Police at the scene of a murder in Ciudad Juarez

A Southern Pulse report on Ciudad Juarez provides a glimpse at the dominant forces behind organized crime in the border city, once the “ground zero” of Mexico’s drug war, and offers a cautiously optimistic outlook for the future.

The report, published in October and available for purchase at Southern Pulse’s website, notes that the security environment in Juarez has turned a corner. Homicides in the city, which peaked at around 300 per month in 2010, have fallen dramatically, with August and September seeing around just one murder a day. Authorities have seen similar decreases in other criminal activities as well. From July 2011 to July 2012, police registered a more than 50 percent drop in vehicle theft, violent domestic robbery has fallen by 24 percent and armed robbery from commercial businesses is down by 35 percent.

One reason for this, according to the report, is that the criminal food chain in Juarez has finally settled. The Sinaloa Cartel’s bloody battle with the Juarez Cartel for control over the drug trafficking routes crossing through the city, which began in 2007, has come to an end.

This is not a sudden development, however. As the graph below shows, Juarez’s murder rate has been falling since 2010. Many analysts, the report’s author included, credit this to a non-aggression pact that both cartels agreed to in the spring of that year. However, violent crime persisted as smaller local gangs like the Aztecas and Los Mexicles -- which Southern Pulse describes as “accustomed to unrestrained strong-arm tactics” -- continued to fight over local turf.

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Additionally, violence is down because the Juarez Cartel became irreversibly weakened by its struggle with the Sinaloa Cartel and by Mexican law enforcement. Though they were once a major player in the country’s drug trafficking landscape, their connections to Colombia and the United States have been lost, and the group has now clearly become subjugated to the Sinaloans. Not only is the cartel no longer a true transnational network, Southern Pulse argues that it should be considered a “tier-two” criminal organization, on par with regional gangs like the Aztecas.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Sinaloa Cartel’s now firm hold on Juarez marks the latest in a number of victories for the organization, which in recent months seems to be deepening its influence in Mexico. Their closest rivals, the Zetas, were hit by the death of one of their leaders, Heriberto Lazcano, in early October and seem to be a top priority of law enforcement in the country. In addition to the loss of Lazcano, the group is believed to be fragmenting.

As the dominant group in Juarez, the Sinaloa Cartel is expected to maintain a relatively low profile. The cartel is known for its business-like manner and penchant for more “soft” tactics like bribery and kickbacks rather than gruesome mass killings. With them at the helm of the city’s underworld, drug-related murders will likely be kept at a minimum. This will be an issue for Julian Leyzaola, Juarez’s police commander, who has battled police corruption since taking office in early 2011, when he told reporters that he suspected nearly one-quarter of the police force was on the payroll of criminal organizations.

But the peaceful outlook for the city may not hold for long. One of the main variables in this equation, according to the Southern Pulse report, is the strategy of Juarez Cartel-affiliated smaller gangs like the Aztecas and La Linea, which has served as the cartel’s main hit squad. These gangs are strong enough in the city to pose a serious challenge to the Sinaloa Cartel, and may make a play to do so if their hold slips.