From the outside looking in, we often treat Mexican criminal groups like a sports league. We assign them to teams with virtual uniforms who battle against rivals and never switch sides as if we were watching the National Football League. But on the ground, these relationships are much more fluid, and they obey rules that are formed as much from economic necessity as enmity.
Take the fight in the city of Guadalajara, one that burst onto the scene this week with threatening public banners in jumbled, narco-scrawl and continued with coordinated blockades of major thoroughfares, arrests of alleged cartel leaders and fragmented grenades tossed at security forces.
The scramble really started when army soldiers surprised Ignacio Coronel, alias 'Nacho,' last July in a safe house. The army slayed him, opening up old wounds and providing room for new blood in the region.
Coronel, a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel, ran the 'plaza' in the area, dealing mostly in the manufacturing and export of methamphetamines to the United States. He had a long history in the region, including an alliance with a once-powerful group known as the Milenio Cartel, which is at the heart of this story.
The Milenio Cartel operated from the state of Michoacan just south of Jalisco, but was knocked from power in a bloody putsch by several dissatisfied lieutenants. These lieutenants included Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias 'El Mas Loco,' who, before he was killed last December in a shootout with security officials, formed the Familia Michoacana.
If you're keeping score, this would mean that the Familia Michoacana and the Milenio are rivals and they were, for a time. But this week, the Milenio Cartel re-emerged, announcing not just its intentions to take Jalisco from its rival, which appears to be a remnant of Coronel's network, but also its alliance with the Familia Michoacana.
If you're confused, you're not alone. But when I asked a foreign intelligence official about this, he told me it was just another example of the fluidity of the underworld, something we often understate when we talk about these groups.
"Business is business," he explained. "If there is a lucrative opportunity [created by the death of Nacho Coronel] and a common enemy [a Sinaloa Cartel spin-off, in this case], I'm betting the 'shady characters' will let bygones be bygones. After all, aren't Sinaloa Cartel and Gulf Cartel working together in some regions, even though they have been battling for half a generation?"
Indeed, in just the last few years, the Beltran Leyva Organization began working with their most-hated rivals, the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel teamed with their long-time enemies, the Gulf Cartel, and now the Familia has put its name alongside a narco-banner with the Milenio Cartel (which, incidentally, also calls itself 'the Resistance').
The lesson, says the Mexican official, is that, "You are always going to be behind the curve."
And so we are, in Jalisco and other places around Mexico and the region, trying to catch up as fast as we can, starting with our assumptions about who plays with whom.