Part I: The Emergence of Mexico’s Small Armies*

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Mexico and Central America have emerged as one of the most dangerous areas on the planet outside of active war zones. The region is currently confronting unprecedented security challenges from street gangs, the growing presence of sophisticated criminal organizations and endemic corruption at all levels of law enforcement and government. These challenges are not new, but they are growing in intensity and visibility. As the risks to human security increase, so does the vulnerability of migrants who cross the region moving northward toward the United States. The dangers have become particularly vivid in Mexico, where unknown numbers of Mexican, Central American, and South American migrants have been killed or gone missing, presumably at the hands of criminal actors or corrupt public officials. Many more are victims of extortion, rape, and other crimes.

The homicide rate in Central America stands at just over 40 per 100,000 residents — more than twice the homicide rate in Mexico (18 per 100,000 residents), a country that receives considerably more international media attention for high levels of crime and violence. Most of the homicides in Central America are concentrated in the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — where murder rates average 58 per 100,000 residents (See Figure 1).

By comparison, in the United States the homicide rate peaked at 10 per 100,000 residents in 1980 and currently stands around 5 per 100,000. The aggregate national statistics, however, hide substantial variation within nations. In the District of Columbia (Washington, DC), the homicide rate peaked at 81 per 100,000 residents in 1991 and in 2010 stood around 22 per 100,000 — higher than in Mexico City, where the murder rate was about 14 per 100,000 in 2010. High levels of violence in certain areas — in Mexico’s case, in the border regions — skew national statistics upward.

In both Mexico and Central America, criminal groups seem to have overwhelmed the undermanned public security forces. Controlling illicit activity in rural and border areas, where migrants often cross, is particularly challenging. For instance, Olancho, a Honduran department (similar to a state or province), has about 250 police officers to cover an area roughly the size of El Salvador and larger than the country of Belgium or the US state of Maryland.1 In 2011, the Guatemalan government recently ordered 800 soldiers, including 300 members of the country’s elite Kaibil forces that specialize in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency, to reinforce local police in the remote Peten province that borders Mexico. Corruption of public security forces —in some instances at high levels — further complicates these challenges.

Murder Rate Central America

Figure 1. Murder Rate per 100,000 Residents (Note: *El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Source: Murder data compiled by the United Nations; population estimates drawn from the Population Reference Bureau.)

For decades, Central American migrants crossing Mexico for the United States have fallen victim to violent crime. (The same is true for Mexicans in transit to the United States.) Unlike the past, when this situation largely went unnoticed by the public and government, there is growing awareness and attention in the region to the dangers facing migrants crossing Mexico. Despite periodic threats and intimidation, Mexican and Central American media now regularly report on crimes against migrants. Equally important, public officials now acknowledge that the abuse of migrants crossing the region can no longer be quietly ignored or dismissed as an isolated phenomenon.

This report focuses on how criminal groups in Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle impact migrants moving northward. It reviews the origins and growth of the main illicit networks operating in Mexico and Central America, then outlines the little that is known about how criminal groups profit from, and in some cases facilitate, the flow of migrants northward. The evidence is based on both field and desk research, including discussions with officials in Mexico and the three Northern Triangle countries.

First, it is important to distinguish between street gangs, organized criminal groups, and transnational criminal organizations:

• Street gangs, which have their roots in endemic poverty and widespread urbanization, number in the thousands and have seized upon the illegal economies that flourish in the region’s poorest neighborhoods. In Central America several prominent street gangs began in the United States and were brought into the region by deportees. They are composed primarily of young men from marginalized communities; most have violent backgrounds and, often, histories of substance abuse. Street gangs control neighborhoods and local markets where they extract rents in the form of extortion although they also engage in kidnapping, assault, and contract murder. In some instances, as described later in this report, street gangs have subcontracted their services as contraband distributors or enforcers to larger criminal organizations. However, they lack the sophistication and structure of organized criminal groups.

• Organized criminal groups are larger and more sophisticated than gangs and, in Mexico and Central America, have their origins in demobilized military, paramilitary, and intelligence forces. They have a larger scope of geographic activity and engage in more lucrative activities than street gangs — primarily the traffic and distribution of drugs and arms. The higher profit margin of these activities has allowed organized criminal groups to build sophisticated hierarchical structures. Bolstered by an increasing amounts of illegal drugs moving through Mexico and Central America, organized criminal groups have greater resources, manage more infrastructure, have access to more “soldiers” and weapons, and command greater control over government institutions. These same organizations have also diversified their criminal portfolios, using their organizations and control of illegal smuggling routes to incorporate activities such as human smuggling and trafficking.

• Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are organized criminal groups that have an operational presence, not simply a transactional presence, in multiple countries.

As governments in Mexico and Central America seek to reduce the corrosive role of criminality in their societies by confronting groups involved in all sorts of illicit activities, their efforts are hampered by widespread misunderstanding and misinformation about the relationship between criminal groups and the movement of migrants through the region. Little is known about the role of criminal groups in trafficking migrants, the organizations that take part in this market, and the extent of abuse, extortion, and murder. Distinguishing reality from myth is extremely difficult. Intelligence on the structure, evolution, and operations of street gangs and more sophisticated criminal groups often relies on vague or dated information from interviews and on-the-ground observation. Concrete evidence to substantiate the views of even the most informed observers is rare. As a result, the arguments presented in this report are unavoidably anchored in anecdote. Nevertheless, they represent the best public evidence on the challenges confronting the region.

Mexico: From Family Businesses to Small Armies

In Mexico the largest criminal organizations trace their roots to the 1960s, when small family-based groups moved contraband, migrants, illegal drugs, and other products across the US border. This core group of smugglers grew in importance when cocaine from the Andes began transiting the region in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The mostly Colombia-based cocaine suppliers used Mexican criminal organizations to receive and ship their product north, where local distribution chains awaited. Initially, the trade flowing through Mexico involved relatively small quantities, but the Mexicans’ role rose as the United States increased law enforcement activities in the Caribbean, forcing cocaine-smuggling activities across the isthmus.

By the early 1990s much of the cocaine entering the United States was passing through Mexico, and some Mexican criminal organizations began commanding a greater share of the profits and establishing their own distribution networks in the United States. These included the beginnings of what would later become known as the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Juarez, and Gulf cartels.

[See InSight Crime’s Mexico news and criminal profiles page]

Initially, Mexican cartels were small, family-based organizations that depended on corrupt state security forces to provide protection from prosecution and security from rivals. However, this changed as the Mexican cartels expanded into distribution, and their operations and profits rose. The high returns led to increased competition among organizations, who in an effort to protect markets and margins, began creating their own security forces. This process forever altered the way these criminal organizations operated in Mexico (and later in Central America), and has contributed to the current proliferation of kidnappings of migrants moving through the country.

The development of the military side of these organizations is significant for several reasons. First, it represented a break from the smaller, family-based models of the past. The transformation was profound. The new paramilitary armies adopted the terminology and logic of the military and their military trainers, some of whom were foreign mercenaries.2 The organizations began designating “lieutenants” to create “cells,” which included various parts responsible for intelligence gathering and enforcement. These new “soldiers” went through requisite training and indoctrination, then joined the fight to keep other cartels from encroaching on their territory. Alongside their new military side, the cartels’ infrastructure grew as well. They managed safe houses, communications equipment, cars, and weapons — the same type of infrastructure needed for virtually any sophisticated criminal act, from robbery to kidnapping to trade in contraband goods.

Beyond securing their own turf, the cartels soon began competing for territory or “plazas,” as they are known. In the Mexican criminal world, controlling a plaza means collecting what is essentially a toll, or tax, on any activity undertaken by the multiple criminal groups operating in that territory. The so-called “piso” supplies a significant revenue stream, as the commanding group takes upwards of half of the value of the contraband moving through its corridor, whether weapons or humans or drugs. Corrupt security forces once had a hand in this part of the business, but over time, the criminal groups usurped that control.

The battle for plazas in turn depends on the number of soldiers a cartel maintains. In the case of the Tijuana Cartel, the Arellano Felix family began working with San Diego’s Logan Street Gang, training them in weapons, tactics, and intelligence gathering. The Gulf Cartel hired members of the Mexican Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFES), which adopted the name Zetas in homage to the radio handle used by its military commanders. The Juarez Cartel hired current and former police officers to form what became known as La Línea, and later an El Paso street gang known as the Aztecas. The Sinaloa Cartel eventually designated a branch of its group, the Beltran Leyva Organization, to create a mini army to deal with its rivals, supported by a smattering of smaller street gangs where the cartel operates along the US-Mexico border.

The new “soldiers” share one common characteristic: they are not part of the original, tightly knit family structures once at the core of Mexican criminal organizations.3 In the past, Mexican criminal organizations were relatively small, mostly made up of relatives from the Sinaloa state, where they had worked in poppy and marijuana fields. Membership came via blood ties, marriage, or neighborly affection — until market forces required that historically close-knit units professionalize and open admission to outsiders in order to remain competitive.

