Allies of the Sinaloa Cartel are in the process of clearing out rivals in a key region in northern Mexico, setting the stage for further gains for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s organization as their weakened rivals the Zetas lose ground.

In Durango state, the Sinaloa Cartel-linked group known as Los Cabrera has taken control of Gomez Palacio and Lerdo — two bordering cities in the metropolitan area known as La Laguna –, according to reports in Proceso. The group also has made inroads into the third of La Lagunas’s cities, Torreon, which borders Gomez Palacio on the other side of the state line with Coahuila.

The advances of Los Cabrera come at the expense of Los Dannys, a local group, also known as the Cartel of the West, that has dominated Gomez Palacio and Lerdo, and the Zetas, who had controlled Torreon for most of the past five years. Los Dannys, an extremely violent group suspected of multiple attacks against local media, have suffered a string of arrests in recent months, including of their foremost leader, which has left them vulnerable to the incursion of Los Cabrera.

The Zetas, meanwhile, already beset by years of infighting, arrests, and attrition in their battles with rivals, had reduced their presence in Torreon even before last month’s arrest of Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z40,” opening another door for the Sinaloa Cartel’s local agents.

InSight Crime Analysis

Gomez Palacio, Torreon, and Lerdo collectively make up one of Mexico’s ten largest metropolises — La Laguna. The area is an important transit hub, with major border crossings in Juarez, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo between five and nine hours away.

For several years, La Laguna has marked a dividing line in the nation’s most enduring conflict, with the Zetas controlling Torreon along with the rest of Coahuila, and the Sinaloa Cartel wielding more influence across the border in Durango. As a consequence, the region, which was unusually calm for a northern city five years ago, has grown into one of Mexico’s most chaotic. According to the local non-governmental organization Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Publica y la Justicia Penal, in 2012 Lerdo, Torreon, and Gomez Palacio were the second, fifth, and twenty-fifth most violent cities in Mexico, respectively. [Read the full report here pdf]

A change of hands in control of the local underworld often spells a wave of violence, but in the case of La Laguna, the opposite may be true. The retreat of the Zetas removes a long-term driver of violence, and it may allow Los Cabrera to consolidate their control over the whole area.

Furthermore, both the Zetas and Los Dannys had a reputation for provocative acts of violence, while a government official cited by Proceso described Los Cabrera as operating with a lower profile. The ascension of a less aggressive gang could mean a return to the calm for which La Laguna was previously known, though such a result depends on Los Cabrera maintaining control of the territory and their network of alliances.

The Zetas’ reduced role in Torreon could also prove a harbinger for the gang’s future, as the Zetas’ two foremost leaders have been removed from the scene in the past year (previous boss Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z3,” was killed in a shootout with Mexican Marines in October). Following Treviño’s arrest, the group posted messages around the country saying that a succession plan had been implemented and that the group was in good hands. It is difficult to know if that claim is true, but surrendering a strategically important city that it had held amid a rising tide of violence for five years is an uncharacteristic step backwards from a persistently aggressive gang.

La Laguna also demonstrates the degree to which local groups, and not just famous gangsters like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, play a major role in Mexico’s criminal underworld. Though largely unheard of, Los Dannys were the authors of several notorious incidents, and they proved capable of warding off any attempts by the Zetas to move into Gomez Palacio. When they faded, local dominance passed into the hands of another local gang, Los Cabrera. In other words, two of the most important recent protagonists in one of the most violent cities in Mexico are virtually unknown to the wider public.

The domination of such smaller groups is often an indicator of instability in a given region, from Acapulco to Juarez. Furthermore, while Los Cabrera currently serve as local representatives of the Sinaloa Cartel, that does not mean that they will remain on good terms indefinitely. The Sinaloa Cartel’s recent history is littered with examples of allies and affiliates breaking away. Such was the case with the Beltran Leyva Organization, and with Gente Nueva, among many others. Should history repeat itself in La Laguna, any promise of a peace dividend may be short-lived.

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