The Washington Post / Getty Images

Turning Mexico’s kingpins into cartelitos

Drug trafficking organizations are rapidly splintering, but there€’s no end in sight to the violence

Bruce Bagley has a theory to explain the proliferation of drug gangs in Mexico. A University of Miami professor and an expert on drug trafficking in Latin America, he calls it the “cockroach effect.” Flick on the lights in a dirty kitchen and roaches may scatter. And if that kitchen is Mexico, they don’t just scurry behind stoves and under fridges; they burrow into small states and rural municipalities throughout the country.

Despite a history of collusion between criminal groups and local politicians, as seen in the case of the 43 missing students in Guerrero, Mexico’s federal government has for years focused efforts on taking down the country’s kingpins. This strategy has resulted in the arrests, extraditions and deaths of dozens of drug lords over the past decade but also unprecedented waves of violence. “Every time you knock off a capo,” Bagley said, “you run the risk of unleashing higher levels of violence.” Once the leader is removed, underlings compete for power, or rival groups try to seize territory. By cracking down on the kingpins, the Mexican government also risks clearing niches in which smaller, more regional criminal groups can flourish.

In the mid to late 2000s, there were six drug syndicates in Mexico — the Sinaloa Federation, Gulf cartel, Tijuana cartel, Juárez cartel, Zetas and Familia Michoacana. Today there are 45 active syndicates in Mexico, according to a September tally by the Mexican government, and Bagley said he has seen estimates as high as 80. These new splinter groups popping up like whack-a-moles around the country include the Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors, the group believed responsible for the disappearance of the 43 normalistas in Mexico’s southwestern state of Guerrero in September.

Feuds and factions, of course, are not new to Mexican criminal organizations, which have suffered several notable splits over the decades.

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as “the Godfather,” ran the powerful Guadalajara cartel throughout the 1980s, forging strong relationships with Colombia’s cocaine mafias. In the late ’80s, he divvied up his empire among his top lieutenants, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who received control of the Pacific Coast, where they established the Sinaloa Federation. Another major division came in 2008 and 2009, when members of the Sinaloa Federation broke off to form the Beltrán Leyva organization and the South Pacific cartel. And in 2010 the Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, broke off to be its own organization — Mexico’s most feared and bloodthirsty.

But according to security analysts, fragmentation has accelerated rapidly since 2010, creating what Bagley called a “complex and constantly changing mosaic” of smaller groups, or cartelitos.

At least eight syndicates currently operate just in Guerrero state, according to a September 2014 report from Mexico’s attorney general. The now infamous Guerreros Unidos are competing for territory there with Los Rojos, Los Granados, Los Ardillos and Cártel Independiente de Acapulco (CIDA) — all fragments of the Beltrán Leyva organization. There’s also La Barredora (“The Sweeper”), the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Knights Templar — which made headlines last year when vigilante self-defense groups rose up to defend themselves and expel the Knights Templar from their towns.

Kingpin strategy

When National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate Vicente Fox took office in December 2000, he unseated the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had been in power for more than 70 years. This shift is believed to have thrown askew the well-established lines of corruption between many PRI politicians and narcos.

To tackle its growing security problem, Mexico borrowed a strategy familiar in Colombia and the United States: Take down criminal bosses to destabilize organizations, causing them to fracture and pose a lesser threat to national security.

Although the kingpin strategy, also known as the decapitation strategy, was initiated by Fox, it was dramatically intensified under his successor, Felipe Calderón (2006 to 2012), who waged an all-out assault on Mexico’s increasingly violent drug mafias.

Violence soared during Calderón’s six-year term, with more than 132,000 homicides, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. More than 60,000 were drug-related, according to a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch. The border city Juárez saw 10 murders a day in 2010, making it the homicide capital of the world.

Among the drug-related deaths were more than 40 high-level gang operatives, including Arturo Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva), Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal (Sinaloa), Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén (Gulf) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Zetas).

“If you want to give Calderón some brownie points, he achieved a significant reduction in the capacity of the cartels to threaten the national government, national security. He did so by sending the military out and crushing these guys,” Bagley said.

When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012, returning the PRI to power, he promised a shift away from Calderón’s militarized approach to fighting drug syndicates and toward citizen security. He announced he would cut the murder rate in half.

“I think the Peña Nieto administration understood the nature of the problem when they came in, but ultimately it’s about execution and implementation,” said David Shirk, a security adviser at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “The Peña Nieto administration had the right goals but didn’t prioritize them adequately.”

“So the irony,” added Shirk, “for Peña Nieto is, despite claiming he would be focused on protecting ordinary citizens, the attacks on ordinary citizens have become a major political crisis for his administration.”

Meanwhile the kingpin strategy continues, with Peña Nieto capturing two of Mexico’s most wanted kingpins — Zetas commander Miguel “Z-40” Treviño and Sinaloa Federation boss Guzmán, among others.

