News outlets in Mexico are reporting contradictory stories about whether the Jalisco and Sinaloa Cartels are friends, enemies or something in between.
Some sources indicate the escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in July, for example, showed how the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) -- one of Mexico's up-and-coming criminal groups -- was involved in the operation that sprung the famous Sinaloa Cartel leader.
Other sources suggest Mexican authorities facilitated Chapo's escape so that the drug lord could establish order in the country's underworld in the face of the CJNG's growing strength.
Meanwhile other events, such as the discovery of a CJNG-operated narco-tunnel in Tijuana, a zone thought to be controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, point to a brewing conflict.
But the question is the same: are Mexico's two most powerful cartels collaborating or readying themselves for yet another battle in the country's bloody drug war?
Historical Ties Spare Eruption of Violence
In order to understand the links between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, and their relationship, it is useful to start in the western state of Jalisco, the CJNG headquarters and a major place of operations for the Sinaloa Cartel.
For years, Sinaloa leader Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel operated from this state where he had numerous allies, such as those in what was called the Milenio Cartel. Coronel was killed in 2010.
Following the death of Coronel, there was a period of realignment, which culminated in the CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” taking control. The emergence of Oseguera Cervantes was not peaceful. There were factions of the Sinaloa Cartel that did not approve of the new leadership, but this did not result in a large-scale conflict between the two groups.
Rivals also tried to fan the flames between the groups, without success. In 2012, for example, Ramiro Pozos, alias “El Molca,” the leader of a criminal organization known as La Resistencia, proclaimed in a video that there was a bloody war between Oseguera Cervantes and the Sinaloa Cartel. (See video below) But this simply did not happen. Even CJNG members who were detained at the time suggested that banners announcing a confrontation between them and the Sinaloa Cartel were acts of propaganda carried out by their rivals.
One factor that could have helped were the historical ties that existed between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG. There had never been a complete merger nor a total rupture between these criminal organizations. Instead, they both took advantage of what they could in the zones in which the two groups were present, and divided their operations based on their respective links to each area.
This is evidenced in the operational styles of both groups: the Sinaloa Cartel maintains a business profile and tends to give autonomy to local groups; while the CJNG is comfortable in their areas of influence (the Nayarit - Guerrero corridor along the Pacific Coast) and has successfully adapted to Mexico's “drug war” by acting as vigilantes in some places and developing a sophisticated public outreach program to foster this image.
This gave rise to a dynamic different than the zero-sum game scenario seen in the ruptures of other criminal organizations, such as the Zetas and their former allies, the Gulf Cartel. Groups such as the Zetas are obligated to search for income (and enemies) through high-impact crimes other than drug trafficking. In contrast, the CJNG has shown -- beyond its evident capacity to use violence -- a natural ability to generate revenue via the illicit drug trade in their areas of influence.
Moreover, in Jalisco and the neighboring state of Michoacan -- in addition to those that form a natural drug corridor for the CJNG in the Pacific -- the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel appear to have drawn a line between their respective areas of operation and know where it would be rash to show unnecessary strength. Meanwhile, El Chapo is thought to primarily operate in northern Mexico.
Nonetheless, it is possible a confrontation could break out between these groups in other parts of Mexico. Tijuana appears to be one potential battleground. In that northern border city, some members of a criminal cell associated with the Tijuana Cartel have decided to make known their links to the CJNG. This could be due to several reasons, the principal one being that El Mencho's organization, despite a few setbacks, is a brand on the rise, synonymous with success and swift action against their enemies.
But it could also be a warning directed at the dominant Sinaloa group. This itself would be a clear bet on confrontation, which can lead to overt manifestations of violence. However, in this case, it would be more a revival of the old conflict between remnants of the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels, and not an attempt by the CJNG to gain space in an area where they have typically maintained a low profile.
That is why, even in volatile environments such as Tijuana, it is preferable, for now, to use terms of cooperation to explain links between the CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel -- a relationship strengthened by the continuation of connections that successors of "Nacho" Coronel have in this strategic city of Baja California.
This is also exemplified by cases such as that of Alfonso Lira, alias "El Atlante," one of the operators in this region with strong links to Jalisco, who was arrested last year. The drug trafficker, in his flight from Tijuana, was protected in Sinaloa by Damaso Lopez, alias "El Licenciado," one of the Sinaloa Cartel leaders closest to El Chapo.
This would suggest that the CJNG and Sinaloa organizations have more common interests than differences. In that sense, it is understandable why the official investigation into El Chapo’s escape looked into the possible collaboration of both organizations. Chapo was married to Coronel's niece, and the importance of the Coronel clan for Guzman, as well as Tijuana, would explain some of these contact points.
In the absence of more data, other evidence would point to collaboration in the joint payment to lawyers defending clients allegedly involed in Chapo's escape. If this is confirmed, we would come upon a relatively unknown problem in Mexico’s criminal scene: How the legal and financial support structures that transcend criminal groups, and form apparently legal and necessary networks for every criminal organization, function. These structures serve as neutral points for different, or even opposing, groups.
Recently, both the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG have confronted challenges. The federal government has been on the cusp of recapturing El Chapo, and the pressure on him can inhibit the actions of the organization he commands.
For its part, El Mencho's group is also in trouble. Since the CJNG challenged the government directly, what's known as Operation Jalisco has continued, leading to a massive presence of security forces in the region. In addition, the replacement of the controversial Jalisco attorney general, which controls state security forces -- or the turn against the traditional political parties in Jalisco’s last municipal elections -- has resulted in important challenges to the CJNG’s interests at a very basic level.
These circumstances, together with the links described between the two criminal organizations, makes it more likely there will be a forging of new partnerships and the strengthening of existing ones, rather than escalating violence between them.