A little-known drug trafficking group in Mexico called "Las Moicas" has not only successfully defended its foothold in the US heroin market for years against Mexico's most powerful cartels, but recent reports suggest that it might be expanding.
In an interview with BBC Mundo published on March 15, a spokesperson for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that the Moicas had been expanding their territory in Mexico and that the little-known group had come into conflict with some of Mexico's biggest criminal organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG).
According to a July 2015 report from the DEA, eight major Mexican transnational criminal groups were known to be operating in the United States. Alongside prominent players like the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, appeared a trafficking organization called Las Moicas.
According to the report, the Moicas are based in the Mexican state of Michoacán and have ties to the Familia Michoacána, an organization largely displaced by its splinter group, the Knights Templar. Despite the decline of the Familia Michoacána after the death of its top leader in 2014, the Moicas group "remains a regional supplier in California and operate[s] on a smaller scale relative to other major Mexican" criminal organizations.
The Moicas' first reported run-in with the DEA dates back to 2009, when US authorities seized 50 kilograms of heroin and $250,000 in cash, in addition to arresting several of the 21 suspects from the group later charged in connection with the seizure.
The DEA's press release concerning the operation asserts that a total of 200 kilograms of heroin, with an estimated retail value of $17.5 million, were smuggled during the run. The group allegedly hid both drugs heading north and drug profits heading south "in elaborate vehicle engine compartments" that allowed them to cross the border undetected.
At the time, the Moicas operated solely in California, but the group has since reportedly expanded to Reno, Nevada, and it operates in some areas of California dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the DEA's 2015 report.
As of March 2016, VICE News reported, Mexican authorities had no record of Las Moicas.
InSight Crime Analysis
Mexico's criminal landscape has become increasingly fragmented as larger cartels continue to rely heavily on smaller groups for specialized criminal tasks and as the government continues to take down top leaders of major criminal organization. In an illustration of this dynamic, Mexican authorities stated that nine cartels -- not including the Moicas -- operated throughout the country as of July 2016, relying on a total of 37 criminal cells.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Within this context, it appears that the Moicas may have succeeded in quietly growing by maintaining a low profile, as suggested by the absence of official acknowledgement of the group by the Mexican government as well as the scant public information available about the organization. According to the DEA spokesperson contacted by BBC Mundo, the US anti-drug agency does not even know the composition of the Moicas' hierarchy.
It is possible that the Moicas have followed the blueprint of earlier Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as the Xalisco Boys who achieved a striking expansion across the United States in the 1990s by investing in the heroin market while maintaining a low profile.
And it is likely that the Moicas' rise and reported expansion has been fueled by the booming US demand for heroin. The US consumption market for this particularly addictive drug is believed to have tripled over the past decade, boosted by over-prescription of legal opioid drugs and even allegedly criminal activity by executives of some companies in the US pharmaceutical industry.