When Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012, he put together a list of 122 alleged criminals whose arrests would be “high-priority” in the country’s fight against organized crime.
Now, with just a few months left in his presidency, most of the high-priority suspects have either been apprehended or killed, but few have been convicted, and Mexico’s violence continues unabated.
Peña Nieto presented his final annual government report on September 2, highlighting that the Mexican government succeeded in “neutralizing” 110 of the suspects on his administration’s list since his term began in December 2012. They included 96 arrests and 14 deaths during confrontations with public security forces.
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The list of 122 “priority targets” was one of the most important features that Peña Nieto’s security plan hinged on. And it was never made public during his six years in office. The identity of each person on the list was only revealed when each individual was either arrested or killed.
But after Spanish newspaper El País made a formal request for information, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República -- PGR) was forced to reveal details about the legal status of the people who had been apprehended, including whether they were still in prison.
El País was told of 109 suspects who were either arrested or killed, but Peña Nieto’s report included an additional arrest from February 8, bringing the total to 110.
At the time, the PGR stated that only four of the individuals who were arrested had been tried and convicted, and none of them held leadership positions within their respective criminal groups.
InSight Crime has since found reports of another five priority targets who were allegedly sentenced within months of the publication of the PGR report.
Based partly on reports from El País and Milenio, InSight Crime analyzed the most notable arrests from Peña Nieto’s list.
During Felipe Calderón’s presidency (2006 – 2012), the Zetas became one of the government’s primary targets due in part to the intensity of its violence against security forces and civilians.
That pressure did not let up under Peña Nieto. The cartel was the hardest hit on his priority target list, with 28 arrests and five deaths.
SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile
Of the Zetas members arrested, two of the most important are brothers Miguel Ángel Treviño and Alejandro Omar Treviño. Miguel Ángel, alias “Z40,” was at one time the top commander of the Zetas. The Mexican marines detained him in 2013, but five years later he is still awaiting trial in jail.
The fall of these and other key players, coupled with the Zetas’ chaotic expansion, has contributed to its current state as a decentralized and fragmented group that has lost significant territory to its rivals.
The most recent Zeta boss to be arrested was José María Guizar, alias “Z43,” whom the Mexican marines apprehended on February 8.
With 21 arrests and three members dead, the Sinaloa Cartel was hit the second hardest. Among the individuals that authorities have either arrested or killed are cartel leaders, financial operators and high-ranking hitmen.
The most celebrated -- and controversial -- arrest by the government was that of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s top leaders. He was extradited to the United States and has a November trial set. But getting to that point was not without its setbacks.
El Chapo was the Western Hemisphere’s most wanted criminal when authorities first arrested him in February 2014. But almost a year and a half into his incarceration, he escaped from a maximum-security prison in one of the most embarrassing events in Peña Nieto’s presidency. Both national and international authorities conducted a massive manhunt until he was recaptured in Sinaloa six months later in January 2016.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
Another high-ranking cartel boss to fall was Dámaso López Núñez, alias “El Licenciado.” The United States identified him as a major player in international drug trafficking, and it is believed he inherited El Chapo’s leadership role when he was arrested. However, El Licenciado’s stint at the top was short-lived, as he was detained in May 2017 and extradited to the United States in July 2018.
Despite these high-profile arrests, the Sinaloa Cartel continues to be the most important Mexican criminal organization on the world stage, albeit with a lower profile. Several of the group’s long-time drug trafficking leaders, such as Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” are still in business, and those who have been arrested often pass their positions of power on to relatives.
Other Fallen Bosses
While the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel may be Mexico’s biggest fish, they are certainly not the only ones. The 96 arrests and 14 deaths on Peña Nieto’s list also featured other key figures in the country’s underworld.
The Juárez Cartel’s Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Viceroy,” was aprehended in 2014. His brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” co-founded the group, and El Viceroy had taken over after his death in 1997.
In Michoacán, the leadership structure of the Knights Templar (Cabelleros Templarios) was all but dismantled after the deaths of Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” and Enrique “Kike” Plancarte in 2014, as well as the arrest of Servando Gómez, alias “La Tuta” in 2015.
Mario Ramírez Treviño, alias “X20,” took over as head of the Gulf Cartel after other leaders were either arrested or killed under the Calderón administration. The Mexican army arrested him in 2013, and he was extradited to the United States in 2017.
Fernando Sánchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” is the cousin of the Arellano Félix brothers, who founded the Tijuana Cartel. He ran the group for roughly three years before his arrest in 2013.
In 2014 the Peña Nieto administration celebrated the arrest of the last Beltrán Leyva brother -- Héctor, alias “El H” -- who led the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO). He was set to be extradited to the United States, but in 2017 a Mexican judge issued an injunction when El H appealed his extradition.
Glass Half Full?
At first glance, the Peña Nieto administration met the goals it set upon taking office in 2012. However, there are at least two issues that show the outlook is not as bright as it seems.
Among the 12 cartel bosses, the outgoing government failed to apprehend the Sinaloa Cartel’s El Mayo; the BLO’s Fausto Isidro Meza, alias “Chapo Isidro;” and Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” who currently leads the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
The CJNG’s aggressive and unbridled growth has significantly altered Mexico’s cartel dynamics. Pair that with the Peña Nieto administration’s arrest of only three of its members, according to El País and Milenio, and you have the perfect recipe for one of the biggest challenges President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador -- known widely as AMLO -- will have to face once he takes office in December.
AMLO may also do well to recognize that simply decapitating criminal organizations is not enough to combat Mexico’s criminal violence. He is inheriting a historically high national murder rate from Peña Nieto that partly stems from the many power vacuums his high-profile arrests left behind, such as in the states of Baja California, Michoacán, Guerrero and Veracruz.