The Gulf Cartel has maintained a presence along the US-Mexico border across from south Texas for nearly a century, but recent events suggest that criminal dynamics may be changing in this strategic corridor.
Once a unified and powerful drug trafficking organization, the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo - CDG) has since fractured into a number of different factions that contest control of various parts of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Now, one of the country's most formidable crime groups, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), may be trying to co-opt this fragmentation to aid its own expansion.
SEE ALSO: Is Mexico’s CJNG Pushing the Gulf Cartel from Tamaulipas?
To better understand the Gulf Cartel and criminal dynamics along this part of the border, InSight Crime spoke with Acting Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mark Lippa, two high-ranking officials at the San Antonio Field Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
InSight Crime (IC): How do you understand criminal dynamics in this specific region of the US-Mexico border?
Mark Lippa (ML): The CDG's corporate headquarters is in Matamoros. We are constantly going up against the cartel in a variety of different arenas, including money laundering, narcotics smuggling, and southbound weapons smuggling.
Traditionally, the CDG's primary source of income here has been narcotics smuggling. What we're seeing now is that a significant portion of their revenue is coming from extortion schemes [involving human smuggling]. It's starting to rival what they make in narcotics smuggling.
Craig Larabee (CL): There have always been cases of rip crews [stealing] narcotics from other groups and then selling the drugs themselves. Now, that is happening with migrants too. We are seeing extortion schemes where rip crews take migrants from [an opposing group's] stash house to another stash house and demand more money. That was a rarity some 10 years ago.
We also see traditional extortion schemes, where a person agrees to pay $5,000 to be smuggled, but are later told they will be held until the smugglers receive another $5,000.
IC: What factors influence a fight for control of highly-prized territories like this section of the border?
ML: There are a ton of different aspects that do come into play. But home turf plays a big role.
Logistically, it is very hard for a cartel to come up from the south of Mexico, even if it has a smuggling route that comes through Matamoros. The city [and its criminal economies] belongs to that cartel controlling it: That cartel has the community connections, the law enforcement connections, and it knows the routes.
Connections on the US side of the border are important too. The local cartel has pre-established networks on this side. It's really hard for another cartel to come in and understand logistically how to operate within that. Factors like these give that home cartel dominance in that area.
IC: Is the arrival of the CJNG to Matamoros upsetting the local balance of power?
ML: Rivalries in the Matamoros plaza have been constant during my 28 years here. There's just an ebb and flow as these different cartels move in, and this generates spikes in violence. There is always contention, someone is always trying to get a foothold in the plazas.
SEE ALSO: Cyclones, Scorpions and Old School Killers - The War for Tamaulipas
IC: In addition to the border cities of Matamoros, and Reynosa, the municipality of San Fernando, some 90 miles south of both cities, is also being fought over by cartels. Why?
ML: The routes [toward the border] are important to the cartels, as are the operational areas where they're going to move the goods and people across the border. Cartels want to control the routes to the plaza, but they need to control that mechanism to smuggle them across.
Methamphetamine and even fentanyl originate in the turf of other cartels before it is moved to this border region where the CDG takes control and moves it across. So, while a cartel doesn't necessarily need to control both the routes and the crossing, they do need to control the point where products cross the border.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.