A recently issued list of Mexico's newest "cartels" brings attention to the evolution of Mexican organized crime, and how the term "cartel" can lead to a misunderstanding of the country's changing criminal landscape.
The seven cartels identified by SEIDO -- with a brief description -- are as follows:
- "Cartel del Estado" or "The State Cartel" - Operates primarily in the State of Mexico, and began as a faction of the Familia Michoacana. It focuses on kidnapping, local drug distribution, and charging "piso," or fees paid by groups to move drugs through its territory.
- "Cartel de los Precursores Quimicos" or "The Precursor Chemical Cartel" - Aptly named, the group is dedicated to providing other criminals with the chemicals necessary for drug production. It is said to have both a national and international reach.
- "Cartel de los Mazatlecos" or "Mazatlecos Cartel" - Reportedly started by the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) and the Zetas along the coast in Sinaloa state to challenge the Sinaloa Cartel. The group focuses on kidnapping, extortion, and narcotics.
- "Cartel del Chapo Isidro" or "Chapo Isidro Cartel" - Taking its name from alleged leader Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, alias "Chapo Isidro," the group is believed to be responsible for trafficking large quantities of methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana.
- "Cartel de la Oficina" or "The Office Cartel" - Was started by members who defected from the armed wings of the BLO, Zetas, and Sinaloa Cartel. The group operates in various central and western Mexican states, focusing on local drug distribution and kidnapping.
- "Cartel Gente Nueva del Sur" or "New Southern People Cartel" - Operating in southeast Mexico, the group is dedicated to extortion, kidnapping, local drug distribution, charging "piso," and oil theft.
- "Cartel del Aeropuerto" or "Airport Cartel" - A geographically diffuse group that specializes in smuggling narcotics through commercial airports as well as clandestine flights.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given the shifting dynamics of Mexico's criminal underworld, describing any emergent criminal group as a "cartel" is misleading. That is, the term tends to evoke the impression of a monolithic, vertically-integrated organization that controls a large swathe of territory.
Yet the face of Mexican organized crime has changed considerably in the past decade. Beginning with ex-President Felipe Calderon's "Kingpin Strategy," Mexican authorities have proved adept at capturing high-value criminal targets, resulting in a generation of cartel leaders being either killed or imprisoned. This frontal assault on Mexico's once-powerful cartels has contributed to their fragmentation, with mid- and low-ranking members breaking off to form their own criminal enterprises -- few of which have replicated or achieved the power of their cartel predecessors.
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Instead, these new groups have diversified their revenue streams, moving away from large-scale international drug trafficking into locally-focused criminal activities -- such as extortion, kidnapping, resource theft, or charging "piso" for the use of their territory. They also tend to specialize in one particular aspect of the drug trade (such as selling precursor chemicals or smuggling drugs through airports), forming part of a horizontal network of diverse, geographically disperse criminal groupings that coordinate (or not) their illicit activities. Indeed, even the Sinaloa Cartel -- perhaps the most sophisticated criminal structure remaining in Mexico -- is better understood as a "federation" of various groups rather than a tightly knit organization.
While less visible on a national or international level than their cartel fore bearers, these smaller criminal groups are also more difficult to target and eradicate -- calling for Mexican security officials to re-evaluate and alter their anti-crime strategy accordingly. However, if Colombia offers any lessons for Mexico, effectively adapting to this new criminal dynamic in order to tackle emerging groups will be a difficult, long-term process.