‘If you fragment and fracture organized crime, you’re going to have disorganized crime, and that’s not more manageable, necessarily, unless you have an effective strategy and plan for dealing with local gangs.’

David Shirk

security adviser, Mexico Institute

Fragmentation and failure

According to Bagley, fragmentation was not a well-thought-out tactic, and the unintended consequence was that it dispersed organized crime throughout the country.

“If you fragment and fracture organized crime, you’re going to have disorganized crime,” said Shirk, “and that’s not more manageable, necessarily, unless you have an effective strategy and plan for dealing with local gangs.”

The recent events in Guerrero highlight the deep and symbiotic relationship between politicians, police and drug gangs that’s common in many parts of Mexico. Former Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, who hails from a prominent drug-trafficking family, are suspected of ordering local police to hand over the students to the Guerreros Unidos gangsters. Pineda had recently announced her own candidacy for mayor and was hosting a campaign event the day the students were disappeared. The two were allegedly concerned the students would disrupt the event.

Shirk said fragmentation would work if groups like Guerreros Unidos and Knights Templar sprang up in a place like San Diego, where cops know how to deal with them. “But unfortunately on the Mexico side of border, cops are not given training and resources and incentives to do good police law enforcement,” he said.

Sergio Aguayo, a Mexican academic and human rights activist, said splinter groups have responded by expanding their networks and collaborating with smaller regional criminal groups. Neighborhoods throughout Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras contain small groups of 15 or so people who can be hired to do specific tasks, he said.

“It’s like Apple. Apple subcontracts the building of iPhones in China or Malaysia. They have different units doing different things,” Aguayo said. “The [criminal organizations] are not disappearing. They are just adapting to the strategy of the government.”

In addition to adapting, they’re diversifying — increasingly supplementing cocaine and marijuana trafficking with other criminal enterprises, including opium, methamphetamines, kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking, extortion and theft of commodities like oil and copper.

Mónica Serrano, a professor of international relations at El Colegio de México and an expert on security and transnational crime, said one reason for diversification is that as groups splintered, they attempted to solidify power by controlling not just transit routes but whole territories.

So while fragmentation may reduce the threat to the country’s national security, Serrano said, “the impact of the threat is transferred to the civilian population through an upsurge in violence.”

This, Aguayo said, has made ordinary citizens the biggest victims of the criminal groups’ fragmentation.

“[Fragmentation] is working in terms of the threat for the state. It is not working in terms of the situation of the people,” he said. “The number of victims has not been reduced. What has been reduced has been the threat for the central government.”

The Mexican government needs to not just address the welfare of state but of the majority of the people, he said.

“That’s why Iguala happened — because they didn’t pay attention to the victims,” said Aguayo.

New solutions

While Mexico analysts and security experts prioritize different reforms needed for the government to defeat organized crime and restore citizen security, they agree there is no magic bullet.

“This is not going to happen, as we say in Mexico, de la noche a la mañana [overnight],” said Bagley.

But a massive reform of the police and judicial systems to tackle rampant crime and impunity is essential, he said.

Then there’s the prison system.

“It’s Dante’s fifth ring of hell,” he said. “It’s completely corrupt. People take bribes from Los Zetas and anyone else for releases.”

For Serrano, a revision of drug policy is key.

She said drug prohibition “turns drugs into precious very valuable commodities” that allow criminal groups to accumulate exceptional income, which in turn allows them to operate with impunity and, as we are seeing in Guerrero, diversify into activities like extortion, illegal mining, prostitution, and kidnapping.

According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security study on criminal proceeds, Mexico’s crime syndicates make $19 billion to $29 billion a year from U.S. drug sales.

“That capacity to enter into and exploit all those other outlets is very much the result of the basis of power they have built around the illicit drug economy,” said Serrano.

Shirk, meanwhile, cautioned that the socioeconomic side — where there are signs of hope, he said — shouldn’t be overlooked.

“The demographics and geography look good for Mexico when it comes to overall economic development over the next 40 years,” he said, adding that higher average GDP and better economic distribution would on its own take many people out of organized crime.

“People would not be trying to sling meth and heroin,” he said. “They’d be working middle-class, white-collar jobs as teachers.” Upward mobility, in other words, would prevent many young people from being lured into the criminal underworld by YouTube videos of flamboyant narcos surrounded by beautiful women, luxury cars, gold-plated guns and thick stacks of cash.

“Because organized-crime-type jobs look lucrative when they’re compared to [making] $5 a day,” Shirk said.

Regardless of how imminent these reforms are, Bagley said, gang fragmentation is a trend that will likely continue over the next five to 10 years.

“My bet is that fragmentation is going to deepen and accelerate because these large organizations are vulnerable to a few of the major figures getting knocked off,” he said. “[Fragmentation] is better for business.”

Related News

Crime, DEA, Drug Cartels, Drugs

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Crime, DEA, Drug Cartels, Drugs

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter