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Mexico: Upstart Gangs Eat into Cartel Hegemony

While the most obvious symptom of Mexico’s current struggle with organized crime is stratospheric rates of violence, the fracturing of powerful trafficking organizations into a constellation of smaller groups could have a more lasting impact on the country.

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For most of the past two decades, Mexico's underworld has been under the control of a steady rotation of dominant groups. The Juarez, Tijuana, Gulf, and Sinaloa Cartels have all taken their turn as the leading organization. And those that weren’t number one at a given moment never ceased to be a force in their territory. These networks controlled every step of the cocaine supply chain: links to Colombia, finely tuned transport networks, protectors in the government, loyal money-launders, and a system for slipping past the border controls and putting the drugs in the hands of the American distributors.

But today the landscape is quite different. The above networks’ international connections remain intact, but they have all been forced to deal with an upsurge of smaller gangs. These groups are typically concentrated in a smaller geographic region, and often have a specialized skill-set that allows them to carve out a niche.

And the list of smaller powers is growing. To name just a few: the South Pacific Cartel (CPS, for its initials in Spanish) and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (which suffered a blow earlier this week with the arrest of Moises Montero) are fighting for control of the prized slice of Guerrero coastline, as well as states further inland. The Resistance and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG, for its initials in Spanish) are locked into a battle for the Pacific coast states of Nayarit, Colima, and Jalisco, though the latter group has branched out into other regions in recent months. In Mexico State, a shadowy gang calling itself the Mano con Ojos has been investigated for leaving decapitated heads around the Mexico City suburbs.

The most famous of all the new groups to take shape in the past year is the Caballeros Templarios, a Familia offshoot led by Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," one of the old group's most charismatic figures.

Many of these newer groups came into being under the umbrella of the larger networks: the CPS was thought to be a local iteration of the Beltran Leyva Organization, while the Resistance is supported by a handful of outside groups. The Caballeros are basically a large chunk of the Familia operating under a new name. For its part, the CJNG is made up of lieutenants previously working for Ignacio Coronel, the Sinaloa boss who controlled the region before his death in 2010.

However, the loyalty to the larger gang often doesn’t last: the Beltran Leyvas denounced the PSC for their alleged killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of a famous poet, and the CJNG left a note next to a collection of dead bodies in June taunting the Sinaloa. The fact that the new groups operate under a different name indicates a certain separation that, at least in recent years, more often than not presages an eventual break between the mentor and protege gangs.

The new gangs often get their start as the enforcers for the larger groups, before branching out on their own or essentially overwhelming the larger gang. The most obvious example is the Zetas, who kicked off their career as hit men at the service of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas in the 1990s. His arrest in 2003 and extradition in 2007 created a distance between the Zetas and the remaining Gulf leaders, and the two groups eventually began open warfare in early 2010.

Another illustration of this phenomenon is La Linea, the Juarez gang that has sustained a fight with Sinaloa-linked adversaries for more than three years. While initially described as muscle for Vicente Carrillo’s Juarez Cartel, it now seems that the La Linea essentially is the Juarez Cartel.

While the Sinaloa Cartel is often described as the most powerful mafia organization in the world, it too has suffered from the disputes with upstarts. First, there was the famous 2008 split between the Beltran Leyva brothers and the Sinaloa bosses, which precipitated some of the bloodiest episodes of the past five years.

More recently, and less notoriously, a cell of Gente Nueva, a Juarez-based group who initially never ventured out of Chihuahua state, turned against its bosses and tried to take over Durango, a longtime Sinaloa haven. The internecine fighting in Durango is thought to be behind the hundreds of dead bodies found outside the state capital earlier this year.

The most obvious reason for the growth of the smaller gangs is pressure from the federal government. A significant number of kingpins have been killed or arrested in the past two years in particular, and one capo’s demise often sparks fighting between subordinates and rivals for control of his network. (The government denies this, though not very convincingly.) But even beyond the takedowns of capos, a more aggressive federal policy creates space for newcomers, because one group losing a significant chunk of its operators or having its favored cocaine route shut down by the army creates opportunities for ambitious small-timers.

But this is not a one-off phenomenon; instability breeds further instability, because the new groups don’t enjoy the same level of dominance as their predecessors did. Even after winning control over a given territory, their reign is subject to continued challenges. This dynamic is further aided by the fact that two of the groups that have emerged in recent years -- the Zetas and the Familia -- are aggressively expansionist. All of this, of course, has driven spiraling levels of violence, essentially generating just the sort of feedback loop which Mexico has been struggling to break free for the past several years.

The current violence notwithstanding, there are a certain number of advantages to an industry populated with scores of smaller gangs rather than a handful of giants. One is that the new mafias will be less wealthy than the billion-dollar behemoths, and therefore less capable of corrupting public officials. Insofar as less wealth implies less power, eventually the constellation of smaller groups will likely adopt a more defensive position with regard to the government.

But unfortunately, the transition to a more disperse industry is causing a great deal of bloodshed today. And until the industry settles at a more tranquil and stable equilibrium, the chaos and violence will endure, causing some to long for the good old days of the big cartels.

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