Mexico City authorities have sustained a two-year crackdown on the city’s largest gang, La Unión Tepito, arresting hundreds and freezing millions in assets as they attempt to destroy the group root and branch.
In early May, a group of extortionists reportedly belonging to La Unión Tepito were arrested after shaking down businesses in Mexico City's Historic Center area. Two days earlier, one of the gang's main operators in the capital was also detained.
Such operations have come thick and fast in recent years. Between January 2020 to early April 2022, nearly 550 members of La Unión Tepito were detained in the capital — almost five times that of the next local group, according to figures offered by Mexico City’s Secretary of Citizen Security Omar García Harfuch at an April 25 press conference.
The result has allegedly been a dramatic reduction in homicides, among other crimes, as key leaders of the organization, from plaza bosses and extortionists to financial operators and drug distributors, have fallen to the judicial onslaught.
In February, Harfuch declared that La Unión Tepito had been irreparably fragmented, claiming that the targeting of the group, and its leader’s arrest in early 2020, mean its remaining cells now operate in isolation, independently of central command.
Since 2020, Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera - UIF) has also frozen roughly $5.2 million across around 1,500 bank accounts linked to La Unión Tepito, Harfuch told journalists.
However, atomization does not mean destruction, and media reports suggest there are at least five major factions still operating under La Unión Tepito’s banner, deeply involved in microtrafficking, extortion and theft across most of Mexico City’s largest boroughs.
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Since its rise in the late 2000s, La Unión Tepito has never faced such systematic targeting by law enforcement as it does now. Yet experts remain divided over what that means for the group’s future. Some believe it will inevitably decline; others, that it will survive and evolve.
“I think the decline is irreversible. We should already be thinking about the possibility of new leadership and the possibility that cells end up being absorbed by other sorts of organizations,” Jaime López Aranda, a security and judicial expert, told InSight Crime.
Besides the fact many such rival organizations are present in the capital, including the powerful Jalisco Cartel, the localized nature of the extortion and microtrafficking rents La Unión Tepito depends on makes it vulnerable to atomization, according to López Aranda.
“There is a general tendency within the type of activities they engage in, that if you eliminate certain leadership structures, the remaining cells do not regroup,’ he said.
SEE ALSO: La Unión Tepito Profile
On the other side, however, are those that argue that even if authorities were not overstating the crackdown’s impact on La Unión Tepito, its loss of centralized leadership is not an existential threat. One such individual is Antonio Nieto, crime journalist and author of a book on La Unión Tepito.
“Omar García Harfuch declared that it isn’t a unified organization [anymore]. He’s right, of course…[but] in general it has always operated in this way, as cells that had an objective and a zone of influence,” he told InSight Crime.
In fact, according to Nieto, such was the speed of La Unión Tepito’s expansion prior to 2020, that authorities have not destroyed the group but are merely slowing its advance. For now, its dominant cells are not fighting one another and can effectively repel the advance of local rivals, like the growing Lenin Canchola gang, and of encroaching criminal organizations, like the Jalisco and Sinaloa cartels.
“In the long term, it’s possible other criminal groups or a cartel take power,” said Nieto, but “whatever happens, whoever they arrest, for at least two, three, or four years, we will continue saying La Unión is Mexico City’s dominant group.”