HomeNewsAnalysisFragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico's Dominant Cartels

Fragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico's Dominant Cartels


Fragmentation has come to define Mexico’s criminal landscape as the days of monolithic drug cartel structures have ended, leaving behind smaller, more volatile criminal groups that have taken up other violent activities.

In recent years, Mexico's most dominant criminal organizations -- The Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and the Zetas -- have either splintered or been threatened by smaller groups that are diversifying their criminal portfolios and using extreme violence to try and gain control of key swaths of territory.

For example, the arrest and extradition of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” led to fracturing within the cartel and further exacerbated an increase in violence nationwide. The CJNG -- itself a splinter group of the Sinaloa Cartel that formed around 2010 -- is confronting a breakaway faction, the Nueva Plaza Cartel, on its home turf in Guadalajara. And the once feared Zetas are now a shadow of their former selves after fragmenting into several splinter cells.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

To some degree, criminal groups may be doomed to break up after they reach a certain size, evidenced by the downfall of the once-mighty and feared Zetas. The smaller groups that have emerged as a result, however, lack clear power structures and are harder to track.

A more fragmented criminal landscape is also more violent. Homicides in Mexico have been rising since 2014. Organized crime-related homicides reached a record high in 2017, and general violence hit unprecedented levels in 2018 as the number of homicides increased in 27 of the country’s 32 states, according to Animal Político.

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The increasingly fragmented nature of Mexico’s criminal landscape is likely to be one of the most pressing security challenges for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as emerging groups that lack organization delve into more violent criminal activities and become harder to follow.

“The lines of communication, interactions between group members and their relations with the state are all pointing in different directions,” Eduardo Moncada, a political science professor at Barnard College, told InSight Crime.

For years, authorities in Mexico and the United States have advanced the “kingpin strategy" of arresting or killing the country’s top criminal leaders. While this has removed the heads of these organizations, it's also created a more fragmented and violent criminal landscape.

“We've seen an evolution in cartel operations where they've seen a benefit to operating in a less hierarchical way,” said Brian Phillips, an associate professor at the University of Essex and an expert on organized crime. “More pressure [from authorities] has caused them to operate more under the radar with less clear command and control.”

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Evolving criminal dynamics and increased fragmentation in Mexico come with serious security challenges. While the large, hierarchical criminal groups of the past focused largely on drug trafficking, other crimes like extortion, kidnapping and oil theft are becoming highly lucrative for smaller groups that don’t necessarily have the resources to handle large-scale drug smuggling. Wanton violence may be bad for the drug business as it attracts unwanted attention, but small groups battling rivals have a strong incentive to use it.

To complicate matters further, alliances can shift quickly, posing further challenges to tracking and ultimately curtailing the strength of such groups.

“These organizations today are less stable, their structures don’t really give any incentive to members for long-term participation, it doesn’t give them any reason to remain loyal,” said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican studies.

If López Obrador doesn’t embrace a security strategy that breaks drastically from those of his predecessors, the splintering of criminal groups will continue and violence in Mexico will likely keep rising.

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