Photographs of the missing student protesters in Iguala

A recent massacre of student protesters in the turbulent state of Guerrero has shined a spotlight on the Guerreros Unidos -- the criminal organization reportedly behind the murders -- and on the changing nature of Mexico's criminal underworld.

As previously reported by InSight Crime, on October 5 Guerrero's Attorney General Iñaky Blanco told the press that local police had handed over 17 student protesters to criminal group the Guerreros Unidos, a splinter cell of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), to be killed. The announcement accompanied the discovery of a mass grave with 28 bodies close to where the students were murdered, raising fears that some of the 43 students who were still missing following October 3 protest in Iguala, Guerrero were among the dead. 

Since the massacre, new information has been released linking Iguala's mayor, Jose Abarca Velazquez, to the criminal group responsible for the killings.

An internal report by federal intelligence agency the CISEN, dated October 1, stated that Abarca Velazquez's brother-in-law was the local Guerreros Unidos boss in Iguala, reported El Universal. According to the report, Abarca has further ties to organized crime in the region: two additional brothers-in-law were former members of the BLO, while his mother-in-law worked for Arturo Beltran Leyva, the former head of the drug trafficking group who was killed by security forces in 2009.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Guerreros Unidos' involvement in this case highlights an ongoing trend in Mexico: larger drug trafficking cartels are giving way to smaller criminal groups, who must look for more diverse revenue streams rather than relying principally on the transnational drug trade. The fragmentation of Mexico's criminal underworld follows a pattern that has been seen in Colombia, in which an increasing number of small criminal groups rely on extortion, micro-trafficking, and contract killings to bring in cash. 

Without any obvious financial incentives to go after student protesters on their own, it is likely the Guerreros Unidos was working acting as "muscle" for corrupt local officials. If this is indeed the way the Guerreros Unidos operate, this makes them more similar to a street gang than a sophisticated drug cartel like their predecessors in the BLO.

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The Guerreros Unidos, who broke away from the BLO following the killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva, is considered a "mini-cartel" and is involved in drug trafficking but now specializes in extortion and kidnapping. Following the April 2014 arrest of the Guerreros Unidos' leader, Mario Casarrubias Salgado, alias "El Sapo Guapo," the criminal group -- which a Mexican official has said was once the primary supplier of marijuana to Chicago -- fragmented, likely pushing them to resort to these other criminal activities for income.