The speculation regarding the latest mega-battle for control over Mexico’s underworld started with a two-minute video that first appeared on social media in late April. The grainy security camera footage showed a convoy of about 20 pickup trucks entering San Fernando, a strategic municipality located around 140 kilometers south of the US-Mexico border in the embattled Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The same day, reports spread of roadblocks on the highways that connect the town to the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. For some, this was the clearest indication yet that the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) had come to dislodge the Gulf Cartel, the criminal organization with a hundred years of history in this far northeast corner of Mexico.

“The CJNG has begun to take over the Tamaulipas border, and the Gulf Cartel mobilized its people to prevent it,” one Mexican analyst concluded in a column for El Universal.

The reality on the ground, however, is less clear. While some believe the CJNG’s invasion of Tamaulipas is all but a sure thing despite the Gulf Cartel’s deep historical roots here, others say the situation is more nuanced and caution that any declarations regarding dominance disregard the reality of most criminal dynamics: The home team nearly always has the advantage.

InSight Crime spent a week traveling across this northern border state and interviewing local residents, analysts, academics, and security experts between Reynosa and Matamoros. Below, we sort through the current state of play along one of the most important and conflictive drug corridors in the world.

A Drug Market Flooded

Beyond the social media spectacle, some evidence lends support to claims that the CJNG is establishing a permanent presence in Tamaulipas, particularly in Reynosa, which sits across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This push, according to anti-drug officials who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss such dynamics, began months ago. 

Part of this argument is fueled by drug availability, prices, and seizures. At the beginning of the year, a kilogram of methamphetamine, for instance, sold for around $3,700 in McAllen. A cocaine shipment of that size cost about $22,000. Today, that same kilogram of methamphetamine is selling for just $1,400, while a kilogram of cocaine goes for $14,000. 

Official data shows that seizures of both drugs by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents working the Rio Grande Valley sector — which covers McAllen, the sister city of Reynosa — have also increased when compared to last year. Methamphetamine seizures went from 42 kilograms between January and March 2022 to 127 kilograms during that same time in 2023. Cocaine seizures rose from 72 kilograms to 228 kilograms in that time period. In other words, seizures of both drugs in this corridor increased by more than 200%.

These seizures and seismic drops in wholesale prices suggest these drugs are flooding across the border into this region of south Texas. 

It is a change from the past when the Metros, a former faction of the Gulf Cartel that has operated independently for years, moved modest amounts. Those Metros were part of an extremely volatile and fragmented corridor and, at best, held but shaky control of Reynosa and this border crossing. For US officials, the recent drop in price and rise in seizures points to a bigger, more powerful organization: the CJNG.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

What’s more, US authorities in McAllen are also beginning to see increased quantities of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that contributed to around three-quarters of drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021. In addition to the Sinaloa Cartel, the CJNG is alleged to be one of Mexico’s major illicit fentanyl traffickers.

Beyond these drug flows, information shared by confidential informants and other human intelligence also points to the CJNG taking hold of Reynosa. The ultimate goal, according to those reports, is to eventually take control of Nuevo Laredo and, with that, the major border crossing on the Tamaulipas-Texas border.

If the CJNG can control everything surrounding Nuevo Laredo, the thought is that they will have an easier time taking that city of about half a million people from the Northeast Cartel, the most significant offshoot to emerge from another of the Gulf Cartel’s former foot soldiers, the Zetas.

A Strategic Corridor

On the ground in Tamaulipas, there is reason to believe that the criminal landscape is shifting.

In Reynosa, locals told InSight Crime that prices of daily commodities like meat, dairy, eggs, and avocados have all increased in recent weeks. Providers were told that new prices had been set and not to ask any questions, according to one resident whose parents are suppliers of such items. At the same time, community WhatsApp groups are filled with messages identifying locations of gun fights and photos of dead bodies dumped in certain sectors of the city, most notably the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge.

These dynamics can be interpreted in one of two ways, our sources said. On the one hand, some believe this signifies the arrival of a new leadership and a new order established by the CJNG. On the other hand, it may also mean Gulf Cartel factions are securing funding for an expected battle with the CJNG over control of Tamaulipas, primarily between San Fernando and the US-Mexico border.

SEE ALSO: Cyclones, Scorpions and Old School Killers – The War for Tamaulipas

Much of the fighting in recent weeks has centered around the aforementioned municipality of San Fernando. The Cyclones-Scorpions and Metros factions of the Gulf Cartel and another offshoot of the Zetas, the Old School Zetas, both share influence in this area, in large part due to its strategic location. Just north of San Fernando, the highway splits and connects with Reynosa to the west and Matamoros to the east. Control of San Fernando secures access to these two major border crossings.

The San Fernando Valley is also one of the state’s key agricultural corridors, providing opportunities to extort producers of sorghum, corn, and beans, as well as those who store and transport those products. Combined with a thriving contraband gasoline trade, the criminal opportunities in this part of the state are abundant.

Protecting this eastern region may cause several Gulf Cartel factions to band together against the CJNG and any local alliances they have made to push further north, said one academic, who requested anonymity due to security reasons. 

“[These Gulf Cartel factions] have worked together more at times, and I see them being better positioned to stop a possible incursion by the CJNG,” the academic told InSight Crime.

An Uncertain Future

While some have made strong assertions that the CJNG is advancing across Tamaulipas, others contest this.

“Despite the fact that the Gulf Cartel is very fractured, very divided, it continues to have a lot of power, a lot of control,” said one local analyst, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to security reasons.

This power was established decades ago, and one family, the Cárdenas, has helped maintain it. Even after several debilitating arrests in recent years, the family is “still pulling the strings,” according to the analyst. The problem, however, is that there have been “other interest groups that have been contesting the power of the Gulf Cartel with the Cárdenas family for several years.”

What these competing factions have done at certain times in the past is form temporary alliances with other more powerful groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas, but that doesn’t mean those groups were able to take control of Tamaulipas, according to the analyst.

As such, shifting alliances within the Gulf Cartel and with the CJNG may explain the violence happening now. Given the CJNG’s presence in every state surrounding Tamaulipas — Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, and Veracruz — it is possible that Gulf Cartel factions are making new alliances with the group as a way to survive what they see as an inevitable power grab. To be sure, some believe the Cyclones-Scorpions faction has moved down from Matamoros and into San Fernando to thwart an alliance made between the Metros, Old School Zetas, and CJNG.

However, despite its history of internal fighting, the Gulf Cartel has united to fend off previous attempts from outside groups to control Tamaulipas. It remains to be seen if this will hold true again as the CJNG expands across the US-Mexico border.

“We’ll see how these alliances and relationships between criminal groups end up, and in these gray areas where criminal groups connect with [state forces],” the academic told InSight Crime.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...