Cartel Lieutenant’s Capture Could Bring Tijuana a Step Closer to War

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The arrest of Armando Villareal Heredia, alias “El Gordo,” is a blow to the weakened Tijuana Cartel that could increase the likelihood of conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel in the region.

According to a 2010 U.S. indictment, Armando Villareal Heredia was a top-ranking lieutenant of the group, reporting to organization boss Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero.” He operated from Guadalajara and was in charge of logistics for drug shipments from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the border region of Baja California. Villareal Heredia was arrested on July 9, and is likely to face extradition to the United States given that he is a U.S. citizen, born in San Diego.

At 33 years of age, Villareal Heredia represented the “new generation” of Tijuana Cartel leadership as depicted on a DEA wanted poster released in 2009. The group, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, was referred to in the indictment as the Fernando Sanchez Organization or (FSO). This allowed federal prosecutors to claim victory over the AFO, whose first generation of leadership is now largely behind bars. The new generation of leaders has followed a much lower profile business model which attempts to avoid drawing attention through the excessive or public use of violence.

Villareal Heredia gave instructions to Mario Escamilla, a San Diego gang “underboss” who organized courier drug trafficking and assassination operations for the capo operating from “Zapopan/Guadalajara” Jalisco. The indictment cites Villarreal for a number of crimes, including the theft of 50 pounds of methamphetamine being transported on a bus in Mexico. The indictment also refers to conversations, intercepted by the U.S. government, in which he apparently arranged the cross-border transport of small quantities of methamphetamine. The most damning charges against Villareal Heredia involve conversations between him and a government informant, in which he ordered the informant to kill an FSO member in the United States, who had “disrespected” the “Señores in Tijuana,” (the FSO leadership).

Armando Villareal Heredia “communicated directly” with FSO boss Fernando Sanchez Arellano, according to the indictment, and thus his capture will be a significant blow to the group. It is another in a long string of arrests of top level FSO leadership which could weaken the cartel’s control over the lucrative Tijuana “plaza,” or drug trafficking territory.

It’s not clear how far the group currently controls the Tijuana plaza, as InSight Crime has set out in previous investigations. The FSO has had an acrimonious relationship with Sinaloa Cartel’s head Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” since the Tijuana-based group became independent traffickers in the early 1990s. But with the arrest of the first generation of leadership of the AFO, the two groups have achieved some form of rapprochement. What is known about the new relationship is that the Sinaloa Cartel and the FSO have achieved a level of peace which has avoided the large scale homicides and widespread kidnappings seen in the civil war within the Tijuana Cartel from 2008-2010, when lieutenant Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo,” broke off from the group. Garcia Simental formed an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008, but this had broken down by 2010. Since his arrest in January 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel has preferred peace with its rival.

It is not known for certain how the balance of power now stands between the two groups, though some observers believe Sinaloa currently holds the upper hand. The Familia Michoacana is also a major presence in Tijuana, which they use to traffic methamphetamine, but is not considered a major controller of the plaza and likely pays “piso,” or taxes, to the FSO. Now that the Familia has split and many members have followed Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” into his offshoot group the Cabelleros Templarios, the Familia’s current status in Tijuana is not clear.

It should also be noted that the Arellano Felix brothers of the first generation, (now all dead or arrested) hailed from Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. Their connections in their home region may have provided a salve and an opportunity to build bridges with the Sinaloa Cartel leaders. The Sinaloa Cartel is also deeply involved in a conflict for Ciudad Juarez with the Juarez Cartel, also known as the Vicente Carillo Fuentes Organization, and its armed branch La Linea. The Sinaloa Cartel may prefer to avoid conflict on other fronts as long as this struggle continues.

InSight Crime’s interviews with Tijuana businessmen, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, indicate that the fear in Tijuana is that if the Sinaloa Cartel continues to increase in power and the FSO continues to decline, at some point Sinaloa will attempt to eradicate its weaker rival, causing violence to surge in the city. The arrest of Villareal Heredia is another blow to the FSO that could help make that scenario a reality. However, the Sinaloa are unlikely to try to strike a death blow against the FSO so long as they remains embroiled in conflict in Juarez. Thus, Juarez’s loss may be Tijuana’s gain.

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