Months after the arrest of one of Mexico's most wanted criminals, violence continues to spiral out of control in the country's deadliest state, as the bloody fallout after decapitating a crime group plays out yet again.
The arrest of José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL), has been one of the few victories that the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been able to tout in its fight against organized crime.
When El Marro was arrested at the beginning of August, the violence in the central state of Guanajuato was at a peak and the CSRL was largely blamed for the surge in killings. The drug gang -- which also specialized in fuel thefts -- was battling it out with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), one of Mexico's most powerful groups.
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The rivalry between the groups contributed to Guanajuato becoming one of the country's most violent states. In 2019, Guanajuato tallied 4,494 homicides, the most of any state. At the end of July 2020, just before El Marro’s arrest, nearly 2,000 murders were recorded. Extortions, kidnappings and forced disappearances also plagued the state.
Less than a week after El Marro’s arrest on August 2nd, then-secretary of Citizen Security and Protection Alfonso Durazo announced that homicides in Guanajuato had dropped by “50 percent.” Nevertheless, several security analysts, including InSight Crime, warned that the “grace period” after El Marro’s arrest would not last and that the violence would continue without him -- and could even intensify.
Now, three months after his arrest, these warnings have become a reality.
The Immediate Consequences
First, the internal dynamics of the CSRL pointed to El Marro’s arrest leading to the splintering of the group and a fight for control of it.
Much of El Marro’s inner circle had already been captured prior to his arrest, so the group’s leadership was up for grabs. Seen as potential successors were his father, his brother, or a lieutenant. But none held the same command of the group as El Marro, according to El Universal.
In fact, Durazo, the former security secretary, said in an October 4 news conference that divisions within the CSRL had been detected shortly after El Marro's arrest, La Jornada reported
“[In Guanajuato], there are internal conflicts between the criminal organizations that are disputing the leadership void left with [El Marro] detained,” he said.
Several days later, authorities arrested Adán Ochoa, alias “El Azul,” who was said to have assumed control of several factions of the CSRL.
Second, the power vacuum left after El Marro's capture provided an opportunity for the CJNG to take more control of Guanajuato.
Over the last three months, several signs point to this happening. On September 3, media outlets reported that residents of the San Juan del Llanito community, one of the territories controlled by the CSRL, fled after receiving threats from the CJNG.
According to an October 28 report by Proceso Magazine, the CJNG was forcibly recruiting and training youth gunmen at a site in Comanja de Corona, a region between the boundaries of Jalisco and Guanajuato.
Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel leaders' loyalties are also now in flux, fanning violence. According to El Universal, a former CSRL lieutenant known as alias “El Yeyo” was arrested on November 3, after joining the CJNG in the wake of El Marro’s arrest. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that the Sinaloa Cartel might also be trying to enter the local drug market in Guanajuato, searching for alliances with what is left of the CSRL and other local gangs.
This explosive mix of warring groups and allegiances has left a trail of bloodshed in Guanajuato. At the end of October, the state still topped all others in homicides. During one of his morning press conferences at the beginning of the month, President López Obrador acknowledged that murders had not decreased in the state since El Marro’s capture.
The acts of violence have also been brutal. On October 18, authorities found an unmarked mass grave with the remains of at least 66 people in the municipality of Salvatierra. The remains of another 20 people were also recently found in the municipality of Cortázar.
Officials have not been spared in the violence. At the end of August, armed men kidnapped and killed a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office in Guanajuato. In October, a former mayoral candidate for Jerécuaro was murdered, his body dismembered and his limbs hung along a highway.
For the past three years, Guanajuato has also ranked as the deadliest state in Mexico for police. According to recent statistics from the organization Common Cause (Causa en Común), at least 77 officers have been killed in the state this year alone.
Local authorities have criticized the federal government for its lack of support in addressing organized crime. In 2018, municipal police from Irapuato warned that it would no longer be involved in fighting drug trafficking and oil theft due to the risks to its forces.
AM reported that the mayor of the municipality declared: “We are providing the dead.”
The Usual Pattern
What happened after El Marro’s arrest is not unusual for Mexico.
Traditionally, the strategy of arresting the kingpins of criminal groups leads to the atomization of these structures, and subsequently, to more violence, as it creates a power vacuum where splinter groups battle for control of criminal economies.
For example, when the ringleaders of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (OBL) were arrested between 2009 and 2014, new criminal cells emerged, including Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos, which now dispute territorial control in states like Morelos and Guerrero. The operations against La Familia Michoacana during the administrations of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto led to a violent and fractured criminal landscape. According to estimates by the International Crisis Group, there are currently some 40 criminal cells operating in Guerrero and at least 20 others in Michoacán.
Recent events in Guanajuato also demonstrate the pattern of Mexico's security forces attacking a criminal group's leadership but the government being unprepared for the reshuffling of power dynamics.
For several months, the CJNG had made inroads in Guanajuato. At the time of El Marro’s arrest, the CSRL was already weakened. In June, the journalist Óscar Balderas, an organized crime specialist, told InSight Crime that the CJNG had practically already won the battle for control of the state.
In such a circumstance, bloodshed was always predictable.