Cocaine, synthetic drugs, weapons, migrants, gasoline - this range of criminal economies has seen violence escalate in Mexico's northern state of Tamaulipas.
Following a peak of gang violence in the border city of Matamoros, the United States issued a travel advisory in late October, recommending none of its citizens travel to the state. Staff at the US consulate in Matamoros are under curfew.
The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, the two criminal groups, most associated with the state, have dissolved into a patchwork of local criminal groups, with frequently shifting alliances and enmities, that have only worsened the violence.
InSight Crime sat down with Marisol Ochoa, a researcher and expert on criminal dynamics from Mexico's Ibero-American University, to understand how the situation deteriorated.
InSight Crime (IC): In Tamaulipas, the Gulf Cartel survived the fragmentation of other major cartels, such as the Zetas, but its divisions seem to be accelerating. What factors have led to splits within the Gulf Cartel?
Marisol Ochoa (MO): The reorganization of criminal groups in Tamaulipas is due to a mixture of internal and external factors. In the case of the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo - CDG), changes in leadership and new operational strategies needed to face enemies inside and outside of Tamaulipas led to the need to create subgroups. These smaller groups helped to secure the CDG's territorial control, especially in the north of Tamaulipas along strategic crossings to the United States.
This process is part of a decentralization trend among criminal groups in Mexico, where control of strategic hotspots, at the state or municipal level, is given to local elements to ensure proactive management and logistics.
Since the fragmentation of large criminal groups that began in 2010, we have seen that this type of "criminal outsourcing" is not necessarily a symptom of weakness but a way for groups to maximize their local income and benefits.
IC: With reports of factions such as the Metros, Rojos, Scorpions and Cyclones often fighting each other, does it make sense to still refer to a united CDG or has it ceased to exist as an organized unit?
MO: Federal and state authorities like to continue using long-term names. They continue to use the same labels to identify criminal groups in the same territories. It also helps to maintain a sense of continuity when acting against threats, whether at the state, regional or municipal level.
This type of classification also allows authorities to depict characters with "aliases" and categorize them based on their criminal history and threat levels.
Criminal groups also know that well-established names are helpful to get attention on social media and in public spaces. It helps them be respected and sell a brand that they can use to ensure their territorial control, recruit new members, or help local populations.
IC: Does this level of fragmentation make it difficult to recruit new members? Do splinter groups with a solid local identity (the Rojos in Tampico, the Scorpions in Matamoros) like to recruit local people to manage operations?
MO: Generally, recruitment happens at the local level, where people need to know the layout in and around specific municipalities. That means that these fragmented groups often have local gangs which recruit members for their needs locally. This also leads to the members of independent, smaller gangs being taken over and also explains why local government officials are sometimes collaborating with local factions of larger groups.
These local connections also allow criminal groups to have the connections needed to bribe or recruit police officers and politicians.
Widespread poverty and the promise of making a quick buck have also accelerated the recruitment of young people ready to work for such groups. This has led to a "throwaway culture" where young people, acting as lookouts, guards, drug mules or extorting businesses, can be killed and easily replaced. It's an easy workforce.
Finally, over the last decade, the forced recruitment of children and teenagers has rapidly increased. The criminal groups use this type of labor, partly because minors cannot be charged with crimes and partly because they're often willing to carry out any task.
IC: The Gulf Cartel was heavily associated with gasoline theft but seems to have moved away from that in favor of more complex criminal activities in recent years. How prevalent is oil theft in Tamaulipas today?
MO: Gasoline theft has been a go-to option for Mexican gangs because it remains lucrative, even though profits from it do pale compared to drug trafficking. In Tamaulipas, we see gangs dedicated to tapping Pemex oil pipelines, distributing it and selling the stolen gasoline both in Mexico and across the border.
Gasoline theft is also significant beyond the cash flow it generates. It allows criminal organizations to maintain a foothold in strategic areas (where the pipelines run) and helps them develop other business opportunities. The theft and resale of gasoline are linked to money laundering and networks of legal companies that operate with dirty money.
IC: Who do you identify as the most dangerous security threat in Tamaulipas?
MO: Due to its capacity for violent action and to intimidate the population, that would be the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste – CDN). A Zeta splinter group, they have shown a willingness to regularly use violence.
IC: Would you consider the CDN the closest to being a national-level security threat, as evidenced by its ongoing fights with the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG)?
