The emergence of an aggressive new gang in Juarez has sparked a wave of attacks on local police, demonstrating just how difficult it is to engineer a lasting security improvement in Mexico's most violent city.
The New Juarez Cartel, or NCJ for its initials in Spanish, earned headlines last week for a series of messages promising to kill local police unless chief Julian Leyzaola resigned. The group has been linked to the killings of at least eight officers this year. In response to the threats, Mayor Hector Murguia announced that local police will be allowed to carry their weapons even when off duty, and have been encouraged to start living out of hotels.
While the gang doesn’t have a long track record of operating in Juarez, this is not the first appearance of the NCJ. Gustavo de la Rosa, the human rights ombudsman in the state of Chihuahua (where Juarez is located), first mentioned the surge of a new group in February 2011, which authorities later identified as the NCJ. Messages attributed to the group began to pop up in September, at which point the Federal Police confirmed the existence of the new group.
Much of the NCJ’s correspondence has focused on the supposed bias of Mexican government agencies toward the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo.” A video posted to the Internet in October shows a handful of armed, ski-masked NCJ members interrogating a local prison guard about his colleagues’ links to Guzman’s organization. The guard, who said that some of his colleagues are ex-soldiers imported from other regions of the country who also operate as hitmen, was later found murdered.
Authorities have said that the NCJ is little more than the recomposition of the diminished Juarez Cartel and its network of allied gangs, principally La Linea and the Aztecas. Both groups originally had security and assassin duties for the Juarez Cartel, which has faded from view along with its longtime leader, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. La Linea's core is allegedly composed of ex-police; Los Aztecas are a Mexican-US gang with roots in the US prison system.
One recent report from El Diario de Juarez quotes authorities identifying the group’s boss as Juan Morales Gonzalez, an alleged member of the Los Aztecas, which also has a presence in El Paso. The 51-year-old Morales subsequently denied the report in an interview, saying he has no idea how his name became implicated and that he has never been involved in gangs. Previous reports linked the NCJ to Cesar Carrillo Leyva, a relative of Carrillo Fuentes, the longtime leader of the Juarez Cartel.
As InSight Crime has reported, the strength of this set of organizations has declined markedly in recent months, leading to increased influence in Juarez for Guzman. The decline of La Linea has also been a fundamental factor in the improvement of security in Juarez, where the number of murders linked to organized crime declined by roughly 50 percent in 2011 from the previous year.
Such a reorganization of fading older groups into new networks is common in Mexico, and has often led to the further spread of violence. After the death and arrest of all but one of its foremost leaders, the formerly vaunted Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), for instance, disintegrated into the South Pacific Cartel, the Mano con Ojos, and various other largely regional gangs sprinkled around the country. While these groups have nowhere near the influence that the original group did, they have sparked fighting in Mexico State, Guerrero, Morelos, and other Mexican states.
In other cases, the impact of this reorganization is not so severe. In Michoacan, for example, the rebranding of the Familia Michoacana as the Caballeros Templarios has sparked a comparatively mild increase in violence. Overall, however, the constant process of destruction and regeneration has been a force for greater levels of bloodshed spread across a larger expanse of the nation.
The impact in Juarez depends a great deal on whether the NCJ can reconstitute a force capable of standing up to Guzman’s troops for any length of time. The disappearance of Vicente Carrillo as a genuine rival suggests that the decline of the local groups has much to do with diminished leadership. Under a new banner and led by a new cohort, it’s not implausible that the locals would be able to better defend their city from Guzman’s imported gunmen.
Thus far, however, the NCJ doesn’t seem to pose a credible threat of reopening the fight for control of Juarez. While the appearance of a new group and the attacks on police may be alarming, the number of reported killings in January, roughly 120 across the city, does not represent a sharp increase from the pattern over the past several months.