The murders of state representatives in Zacatecas, a deeply troubled and strategically important state for Mexico’s most powerful cartels, is a concerning escalation of these groups’ efforts to control the state.
Judge Roberto Elías Martínez was shot twice in the head by armed assailants as he left his home in Guadalupe, a city adjacent to the city of Zacatecas, on the morning of December 3. His death was announced on Twitter a day later by the leader of Zacatecas’ judiciary, Arturo Nahle García. The judge had not received any threats against his life, said Nahle. No suspects have yet been named in the case.
Later that day, two simultaneous events brought Zacatecas to a standstill.
First was an escape attempt at Cieneguillas Prison, just west of Zacatecas. According to reports, a truck was rammed into the prison’s gates before falling into a ditch and becoming stuck. Zacatecas Security Secretary Adolfo Marín Marín said that the truck was driven by members of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the country’s most powerful cartels.
Prisoners rioted as they heard the commotion outside. In response, security forces from the municipal, state, and federal levels were called in. No prisoners escaped, though members of the security forces and prisoners were injured during the riot, reported Animal Político.
As the riot unfolded, gunfire erupted across the state. Roadblocks were erected in the cities of Zacatecas and Fresnillo, while vehicles and toll booths were burned on various highways, according to El Universal. No deaths were reported.
Marín Marín told the press that authorities had information suggesting the roadblocks were part of a coordinated action to divert their attention away from the prison.
On November 24, General José Silvestre Urzúa Padilla, the head of the Zacatecas National Guard, was shot dead in a confrontation with an organized crime group. Days later, Undersecretary for Public Security and Citizen Protection Ricardo Mejía Berdeja announced that the killing was the work of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), another of Mexico’s premier criminal groups. Authorities arrested 12 presumed CJNG members in connection to the killing, he added.
The date of Urzúa Padilla’s death marked a year since the beginning of Operation Zacatecas II, a large-scale mobilization of police and National Guard forces intended to combat the rising violence in the state. Urzúa Padilla was the highest-ranking soldier killed since the creation of the National Guard in 2019 and oversaw a force of almost two thousand soldiers in the state, according to Proceso.
Zacatecas has become a center of violence in recent years. Cartels battling over territorial control of drug routes toward the United State have sent the body count soaring, with homicides jumping 52.2% between November 2020 and November 2021. But Operation Zacatecas II has had success: According to government statistics, homicides fell by 28.5% during the first nine months of this year.
As InSight Crime reported in January, Zacatecas is beset by Mexico’s two major rival cartels, the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as their regional allies. The groups have engaged in violent shootouts in rural areas like Jerez, close to poppy and marijuana cultivation areas, causing mass displacements.
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Criminal organizations commonly carry out attacks against authorities as part of their efforts to control territories. But the escalation in these attacks suggests that competition for the state is ratcheting up, and criminal organizations are moving toward a new stage in criminal governance.
Zacatecas’ location has become its curse. Its connections to several other states and the vital highways that pass through it are integral to the wider illicit aims of both the CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel. Yet neither cartel has won total supremacy there.
Dominating a territory requires the support of local authorities. Cartels will first try to co-opt these authorities through means including bribery. Should this fail, cartels will use violence to force authorities to cower, Victor Sánchez, an investigator at the Autonomous University of Coahuila and public security expert, told InSight Crime.
In the case of Zacatecas, the war between Mexico’s two major cartels has created a pressure-cooker scenario and authorities are now firmly in the line of fire. “The fight for control over authorities increases in line with heightened competition for control over the territory,” said Sánchez.
The CJNG has shown no hesitancy in targeting state authorities in the past. When their criminal governance efforts have been threatened, the group has acted.
The best-known case is the attempted assassination of Omar García Harfuch, Mexico City’s police chief, in 2020. Men armed with assault rifles, grenades, and a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle shot Harfuch three times. He survived. Harfuch had promised to clamp down on the country’s cartels, received threats from the CJNG, and subsequently blamed the group for the attack.
In 2020, former Jalisco governor, Aristoteles Sandoval, was murdered in the bathroom of a Puerto Vallarta restaurant. Sandoval had openly opposed the CJNG during his governorship, reported El País.
Perhaps the clearest examples of the violence authorities have faced under intense cartel fighting are Michoacán and Guerrero. In Aguililla, Michoacán, Mayor César Valencia Caballero was murdered by the CJNG three weeks after announcing the town’s liberation from a months-long siege by the same group, Vice reported.
While in San Miguel Totolapan, a town in Guerrero, Mayor Conrado Mendoza Almeda was gunned down alongside at least 17 others in October this year. A local drug trafficking group, the Tequileros, was responsible for the slaying. Prior to the murder, the group released a video announcing its return to the area after many years of absence, the BBC reported.
In these states, multiple criminal actors vie for control, leading to a further intensification of attacks against authorities with the intention to scare, intimidate, and ultimately force the suspension of efforts to counter crime.
“There are many groups disputing areas in these states,” said Sánchez. “When a greater number of organizations compete, there’s a greater need to control state institutions local to the area, and so attacks go up,” he added.