Initially, the leaders of these groups granted such “outsiders” minimal authority or discretion. Some leaders, such as Ramon Arellano Felix of the Tijuana Cartel and Osiel Cardenas Guillen of the Gulf Cartel, directly controlled their new armies, demanding personal loyalty at all costs. This proved to be a poor model over time, however, since as soon as the strong leader was eliminated (as in the case of Arellano Felix in 2002) or arrested (as in the case of Cardenas in 2003), individual loyalties disintegrated and the armies began to break away from the core cartel hierarchy. Loyalty became a commodity subject to dynamic market prices rather than “family” obligation.

The new private armies were expensive at all levels and cartel leaders began seeking ways to reduce costs, even as they continued to expand and professionalize operations. Though evidence is scarce, reports suggests that starting in the late 1990s, the cartels gradually, reluctantly, and violently shifted financial responsibility and operational control to their lieutenants — a process that only became apparent five to six years later. With newfound autonomy, many cells expanded their operations beyond security services into the extortion of legitimate businesses and, later, kidnapping.

This shift in financial and operational decision-making represents a second profound change in the way Mexican cartels operate. Suddenly, instead of one centralized criminal organization, there were numerous cells demanding piso on criminal activities such as contraband and human smuggling and competing, often violently, for territory and markets. The revenue from human smuggling is significant. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, human smuggling is a $6 billion per year business in the Americas alone.4 However, for Mexican cartels total revenue from human smuggling is relatively small compared to revenues from the international drug trade, which are probably in the range of about $15 billion-$25 billion. The profit margins of the drug trade — estimated at 80 percent of the revenues — are also likely higher than for human smuggling.

The newly militarized organizations had a new mindset, focused on occupying vast amounts of physical space. Their rapid growth prompted a change in financial structure. As operations increased, so did the need to protect leaders from detection. The units of multilayered armies gained more autonomy to delve into multiple criminal activities. This also allowed for the entry of personnel whose loyalties were less connected to the top. The new, decentralized system worked as long as a strong person remained the leader. However, as soon as that leader was eliminated, the organization inevitably began to break apart and in many instances violence flared among competing factions.

This process has played out again and again over the past decade. In an effort to increase profits, the divisions within larger organizations have diversified their criminal portfolios, delving into human smuggling, contraband, extortion, piracy, kidnapping, and other criminal activities. Many of these divisions have subsequently broken from their original organizations, including major segments of the Tijuana Cartel, the Zetas, La Línea, and the Beltran Leyva Organization. Authorities still regularly refer to smaller operatives by the names of the larger groups to which they once belonged. This practice may help make sense of the mayhem, but the reality is much more complicated on the ground. InSight Crime, for instance, recently counted 28 criminal groups in Mexico. As described below, these groups often contract smaller criminal units, usually local gangs, thus further complicating the situation and making our job of categorizing the chaos more difficult.

There is limited anecdotal evidence that Mexican criminal organizations have established their own distribution networks in the United States. There have been some arrests of Mexican organized crime leaders and members of their families within the United States, but it is not clear if the organizational structures of these groups have consolidated in the United States. Neither is there convincing evidence that Mexican cartels have a permanent operational presence in drug-producing countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. The presence of Mexican cartels in the Andean countries seems to be purely transactional, rather than operational or strategic. In this respect, it is unlikely that Mexican criminal organizations have become fully vertically integrated or “gone transnational” as is often assumed.


[1] Olancho’s total area is roughly 15,000 square miles, or 24,000 square kilometers; the population was 509,564 in 2010. See Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Encuesta de Hogares a Propósitos Múltiples 2010 (Tegucigalpa: INE).

[2] According to one law enforcement officer interviewed by the author, one of the trainers for the Tijuana Cartel was called “El Iraquí” for his Middle Eastern origins. Other trainers came from the Mexican military and police circles, according to a former Tijuana Cartel operative. See also Nathan Jones, “A State Reaction: A Theory of Illicit Network Resilience” (dissertation for the University of California Irvine, 2011).

[3] The one exception is the Beltran-Leyva Organization. Even so, this group eventually split from the Sinaloa Cartel after the capture of one its top members, who members believe was betrayed by the Sinaloa leader Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo.”

[4] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment (Vienna: UNODC, 2010).

See also:

Part II: Gangs, Deportation and Violence in Central America

Part III: The Gauntlet

*This work was originally commissioned and published by the Migration Policy Institute, which together with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars has convened a three-year research initiative focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the United States. See complete original work here. See more reports from the research initiative here.

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