MO: Yes, the firepower of the CDN and the CJNG make them both the most dangerous, high-risk groups in Tamaulipas but also highly dangerous at a federal level in Mexico. This is seen in their level of territorial control, arsenals, capacity for recruitment, and trafficking routes along which drugs, weapons, migrants and gasoline can pass.
IC: Tamaulipas is an interesting case study because it has very different criminal dynamics, in its northern border with the United States, its remote central areas and in its southern border with Veracruz and San Luis Potosí. How do these differ?
MO: In Tamaulipas, most of the tension between criminal groups has come in the north as they fight for control of crossings into the United States, across which drugs, weapons and migrants all flow.
In the center of the state, the area of the Burgos Basin, in particular, is a corridor feeding these criminal economies in the north. This rural part of the country hosts a range of other illegal activities, such as extortion schemes and charging protection to communities and ranchers. Building up a permanent presence there allows them to control trafficking flows. These rural spaces are crucial to logistics, as they can stash drugs or have safe houses for migrants. They can also be used as training areas or to disappear bodies.
In the south, connections with states like Veracruz and San Luis Potosí create a different criminal dynamic. The routes used to move drugs and migrants are constantly shifting in urban and rural areas to try and stay ahead of authorities.
For example, migrant smuggling routes have frequently changed of late. This is because the Army, National Guard and state police have set up checkpoints along the highways between Veracruz and Tamaulipas. This renewed focus by authorities has pushed criminal groups to test out new routes, often in more rural areas. When they establish one, migrants, gasoline, drugs and weapons will all follow it, and operations will continue.
IC: It appears that authorities in Tamaulipas have primarily responded to the violence in the big cities, as seen with the massacre of 19 people in Reynosa in June. Has this been the proper attitude?
MO: In Reynosa, authorities have sent in the military, but this has made very little difference to criminal groups in the area. They still maintain their control of strategic border crossings. The presence of authorities has not changed the alarming levels of violence in Tamaulipas' cities. We continue to see clashes between security forces and criminal groups, between different gangs that operate inside Tamaulipas, as well as violence involving groups from outside the state that are muscling in, such as the CJNG.
IC: Some gangs in Tamaulipas seem very focused on dominating specific, smaller areas from where we hear few reports of violence. This is the case of the Panthers (Panteras), a CDG faction that controls Abasolo, a city in the center of the state, and neighboring towns. How does such localized control come about?
MO: The type of local control, as seen in Abasolo, for example, happens when a criminal group has managed to dominate and dismantle any remaining ways for the population to fight back or denounce illegal activity. Such groups are dug in locally. They have set up local protection measures that prevent other groups from entering their areas of operation.
While there may be few reports, Abasolo still sees regular kidnappings and the extortion of farmers, ranchers and business owners. The Panthers are also valuable for other CDG groups. They control the towns of Abasolo, Soto la Marina, González and Aldama, all of which are critical logistical points for the flow of criminal economies to the north.
IC: How important is migrant smuggling as a source of income for criminal groups in Tamaulipas? Given how many migrants are moving through northern Mexico, has this been a motive for violence?
MO: Migrant smuggling is a significant source of income for criminal groups in Tamaulipas. Besides the income, this illegal economy allows them to establish links with Central America and provide "protection" for migrants from Central America to northern Mexico.
In 2021 along, according to data from the US Border Patrol, around 432,000 people were stopped trying to cross the border. Mexican immigration authorities estimate each migrant crossing the border has paid smuggling networks between 70,000 to 100,000 Mexican pesos (between about $3,300 to $4,800). This economic potential has made migrant smuggling all the more important for criminal groups, which have also used migrants as a workforce in other illegal operations.
IC: Tamaulipas has been a dangerous state for journalists and activists. How have the actions of criminal groups shut down local reporting, essentially removing a level of scrutiny?
MO: Absolutely, the impact on media outlets in areas where criminal groups operate has been drastic over the last 15 years. This has included journalists being killed and local newspapers being burned.
Criminal groups seek to prevent freedom of expression by shutting down the press. Public scrutiny in these areas has atrophied, people no longer have the media to learn about the reality they face.
The only recourse for the people is denouncing criminal activities to authorities but, while this has taken hold in central Mexico, it almost never happens here. The gangs have silenced the will to speak up.