Mexico’s gangland violence is licking once again at the crowded and chaotic edges of the nation’s capital, claiming more than two score lives since January 14 and illustrating again how chopping off the head of an organization can lead to turmoil below.

Officials blame a war between the Familia Michoacana and an alliance formed by two breakaway groups: the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, and a recently formed gang called the Guerreros Unidos. Smaller cells of the Zetas may also be in the mix, according to police in Mexico state, which encloses Mexico City like a cupped hand.

At least 46 people have been killed gangland style in a week, including 16 killed last Monday in and around Toluca, Mexico state’s capital and another 14 murdered in the sprawling working class bedroom communities on Mexico City’s eastern flanks. 

Authorities tie the current slaughter to a feud between Jose Maria Chavez-Magaña, the purported boss of the Familia Michoacana in Mexico state, and several of his former lieutenants, who split with him over money issues last spring and who have since allied with the Knights Templar and Guerreros Unidos.

According to the newspaper Reforma’s version of events, Guerreros Unidos was founded by Mario Covarrubias Salgado, nicknameed “El M” o “El Gordo” (the Fat Man), a former underling of the Beltran Leyva crime family. He had briefly joined the Familia Michoacana after Mexican marines killed clan boss Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009, but quickly left to start his own group. Banners signed by the Familia have accused Mexican state police officials of allying with Guerreros Unidos.

InSight Crime Analysis

Renewed violence in Mexico state again throws into question the effectiveness of the US-supported kingpin strategy of former President Felipe Calderon, which focused on taking down the country’s 37 most important gangsters in order to disrupt their trafficking networks and splinter their gangs into less threatening sizes. Critics, including Mexico’s new attorney general, Jesus Murrillo-Karam, say the strategy spawns even more violence as former gang lords’ underlings turn on one another to inherit the the criminal empires.

That appears to be what’s happening now in the state of Mexico.

Federal officials had assured Mexicans that Familia Michoacana — whose brutal falling out with the Zetas in 2006 initiated the hyper-violence still racking the country — was finished following the reported December 2010 killing by security forces of of Nazario Moreno, nicknamed “the Craziest One.” Moreno had instilled the Familia Michoacana with a quasi-religious ethic along with its criminal livelihood.

Soon after Moreno’s disappearance, his Familia underbosses split into antagonistic factions, several creating the Knights Templar and going to war with the remnants of Familia and other gangs in west-central Mexico. Moreno’s death has always been questioned — his body was never recovered following the shootout in which he was reported killed. And press reports last fall claimed that new evidence seized by security forces suggest he’s still alive and perhaps directing the Knights Templar. Sources also tell InSight Crime the crime boss has called local business leaders to meetings to discuss regular extortion payments.

Whether he’s dead or alive, Moreno’s exit from active control of the Familia broke up what was once a cohesive — if brutal and politically threatening — gang into viciously warring fragments. Those slivers now are fighting for control of retail drug sales and wholesale trafficking routes in the states of Mexico, Guerrero and Michoacan.

The gangs likely have been joined by some former members of the Beltran Leyva Organization, which splintered following Arturo’s death by Mexican naval special forces troops. Led by Arturo’s brother Hector, the Beltran Leyvas are still active but their influence has waned in Mexico state and Mexico City’s suburbs since the August 2010 arrest of Arturo’s lieutenant, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as La Barbie.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who served as Mexico state’s governor during the Familia’s rise to power there, has vowed to focus more on reducing violence than attacking drug trafficking or kingpins. Some analysts have suggested that strategy must entail negotiating peace with at least some of the gangs.

Even if Peña were open to such talks, the kaleidoscoped reality of Mexico’s underworld today — evidenced by Mexico state’s ongoing bloodshed — makes them difficult to achieve at best.

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