The shifting balance of power in northeast Mexico has been bad news for the Gulf Cartel, which has seen its influence decline, but a new report from Proceso suggests that one Gulf leader, known as “El Coss," has benefited from the changing landscape.

The 2010 split between the Gulf Cartel and their erstwhile armed wing, the Zetas, has triggered hundreds of killings in the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, which the two groups previously ruled as, essentially, a single organization. The Zetas, whose expansion and violent tactics made them notorious even prior to the split, emerged with a larger share of the territory.

Furthermore, as the maps below demonstrate, they have since expanded, now operating in far-flung states like Jalisco, and have even popped up in Sinaloa. Much of the territory in the northeast is disputed by the two gangs, however.

2zetas_gulf_2000sIn addition to fighting with the Zetas, the Gulf bosses have also been battling among themselves. As the Proceso article indicates, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," was piqued at being only the third-ranking member of the group following the arrest and extradition of former leader Osiel Cardenas in the 2000s. According to an anonymous source, Costilla Sanchez has since focused on setting his rivals up to be arrested or killed by government forces, allowing him to emerge as the overall leader of the group.

While the Gulf Cartel is a diminished force, it retains control of a number of significant border regions, most notably Reynosa and Matamoros, and continues to battle it out with the Zetas in other cities around the region, such as Monterrey and Tampico. Indeed, while its territory has been reduced, the Gulf's level of control in the areas that remain under its dominion seems to have hardened, despite the ongoing battle with the Zetas.

According to Proceso, this is due to the links between Costilla Sanchez and high-level elements in the military. The anonymous source whose account was the basis for the story says that, in exchange for millions of dollars, army and marine commanders essentially give Costilla Sanchez free rein to operate in Mexico’s northeastern region, and attack his enemies as needed. Under Costilla Sanchez, the Gulf Cartel’s previous ruling clique has been displaced, thanks in large part to military pressure. Most notable was former leader Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas, Osiel’s brother, who was killed in a shootout with marines in 2010.1zetas gulf now

However, the fact that the entire article rests on the version of a single anonymous source, and has not been confirmed by any independent voices speaking on the record, raises suspicions. The idea that Costilla Sanchez’s rise would be fueled by corrupt military officers is certainly not implausible, but if his enemies were looking to make life difficult both for him and for the military units operating in Tamaulipas, feeding falsehoods to reporters would be an easy way to do so.

The following is an InSight Crime translation of extracts from the Proceso article.

Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, "El Coss," has stealthily managed to remain outside Felipe Calderon's “war on drugs” and, entrenched in Tamaulipas along the US border, he has watched as the Cardenas Guillen clan has fallen apart.

Betrayals and internal purges in the Gulf Cartel during the past year have little by little given him control of the group, which is now in alliance with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, of the Sinaloa Cartel.

[...]

His old allies accuse El Coss of betrayal, and of having handed in to the marines and the army the main members and collaborators of the family that turned the Gulf Cartel into one of the foremost criminal organizations in the country. The incorporation of elite army deserters who turned into the Zetas, as an armed wing, played a huge part in this achievement

“He has bought the protection of the federal government and has handed the Cardenas Guillen families and its closest collaborators over the marines”, the source said.

In various meetings with this reporter, he explained that with the fall of Osiel Cardenas Guillen -- detained in 2003 and extradited four years later -- the leadership of the Gulf Cartel fell onto the shoulders of his brother Antonio Ezequiel, "Tony Tormenta." He was supported by Samuel Flores Borrego, "El Metro 3," the second man in the criminal structure, who was made plaza boss in Reynosa. Although he was a confidant of Cardenas, Costilla Sanchez ended up third in the hierarchy.

“El Coss betrayed the Cardenas Guillens and El Metro 3 with the goal of taking over the Gulf Cartel. He made a deal with the commanders from the marines and the army in exchange for them not touching him and gave them, as a reward, houses with a lot of money,” he says. And he warns that “a war is coming” for control of the Gulf Cartel.

Costilla Sanchez, who since 2008 is facing two drug trafficking indictments in the United States under the aliases of "El Coss," "El Double X" or "Double Ex," is now identified by his old allies as "El Judas."

According to the witness’ version, the conflict began in 2010, when Costilla Sanchez sought an alliance with Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno Gonzalez, then the boss of the Familia Michoacana. El Coss sent his brother-in-law, Ezequiel Campos Ramos, alias "El Chacho," and his nephew, “El Pato” Campos, to carry out the negotiation.

The pact consisted of El Chayo -- who was killed by marines in December of that year in Apatzingan -- sending gunmen to Reynosa to combat the Zetas in exchange for allowing the Familia Michoacana to pass drugs through a highway known as the Ribereña. Tony Tormenta and El Metro 3 did not go along with the plan.

The Ribereña is crucial to the passage of drugs in northeastern Mexico. It connects Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo, to the entrance to Texas, and movement toward southern and central Mexico. The communities that surround cities like Diaz Ordaz, Miguel Aleman and Camargo, in the path of the Ribereña, have turned into enclaves for organized crime, particularly the zone known as Brecha de Lucio, near Diaz Ordaz, which lies along the route to Monterrey.

[...]

[El Coss] has brought men from the Guatemalan regions of Peten, Alta Verapaz, and Coban, who work for him as hitmen and “cooks” to disappear enemies. But above all, the source says, he counts on the support of the armed forces, especially the marines, to do away the Cardenas Guillens.

In one of the meetings, the witness said that last August, El Coss had handed over 30 million pesos, equivalent to one month of salaries for his criminal structure, so that the marines and the army would carry out faked patrols and their troops would avoid passing by the sites where drugs cross to the other side of the Rio Grande.

According to this version, the payment was in exchange for informing El Coss about the operations of soldiers and marines so that his men wouldn't run into them. When the payment was made, the witness added, on the radios that the organization provides you could hear the irritation of the gunmen because they did not receive their salary that month. As a consequence, kidnappings and robberies increased in the region.

Payments like this allow the capo to move around Matamoros without anyone doing anything to him, according to information from the source.

Investigations

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