The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has been behind increasing violence in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato over the last year -- amid a bitter clash with the Jalisco Cartel. But a threat claimed to be by the group's leader against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador may have been one step too far, and could bring the full force of the authorities down on the group.
In late January, a “narcomanta," a threat from drug gangs written on a banner, was left near the Pemex refinery in Salamanca, Guanajuato. Seemingly signed by the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel's (CSRL) leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” it sent a warning to López Obrador: remove security forces from Guanajuato or “innocent people would die.”
Mexico’s attorney general immediately opened an investigation into the matter and said the CSRL was reacting to López Obrador’s plans to fight back against rampant oil theft in Mexico.
The day after the discovery, El Marro denied having written the threat and blamed rivals in the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) for setting him up.
SEE ALSO: Jalisco Cartel New Generation Profile
But this denial has not taken the pressure off him. Authorities are now looking back at El Marro’s history and identifying the group's leadership structure.
The CSRL is responsible for much of the oil theft in the state of Guanajuato, going so far as to blockade roads with burning vehicles to impede the military from reaching ducts where gas is being siphoned off.
The group is also seeking to expand its reach. The towns under its control are ideal launching pads into the states of Querétaro and Hidalgo, also prized by oil thieves. Any incursions, though, will likely draw more of the government’s attention.
InSight Crime Analysis
The CSRL appears to be one of the first groups to have emerged from the fragmentation of larger criminal organizations and cement itself as a proper player in Mexico’s criminal landscape.
The group, which had existed for some years but grabbed headlines in 2017, has been able to rapidly strengthen by focusing its activities on one criminal economy: oil theft. This has allowed it to concentrate on the so-called “oil theft triangle," an area surrounded by the towns of Apaseo El Grande, Salamanca, León, Irapuato and Celaya, as well as the smaller town of Santa Rosa de Lima, from which the group gets its name. Home to the Pemex refinery in Salamanca, many oil ducts are spread throughout this area.
The criminal organization's dominance in this region can be seen by the fact that El Marro has felt confident enough to stand up to the larger and more dangerous CJNG, which also has a strong presence in Guanajuato. The CJNG moved into Guanajuato in 2015 to steal oil for themselves, and that led to the small, fragmented, local groups coalescing and fighting back. This would eventually lead to the creation of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.
El Marro has engaged in oil theft for almost a decade, but he first gained notoriety in October 2017 after sending a warning to the CJNG. In a video, he curses them and tells them to keep out of Guanajuato just before hooded men surrounding him fire their weapons in the sky. Since then, the bloody war between the two groups has sent violence soaring in the state, making it one of the deadliest regions of Mexico in 2018.
SEE ALSO: Mexico's Lucrative Oil Theft Industry Fueling Increased Criminal Violence
Even amid the feud, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has proven surprisingly resilient, rapidly expanding its territory, which has allowed it to eye neighboring states. James Bosworth, founder of the Hxagon consulting group, wrote in his Latin America Risk Report on February 14 that the CSRL “has ambitions of becoming a multi-state criminal group rivaling some of the largest in the country.”
It is uncertain whether El Marro made the threat against López Obrador, or if it was a ploy by the CJNG. But either way, the future may be difficult for the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.
The group’s localized strength is also its weakness. Unlike the CJNG, it cannot count on established, diverse income streams, or move operations to another area when one power base is compromised. There have been reports of the CSRL's involvement in extortion rings and drug trafficking, but it has not solidified those rackets.
So seemingly dependent is the CSRL on oil theft that the threat attributed to El Marro specifically referred to the Salamanca Pemex installation as “his refinery."
The CSRL is not the only criminal group to threaten López Obrador of late. This increasing defiance can be seen as an attempt to bully the new president, who has claimed his security policy is not aimed at taking out the leaders of Mexico's criminal groups.
But as Bosworth concludes, the president “has not prioritized high-value target operations as part of his security strategy, but the specific personal threat may have pushed the new administration to make an exception in this case."