InSight: Report Tracks How Intra-Cartel Wars Exploded in Mexico

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Perhaps the most startling thing about the latest Trans-Border Institute’s (TBI) report on violence in Mexico is not just that it is backed up by Mexican government statistics, but that these numbers are worse than what the TBI published in its previous reports using data compiled by Mexican media outlets.

Released on Tuesday, ‘Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2010’ (pdf) follows the TBI’s first report on violence, which came out last year around this time and has since been widely distributed and cited. In the new report, TBI Director David Shirk and co-author Viridiana Rios of Harvard University take a look at Mexico’s exploding violence, using data on drug-related homicides recently made available by the government in January 2011. Before, tracking the rise of drug violence in Mexico meant relying on media estimates or conflicting definitions over what exactly is a “drug-related” murder. While the report’s conclusions do not contradict the general consensus among crime analysts – namely, the violence will likely continue to get worse – with the inclusion of government data, the Institute is able to give a more complete picture of the nature of Mexico’s drug war.

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Rios and Shirk identify a number of factors that have increased drug related violence in Mexico but acknowledge that the most important is inter-cartel competition. Government intervention, particularly pronounced and successful against the Familia Michoacana, has served to destabilize the balance of power among cartels. Data also shows that generally speaking, violence has increased in proportion to the use of federal troops and police. 

Ciudad Juarez is a case in point: Mexican government troops and federal police have proven unable to quell the violence here despite a large presence. Juarez, a critical transit point for drugs entering the U.S. Midwest and East Coast markets, is ground zero in a turf war between the Carillo Fuentes Organization (CFO) a.k.a., the Juarez Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias ‘El Chapo.’ The violence there is the worst in the country, and has been characterized by the utilization of street gangs like Barrio Azteca, car-bombings against police forces, and scorched-earth policies designed to remove residents of surrounding rural towns from their strategically valuable smuggling corridors.

Drastic jumps in homicides in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosi are best explained by the turf war following the split between the Gulf Cartel and their former armed wing the Zetas. The Gulf Cartel has entered an alliance with Sinaloa and the Familia Michoacana, while the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) have allied against their former masters with violent tactics including narco-blockades.

Of note, Nuevo Leon, home state to Monterrey (considered the industrial/entrepreneurial hub of northern Mexico), has witnessed a nearly six-fold increase in drug-related homicides, from 112 in 2009 to 604 in 2010. While it is nowhere near the most violent state, the psychological impact upon the city and the nation cannot be underestimated.

Baja California, home to one of the most lucrative U.S. points of entry (POE), appears to have cooled, depending on what numbers are analyzed; if Mexican government numbers are used, drug-related homicides increased by 11.6 percent, from 484 in 2009 to 540 in 2010. On the other hand, when the Mexican newspaper Reforma’s count is used, homicides dropped from 320 in 2009 to 315 in 2010. Both sets of data show a clear drop after a spike in 2008 when a faction led by Eduardo Garcia Simental, alias ‘El Teo,’ split from the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel led by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias ‘El Ingeniero.’

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Baja California citizens feel safer despite the recent increase, suggesting that what might be most important is not the year-to-year change but the memory of how bad things can get. An 11.6 percent increase is mild compared to the 292 percent increase they experienced from 2007-08.

Following the arrests of Garcia and his top leadership in early 2010, Fernando Sanchez Arellano appears to have negotiated a truce with the Sinaloa Cartel’s Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias ‘El Mayo,’ to the benefit of both illicit networks and the safety of Baja California citizens.

How long this agreement lasts probably depends on the abilities of both groups to consolidate their power bases throughout Baja and the creation of any power imbalances during this process. The Sinaloa Cartel appears to have learned an operational lesson from its bloody split with the BLO and is annexing the Teo cells in Baja to prevent them from attaining an independent power base.

The state of Sinaloa, meanwhile, is racked with drug violence, due to the battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization and the weakening of Familia Michoacana, as Shirk and Rios describe. The Pacific coastline of Sinaloa and Guerrero represent excellent climate for marijuana/poppy cultivation, wide-open coastline for maritime drug shipments from the Andes and valuable territory worth fighting for.

Overall rates of violence appear poised to continue their upward trend into 2011, barring a dramatic change, for example, an electoral victory of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) combined with a negotiated peace agreement between the Mexican government and cartels.

But even if the PRI wins, a pact appears incredibly unlikely. Recent polls indicate that 49 percent of Mexican citizens believe the current strategy is a failure. While they may say that for the polls and local elections, when the push comes to the shove of national elections and the control of the military and federal police forces, Mexican citizens are likely to support candidates that will “stay the course,” unless a viable alternative is proposed.

*Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine. He’s currently doing field work in Tijuana, Mexico.

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