X20's capture leaves a power vacuum in fragmented cartel

Three men will fight to control Mexico's Gulf Cartel following the capture of leader "X20" last week, according to US sources, although whether any of them are capable of uniting the divided mafia remains to be seen.

Mexico's El Universal newspaper cited US agencies as naming Luis Alberto Trinidad Ceron, alias "El Guicho," Juan Francisco Carrizales, "El 98," and Juan Alberto de la Cruz Alvarez, alias "El Juanillo" or "El Fernandillo," as the three potential successors to Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño, alias "X20," detained August 17 in the border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

According to El Universal, Trinidad was the lieutenant of Michael Villarreal, alias "El Gringo," a US citizen who led the Metros -- one of two warring factions of the Gulf Cartel -- until he was killed on March 12. He is also responsible for the trafficking of weapons and explosives to the border town of Laredo, it said.

Francisco Carrizales is in charge of kidnapping, especially of migrants, said the paper, while De La Cruz Alvarez is responsible for arranging "safe houses" on the Texan side of Laredo where kidnapped migrants are held and killed. It did not state whether the latter two were part of the Metros or their rival faction the Rojos.

The US authorities believe all three have carried out drug trafficking operations and understand the way the Gulf Cartel operates, said El Universal.

InSight Crime Analysis

Like several of its rival organizations, the once powerful Gulf Cartel has disintegrated from its days as a tight-knit hierarchical organization into a chaotic set of warring factions in which betrayal has become commonplace.

SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel Profile

 The death of one of the cartel's principal figures in 2010 created a bitter and at times violent rift between a faction known as the Rojos, loyal to jailed former leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen and his family, and the Metros, loyal to long-time member Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," who successfully dominated the organization until his capture in September 2012. X20, also from the Metros side, later gained control after fierce battles in Reynosa. The rivalry has seen members setting each other up for capture or to be killed, even reportedly within the two groups themselves. 

Little is known about the three men apparently named by the United States, but with few genuine criminal heavyweights ready to step in and assume command, it seems unlikely that any one person can replace X20 and maintain centralized control of the Gulf Cartel's increasingly fragmented criminal structures.