The army's capture of the head of the Gulf Cartel, Mario Ramirez Treviño, alias "X20," shows targeted efforts by the government are working in northeast Mexico but opens another dangerous power vacuum.
The Mexican government announced the capture via Twitter and then issued a brief statement saying the army had caught Ramirez August 17, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the embattled northeastern state along the US border.
In a press conference following the capture, Eduardo Sanchez, a spokesman for the federal government, said the operations occurred without firing a shot but said he expected more violence in the region.
"It's been a constant, and we've all seen it, that when there are important arrests, above all (arrests) of the heads the organized crime groups, there is fighting within the same organization, or with rival organizations who are trying to expand their operations to territories that are not theirs," he explained.
Sanchez linked the operation to capture X20 to an August 12 operation in which 24 members of X20's group were arrested in Guerrero, Tamaulipas.
X20, a former policeman and recovering drug addict, was the presumed head of the Gulf Cartel. He seemed poised to make a play for the entire northeast corridor, including Nuevo Laredo, which is controlled by his rivals the Zetas, following the July capture of Miguel Treviño, alias "Z40."
SEE ALSO: X20 Profile
Instead, Ramirez is following Z40's footsteps through a judicial process that will most likely land him in a maximum-security prison and possibly on the blocks for extradition to the United States where he is wanted for drug trafficking and had a $5 million bounty on his head.
InSight Crime Analysis
X20 was a hitman, more than a strategic thinker or businessman. His rise through the ranks illustrates what is currently valued in these organizations that have spent most of the last five years at war with themselves and rivals: military strength.
X20 managed to secure control of the Gulf Cartel only after he had eliminated his internal rival, Hector Salgado, alias "Metro 4," in January. And the Gulf appeared to be gaining ground on its chief rivals, the Zetas, especially in places like Monterrey.
But military power will only get you so far in the underworld. You also need political contacts and business acumen. Not surprisingly, the life span of this new round of more military-minded leaders has been months not years. X20 was at the top of the Gulf Cartel for less than year, following the capture of Eduardo Costilla, alias "El Coss" in September 2012; as was Z40, who held the reigns since October 2012, when the Zetas top boss, Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z3," was killed by marines.
Whoever follows in both of these leaders' footsteps will have a similar challenge to maintain their criminal organizations intact, while they fight with rivals, and try to keep the increasingly focused Mexican security forces at bay.
The Enrique Peña Nieto administration's slightly-altered security strategy appears to be paying dividends. Military officers have told InSight Crime that they are setting up less roadblocks but developing more precise operations of the type that have landed X20 and Z40 in jail.
The Peña Nieto administration also seems to be following through on its promise to focus on the most violent criminal groups. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas certainly fit that billing, and the northeast is going through what can only be described as a low intensity conflict as these groups continue to fracture and fight one another.
"The strategy is about coordination amongst the various federal entities, something that didn't exist in the previous administration," Sanchez said in the press conference. (See video of the press conference below)
The slow disintegration of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas opens the way for an outsider to take command of this area. The most obvious candidate is the Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel had allied itself with the remnants of the Gulf Cartel to fight against the Zetas. But there were reports that it had a rift with X20.
In the end, there are few underworld alliances that last these days. But there are also few organizations that maintain a powerful, vertically integrated network strong enough to push into, and maintain control, of the most coveted trafficking corridors. Even the Sinaloa Cartel is facing upstarts, from its home base of Sinaloa through Tijuana and Juarez.
This dynamic makes for numerous power vacuums, which helps explain why Peña Nieto has not been able to tame the violence.