Gulf Cartel boss "El Coss" after his capture

The capture of the Gulf Cartel's top leader could mean the end for one of Mexico’s oldest drug trafficking organizations, handing the country’s northeast over to the divided Zetas.

Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, known as “El Coss,” was captured on September 12 in Tampico, Tamaulipas. He was paraded before the press the following morning (see video, below), but kept silent, refusing to answer questions from reporters.

A navy spokesman said that a group of 30 marines had arrested the drug boss using information from five of his bodyguards, who were captured earlier that day elsewhere in Tamaulipas, reported La Jornada.

El Coss has been a member of the Gulf Cartel since being recruited in the 1990s while working as a police officer. He became a leader of the organization after the arrest of boss Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003, rising still further with the death of Osiel’s brother Antonio, known as “Tony Tormenta,” in November 2010.

The Gulf Cartel has seen a dramatic erosion in its powerbase since its former armed wing, the Zetas, went rogue in 2010. Coss was instrumental in the final break, refusing the group's demand that he hand over the killer of a Zetas boss in January that year, and since then the two have been at open war. The Zetas have used their military organization to take over much of the Gulf's territory in Mexico’s northeast, and cities such as Monterrey have seen an explosion of violence as the former allies fight for control.

InSight Crime Analysis

The capture of El Coss leaves the Gulf Cartel without a clear successor. The group split into two factions after Tony Tormenta was killed in a firefight with Mexican security forces in 2010: those loyal to the Cardenas Guillen family, known as the Rojos, opposed a group led by El Coss, known as the Metros.

The divide hardened when the leader of the Metros, Samuel Flores Borrego, alias “Metro 3,” was found dead in Tamaulipas in September 2011, likely killed by members of the Rojos. He is thought to have been the one who triggered the split with the Zetas by killing “El Concord 3” in January 2010.

A third Cardenas Guillen brother, Mario or “El Gordo,” was captured by marines last week in Altamira, Tamaulipas, and it looked at first as though El Coss had won overall control of the Gulf. As Proceso set out in a recent report, El Coss had been waging a long campaign against the Cardenas Guillen faction, setting up its members to be killed or captured, one by one, and may have even been behind the killing of El Metro 3. According to Proceso's source, this readiness to hand over his rivals won him the protection of the security forces 

Now, betrayed by this bodyguards, it appears that his own tactics have been turned against him and that he has lost the protection of the security forces -- if indeed he ever had it. It is possible that El Coss' fall was triggered by El Gordo handing information to the authorities after his arrest.

The Gulf's infighting has left no winners. Without a clear heir to El Coss, the group’s decline could become terminal, although it is likely that there are enough old-time bosses still around to keep at least some of its drug business going. The recent capture of the cartel's top South America representative, in Colombia, could disrupt business still further.

One obvious beneficiary of a Gulf collapse would be the rival Zetas, who might be able to take Gulf-controlled areas like Reynosa and Matamoros. It is possible that fragments of the Gulf could join up with their allies in the Sinaloa Cartel, or even go over to the Zetas, though resentments left over from their bitter split make this less likely.

However, with the Zetas currently embroiled in internal warfare after a rumored split between its top leaders, it is difficult to predict who will emerge to take the place of the Gulf Cartel. Analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that, if Gulf members do go over to the Zetas, this would most likely benefit the faction of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, "Z-3," and "El Taliban." Hope says that Coss’ capture could result in the Sinaloa Cartel being drawn more directly into the Zetas’ internal struggle, with this conflict replacing the Gulf-Zetas war as the main driver of violence in the northeast.