Murders have spiked in Mexico's northern state of Sonora, thanks to the volatile mix of a veteran drug trafficker's alleged return, internal disputes within the Sinaloa Cartel, and an offensive by the powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation.
Sonora wrapped up last year with 1,765 murders and a 20 percent increase in its homicide rate, according to the news outlet El Sol de Hermosillo. Municipalities such as Cajeme and Empalme recorded even larger jumps in homicide rates, increasing more than 40 percent when compared to 2020. Forced disappearances have also plagued the US-Mexico border state.
The leader of a search group trying to locate missing loved ones even made a recent public appeal to cartel bosses to curb violence aimed at locals.
"I find myself with the need to ask you, the heads of the cartels in Sonora...[José Crispín] Salazar, [Rafael] Caro Quintero and the rest of you cartel leaders, to not kill us, to not disappear us,” said Ceci Patricia Flores Armenta, who is the head of Madres Buscadoras de Sonora.
It will likely take more than a plea to ease the siege-like conditions. Below, InSight Crime provides an overview of the major players and the circumstances that have led to the trail of bloodshed in this crucial corridor for drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
The Caborca Cartel Emerges
The explosion of violence in Sonora has repeatedly been blamed on the return of Rafael Caro Quintero, a veteran trafficker who has long been included on the US Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) most wanted list for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. Quintero has been in hiding since his 2013 release from a Mexico prison, but narco-banners, media reports and statements by authorities claim he has emerged as the head of a new group, the Caborca Cartel, to regain control of Sonora.
According to the news outlet Milenio, the Caborca Cartel took shape in 2017 after Quintero allegedly called a meeting with his relatives and subordinates to organize the retaking of Sonora. The veteran drug lord, however, may be little more than a figurehead who gives the cartel clout. Two journalists in the region who cover drug trafficking and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons told InSight Crime that Quintero’s relatives have historically been involved in diverse criminal economies in Sonora and that Quintero is not necessarily involved in day-to-day operations. Rodrigo Páez Quintero and José Gil Caro Quintero, two of Quintero's nephews, seem to be the primary leaders.
The Caborca Cartel currently maintains a presence in the northwestern part of Sonora, particularly in the municipalities of Caborca and Magdalena de Kino. According to Lantia Intelligence, a firm that specializes in risk analysis in Mexico, the criminal group has consolidated during the first few years of the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This includes the subcontracting of local gangs such as the Barredora and the Plaza as the group's armed wings. The group's main rival appears to be the Sinaloa Cartel, particularly the sons of incarcerated boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The sons are known collectively as the Chapitos.
Clashes among proxies for the two cartels have occurred for control of criminal activities along Sonora's northern border. Adjacent to the US states of Arizona and New Mexico, the region is an important corridor for the movement of drugs, guns and people.
Additionally, Sonora's port of Guaymas provides access to the Pacific, allowing for the entry of the precursor chemicals used in the production of methamphetamines and fentanyl. The state's massive gold mines provide other opportunities for criminal profits.
The Caborca Cartel has sought reinforcements in its battle with the Guzmans, aligning with the Línea, a group formed from the armed wing of the old Juárez Cartel. Several local media outlets have cited sources within Mexican intelligence that say that the alliance with the Línea began while Quintero was still in prison.
The Línea has clashed with Guzman aligned criminal clans, the Salazar and Gente Nueva, for control of territories near Chihuahua state, along Sonora's eastern border.
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According to Lantia Intelligence, the Caborca Cartel also seems to have formed an alliance with the network of Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, alias Chapo Isidro, a veteran operator for Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO). Meza Flores allegedly leads a number of armed gangs in southern Sonora, particularly in the municipalities of Navojoa and Guaymas.
Since the rupture of an alliance between the Sinaloa Cartel and the BLO in 2008, the networks associated with Chapo Isidro have been in continuous conflict with the armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel. In Sonora, this struggle has intensified over the last three years, increasing homicides in the southern part of the state.
Warfare within the Sinaloa Cartel
A battle between the Chapitos and Sinaloa Cartel historical leader Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo," has also resulted in bloodshed in Sonora.
Zambada’s operators are primarily located in the northern part of the state, where they profit from drug smuggling. At the end of September 2021, the US Treasury Department sanctioned several individuals close to El Mayo, accusing them of trafficking “tons of fentanyl” from the Mexico border city of Nogales.
While the factions linked to El Mayo have attempted to keep a relatively low profile in an effort to not disrupt their operations, the armed wings of the Chapitos have shown a willingness to use extreme violence to establish control. Groups aligned with the Chapitos such as the Salazar and Gente Nueva – as well as smaller cells like the Cazadores and the Rumas – have a presence throughout almost the entire state and have been involved in acts of public violence, threats against locals and brutal murders.
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The violence perpetrated by the Chapitos and associates appears to be the source of tension within the Sinaloa Cartel, according to organized crime expert and journalist Anabel Hernández, who spoke to InSight Crime at the beginning of 2021.
“The Chapitos are currently a big problem for the Sinaloa Cartel. They continue to respect the hierarchy but they are not controlled by El Mayo. They do not hold up their end of agreements and are generating a lot of violence,” Hernández said.
In July 2021, for example, a wave of shootings took place over the course of three days in Magdalena de Kino. The shootouts were reported to be part of the battle between the Chapitos and El Mayo. Milenio also reported that the Rusos criminal cell, linked to El Mayo, is taking on the Chapitos in Sonora and in the neighboring state of Baja California.
The CJNG Gains a Foothold
Finally, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), which maintains a constant war with the Sinaloa Cartel in several regions of the country, has moved in on Sonora, though its role there appears to be limited.
Some media outlets claim that the CJNG has expanded its presence from the southern part of the state and from the northern border of Baja California.
Other media outlets mention that the group is present in the mountainous region of central Sonora. Additionally, CJNG operators have been arrested at the San Luis Río Colorado border crossing and killed in the Empalme municipality, both in the southwestern part of the state. The CJNG's main interest in Sonora appears to be access to drug corridors and border crossings. The group is a major smuggler of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid flooding the US-Mexico border.