick to assert that Valencia’s group is a drug trafficking network, and nothing more.
The CGNJ has often been described as a local branch of the Sinaloa Cartel, though it appears to operate with a significant amount of autonomy. While the gang is best known for its fights with the Zetas, it has long battled another local gang, the Resistencia, for supremacy in Jalisco and the surrounding region. Other gangs, such as the Milenio Cartel and the Familia Michoacana, have also been reported as operating in Jalisco, often in tandem with the principal local gangs.
As noted by InSight Crime earlier this year, the CJNG’s rapid rise to prominence and the chaotic web of alliances in Jalisco reflects a broader trend in Mexico. Whereas for most of the nation’s recent history a small number of hegemonic groups have between them controlled organized crime in the region, the last five years have seen the rise of a welter of smaller regional gangs. These groups gain power and lose it with greater frequency than the larger networks, lending Mexico’s criminal landscape a greater degree of instability and a more intense cycle of creative destruction, which is itself a major factor in the recent spike in violence.
It’s not clear whether Valencia’s arrest will ultimately spell the end of the group, but the chaos that erupted in response to his detention suggests that this is an organization whose power does not rest on a single leader alone. However, arrests of high-profile members pose a particular threat to newer, less established groups with a smaller command structure; consistent government pressure has caused gangs like the South Pacific Cartel and the Mano con Ojos to all but disappear in a matter of months. Furthermore, given the level of competition in the regions where the CJNG operates, even a slight weakening will open the door for the group’s adversaries.
The fierce reaction also demonstrates the precarious line the government must walk between arresting capos on one side, and protecting public security on the other. While Mexican gangs have not tended to carry out terrorist-style attacks on civilians in response to kingpins’ arrests, it has become more common to use blockades to provoke chaos after blows by the security forces, and attacks on government officials often spike as well. The Familia Michoacana, for instance, responded similarly following the December 2010 death of its leader, Nazario Moreno. If this practice continues to expand, the nuisance and outright danger that a major arrests poses to the general population will grow along with it.
This risk of greater violence only rises in the weeks and months that follow a major arrest. As many analysts, including InSight Crime, have pointed out, the arrests or killings of big capos often cause a spike in bloodshed, as erstwhile lieutenants and adversaries battle over his empire. The news that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was recently almost nabbed in Los Cabos by the Federal Police has fueled speculation that his arrest is imminent, and sparked worries that this could gravely complicate Mexico’s attempts to consolidate recent security improvements.
That’s not to suggest that the government errs by targeting capos. Ultimately, a safer, more modern Mexico is impossible while figures like Guzman are on the loose. But the transition to a nation without Guzmans, where public security is stable enough that the arrest of a capo barely registers among the population at large, will be slow and painful.