Sinaloa state has long been the home turf of Mexico's most established criminal group, but now the Sinaloa Cartel may be facing a challenge in its stronghold from a coalition of enemies led by the Zetas.

A new report by Sinaloa news magazine Riodoce, reprinted by Proceso, says that a recent wave of murders in Culiacan, Sinaloa state capital, is a result of the Zetas' incursion into the state. There, the group has linked up with the Beltran Leyvas, former Sinaloa allies who split with Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo," in 2008; and the organization of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias "El Viceroy," who has been warring with Chapo’s forces in Juarez.

While Sinaloa has long been considered the territory of Guzman and his allies, the reality is a bit more complicated. A large proportion of the nation’s most notorious drug lords use routes in Sinaloa. Aside from being the home of many capos, the state is valued both for its fertile drug-producing in the Sierra Madre mountain range as well as its long coastline and its access to the border cities in Baja California.

The Beltran Leyvas never entirely left the region after their split with Guzman, even as they shifted much of their presence south to cities like Acapulco and Cuernavaca. Now, they have set up strongholds in mid-sized Sinaloa cities like Guasave, where public banners or "narcomantas" taunting Guzman have been appearing for months.

The Zetas, though originally based in the northeast, have expanded aggressively throughout the nation (and even beyond its borders), including regions far from their home turf. The appearance of the Zetas in Sinaloa follows their recent incursion into the Pacific state of Jalisco, which is just a bit south of Sinaloa.

Although Carrillo Fuentes is originally from Sinaloa, his group (known as the Juarez Cartel), which was initially built by his late brother Amado and his partners in the 1990s, has been based in Juarez for close to two decades. However, the declining violence in Juarez after years of battles with Guzman’s forces, and the reduced power of La Linea, the Juarez Cartel’s enforcement arm, are indicative of radical changes in the region. The appearance of his forces in Sinaloa suggests that Carrillo Fuentes has decided not to bet all his chips on Juarez.

What follows is InSight Crime’s translation of selected extracts from the Riodoce article on the recent violence in Sinaloa:

[T]he first week of this month, via military inteligence, reports arrived to the office of Malova [Mario Lopez Valdez, governor of Sinaloa] that criminal groups that hadn’t been strong in the central part of the state had managed to bring several groups of gunmen into the territory controlled by the organization of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

According to the information from the state government, the group is the Zetas, which since midway through the year has been fighting to heat up the region along with the Beltran Leyvas Organization, who have established their operational bases in Ahome and Guasave, and the Carrillo Fuentes organization, which has a limited presence in Navolato, Angostura and Salvador Alvarado.

Some cells of the Zetas, for their part, had taken southern Sinaloa as their center of operations and their apparent presence was speculated upon in July 2, 2011, when the remains of two decapitated people were tossed on the western steps of the governmental palace.

The suspicions of the government regarding the “presence in Culiacan of a large group of Zetas” was confirmed on November 4 when a narco commando unit murdered eight people on a volleyball court in the Colonia Pemex.

Although they don’t specify how many there are nor in what areas of Culiacan they operate, the 9th Military Zone, in coordination with the Elite Group [a specialized unit of the state police] and the Mixed Urban Operation Bases implemented a perimeter around the limits of the state capital towards the beginning of November so as to prevent the entrance of more Zetas. Nevertheless, the gunmen managed to slip through to the capital.

On November 24, reacting to 24 murders ocurred a day earlier, including the 16 burned bodies, the governor confirmed that “we all know that here the Pacific Cartel [an alternative name for the Sinaloa Cartel] operates and that there are other cartels or local cells that are allied with some of the Zetas, the Beltran Levyas, the Carrillos, that are in conflict ... It’s a product of groups, messages that are sent, that no one is strong or protected enough to prevent all incursions,” he said.

[...]

In Culiacan, a city previously not included in public security operations by state and federal police, some 300 soldiers were mobilized. Since the afternoon of November 23 they have patrolled the zones considered the most troubled and installed checkpoints in strategic locations.

In some cases, such as in the boroughs of Angostura, Salvador Alvarado and Guasave, the mayors were “advised” to tell the population to exercise precaution. One of the suggestions was to avoid being out on the streets, highways, or roadways after eight at night.

It was reported that in the community of Palmitas, in the city of Angostura, a commando unit that on Monday in the middle of the night kidnapped three police officers whose burnt bodies appeared in Culiacan on Wednesday morning, left a message threatening the residents that they would have the same luck if they were found outside of their houses at night.

That day's wave of violence shook the Sinaloans. It even the government, and on November 22, after newspaper El Debate reported that a daughter of Gerardo Vargas Landeros, general secretary of the government, had been transported from Culiacan to [the coastal city] Los Mochis in a government helicopter, the government said that organized crime poses a threat to government officials and puts them in a vulnerable position.

Mario Lopez Valdez revealed that his children have left Sinaloa, “they aren’t here, they have been gone a while,” he added. He then said that “there are signals, information, conversations that when someone important is detained, they try to attack the representatives of the executive branch.”

[...]

Despite being the city with the highest crime rates in Sinaloa -- 40 percent of the 1,755 murders registered across the state from January through November 24 were committed here -- the presence of state and federal agents was reduced, in contrast to cities like Mazatlan, Los Mochis and Guasave, which since March 2011 have had the deployment of the Elite Group, the Federal Police, and the army.

According to information from the Department of Public Security that the state government turned over to the local Congress, in Mazatlan, where the Elite Group stood out since their creation, car theft dropped 40 percent between 2010 and 2011, murders decreased by 21 percent, home robberies were reduced by 31 percent and bank robbery dropped 83 percent.

In Ahome, which has also received special attention from Malova’s government, the report of the SSP emphasizes that the criminal index has dropped by 26 percent.

In contrast, in Culiacan, where the Elite Group had not entered until "Black Wednesday," the state agency reported that high-impact crimes had risen by 44 percent, robbery of businesses by 138 percent, and car theft by 38 percent.

Photo, above, shows a narco-banner addressed to Guzman, that was hung in Culiacan in April.