According to the Mexican president, the recent arrest of the alleged leader of the Northeast Cartel and a subsequent major military deployment along the US border is proof that the country's security strategy is working. But the long-term impact of these moves is up for debate.
During a press conference on March 22, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that “everything is back to normal” in Nuevo Laredo, a border city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
Following the arrest of Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste - CDN) leader Juan Gerardo Treviño Chávez, alias “El Huevo,” on March 14, Nuevo Laredo had seen chaos. Burned-out vehicles lined a number of streets, CDN members engaged in shootouts with authorities
In response, on March 15, the federal government deployed 783 troops followed by 250 members of the special forces three days later in response to the wave of violence.
For Mexican and US authorities, Treviño Chávez was the leader of the CDN and a top member of a feared group of hitmen known as the Hell Troop (Tropa del Infierno). Considered one of the most dangerous criminal figures along the US-Mexico border, Treviño Chávez was extradited to the United States the day after his arrest. He is wanted by the Western District Court of Texas on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Mexico's foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, described El Huevo's arrest as one of the "most important of the decade." But while significant, his arrest and the government's response are not evidence of a functioning security strategy.
Below, InSight Crime looks at three reasons why:
Criminal Networks in Tamaulipas Remain Intact
While the CDN is a major security threat in Mexico and Treviño Chávez was seemingly its leader, the cartel continues to function. Speculation that his cousin, Juan Cisneros Treviño, alias "Juanito," has taken over leadership of the CDN has already begun spreading in the Mexican press.
Mexican and US authorities have once again followed the same recipe they have turned to for decades: arresting or killing the head of a criminal structure without dismantling its foundations.
The CDN serves as clear evidence of how a fragmented group remains strong. It was itself formed by splinter elements of the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo - CDG), the Zetas and other smaller groups present in Tamaulipas. These organizations may have eventually cracked under internal and external pressure but the deaths or arrests of top leaders did not end their criminal reach. Instead, it led to fragmentation, reconfiguration and the creation of new criminal networks.
Today, far from strict hierarchical and unified structures, criminal organizations in Mexico have evolved into increasingly divided and multifaceted groups. They often act as networks of cells and not as top-down units, so each cell does not necessarily have influence beyond its territory.
“These groups [Zetas, Gulf Cartel, Northeast Cartel] survive through small local structures, not as large organizations,” Marisol Ochoa, an investigator with Mexico's Ibero-American University and expert in the evolution of criminal dynamics in Tamaulipas, told InSight Crime.
“[The cells] depend on their ability to expand, territorial control and resistance to other [rival] groups," she added.
In that sense, Treviño Chávez's arrest was likely a big blow, but not a catastrophic one, for the Northeast Cartel, which is also present in much of northern and central Mexico.
It is likely, however, that actors such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) and other criminal gangs from Tamaulipas will test the resolve of the CDN and make a move on its territory, as InSight Crime recently reported.
Use of Armed Forces to Combat Violence Continues
Despite an initial shift in security policy discourse in Mexico and a new bilateral agreement with the United States, the armed forces continue to be the country's go-to strategy for combating criminal violence.
The operation to capture Treviño Chávez and related military exercises suggest the government has no intention to seek alternatives anytime soon. The military deployment in Nuevo Laredo may be a short-term solution to stop the acts of violence perpetrated after El Huevo's arrest. But, without a functional local police force and civil society, this strategy is bound to fail.
In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, militarized and heavy-handed strategies have often resulted in a spiralling violence. Mexican states with an important military presence include Michoacán, Guanajuato and Zacatecas, which continue to weather constant armed clashes, high homicide rates and countless displays of brutality on public roads.
Military participation in citizen security has also been linked to human rights violations, and Tamaulipas is no exception. Organizations like Amnesty International and the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee have warned about dozens of possible cases of extrajudicial executions in the state.
Renegotiation of Protections
Because of its strategic position on the Texas border, Tamaulipas houses plentiful criminal enclaves, often rooted in shifting power dynamics between criminal actors and local elites. One example is the case of former governor Tomás Yarrington (1999-2005), now jailed in the United States’ for collaborating with the Zetas and the CDG. Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, who ends his term as governor this year, has also been linked to the CDG.
"The involvement of several law enforcement officers in criminal acts in Tamaulipas indicates that there has always been some kind of protection for organized crime,” Professor Guadalupe Correa, of George Mason University in Virginia, United States, told InSight Crime in June of last year.
And with the entry of a new Tamaulipas government in October, the Northeast Cartel will likely seek renewed negotiations and protection agreements over the coming months.