Which Gangs Rule in Mexico City?

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A newspaper report on “narco-taxis” paints a picture of an increasingly violent local drug trade in Mexico City, raising questions about what criminal groups are present in the country’s capital and how willing they are to use violence to exert their rule.

Newspaper El Universal spoke to a taxi driver involved in the local drug trade, who they referred to as “Señor T.” He is one of an estimated 100 “narco-taxi” drivers in the capital.

Señor T spends his evenings delivering between $1,500 and $3,000 in cocaine to private clients, including bars and restaurants, in Mexico City’s wealthier neighborhoods. The taxi driver told El Universal that he sold a half kilo of cocaine each weekend.

According to Señor T, his bosses are members of the Gulf Cartel, who operate in the Condesa neighborhood — a fashionable area with a hot nightlife scene.

He said that in the past several years, the city’s drug trade has heated up, as more cartels have moved in to dispute the local market, which used to be controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. Now — according to a map drawn up by El Universal based on information from one security expert — the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, the Familia Michoacana and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) are all present in the Federal District (known in Spanish as DF).

Further anecdotal evidence collected by El Universal indicates that criminal groups from the southern state of Guerrero are also looking to tap into Mexico City’s local drug market.

The newspaper spoke with a Federal District cocaine dealer who said he bought his drugs in Guerrero, and worked for a criminal gang from that state, which he refused to identify.

Mexico City could be a ticking time bomb.

According to newspaper Reforma, gangs from Morelos and Guerrero are based in the Mexico City neighborhoods grouped around the highway that connects the capital city to these two states. These include gangs like the Rojos, the Guerreros Unidos, the Sierra Cartel and another group known as the New Administration (Nueva Administracion). In recent weeks, a series of murders and kidnappings have occurred in these neighborhoods, with one man’s body displaying signs of torture and three other corpses burned and beheaded.

With this blend of criminal interests allegedly involved in the Federal District drug market, Mexico City could be a ticking time bomb. The four states surrounding the capital — Morelos, Mexico state, Guerrero and Michoacan — have registered nearly a third of Mexico’s total murders for the past two years, thanks to the battle between drug cartels or their splinter groups for territorial control.

Jose Antonio Ortega, head of an NGO known as Citizen’s Council for Security and Criminal Justice (CCPSPJP), told El Universal that violence in this region “is due to its proximity to the Federal District.” Along these lines, one Mexican sociologist consulted by Revista Variopinto said the Federal District’s frontiers with neighboring states were the most troubled by drug violence.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Universal’s inside look at the Mexico City drug trade raises a question that has sprung up many times over the years, often resulting in a wide range of answers: do the major cartels maintain a permanent presence in Mexico’s capital, and if so, what form does this take?

While Mexico City authorities flatly deny the cartels are present, other reports indicate otherwise. Based on El Universal’s reporting, a criminal realignment of sorts could be occurring in the Federal District, as the local drug market grows and a range of cartels and their offspring attempt to grab a share of the market.

Microtrafficking has certainly become a major activity in the area. Mexico’s former Public Security Secretary, Joel Ortega, warned of the rise of taxi drivers dedicated to local drug sales back in 2006. Between August 2012 and September 2014, more than 3,000 people were arrested in the Federal District for selling drugs.

There’s also great potential for profits in Mexico City’s drug trade. Mexican groups buy a kilo of cocaine wholesale from Colombian groups in Honduras for between $8,000 and $12,000, while on the streets of the Federal District, a gram goes for about $18 to $25, meaning net earnings could vacillate between $6,000 and as much as $17,000 per kilo.

Federal bodies, security experts, and District officials have argued over what cartels are present in the Federal District for years.

Ortega of the CCPSPJP told InSight Crime that the DF was the “crown jewel” for Mexico’s cartels partly because of its status as the country’s economic and political power center, which made it a strategic operating platform for criminal groups looking to gain greater control.

He said two places in the city with an obvious cartel presence were the capital’s international airport — long a transit hub used by the Sinaloa Cartel and BLO — and the nightclubs.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Microtrafficking

In a notorious case last year, 12 youths and one other man — who became known as the “Tepito 12” — were kidnapped from a bar in Mexico City’s nightlife district, brutally murdered, and their bodies dumped in a nearby town. Reports emerged that the criminal gang suspected to be responsible for the incident was linked to the BLO, although at the time of the kidnappings, Mexico City authorities rejected the idea that “organized crime” was involved.

Both the Zona Rosa and Condesa — the area where the taxi driver consulted by El Universal works — lie within the district of Cuauhtemoc, one of five zones recently named by the head of the Federal District’s microtrafficking prosecutor’s office as a microtrafficking “hot spot.” It is also home to nearly a quarter of the District’s youth gangs, according to authorities.

Nevertheless, incidents like the “Tepito 12” haven’t done much to clarify the question of what larger drug cartels operate in the Federal District. Further obfuscating the issue is the fact that federal bodies, security experts, and District officials have argued over this for years. 

In 2011, Mexico’s Federal Police said seven Mexican cartels were present in the capital, engaging in drug production, kidnapping, extortion, and human trafficking. That same year, Joel Ortega said there were four cartels operating in the District. These included Mano con Ojos, a smaller, violent offshoot of the BLO. And as of January 2012, The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) identified four cartels in Mexico City: the BLO, the Juarez Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In a more recent assessment, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, known as the PGR, identified the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) as the only “cartel” present in the District. But the PGR has acknowledged there are various mid-level criminal groups present with ties to the major cartels. These include Mano con Ojos, the Moscos, El Indio, El Pelos, and the New Administration. These last three are all allegedly linked to the organization once run by jailed BLO leader Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie.”

As Mexico’s larger drug trafficking organizations continue to fracture, they are constantly looking for new sources of revenue, and the capital is a prime location to do business.

Such reports contrast with previous claims by Miguel Angel Mancera, Mexico City’s current mayor and former attorney general, who insisted that “the city is only affected by microtrafficking” and “microtrafficking is not considered organized crime.” In August 2013, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo claimed,”We do not have the establishment of any [drug cartel] detected [in the Federal District].”

According to Ortega of the Mexico City-based citizen security NGO, such contradictions from officials are no accident. He said it was politically useful for capital authorities to deny the presence of cartels.

He also indicated that certain authorities maintained agreements with criminal groups. An unidentified high-ranking member of Mexico’s security forces hinted at this in an interview with Revista Variopinto as well, stating: “If the Federal District government denies the presence of cartels, it’s because they must have some kind of deal [with them].”

Some events have supported this: information given by a Mano con Ojos member captured in 2011 led to an investigation into federal police units allegedly collaborating with the gang. Meawhile, a shootout in the Mexico City airport in 2012 — during which three federal police officers were killed — led to the discovery of a cocaine smuggling ring involving police agents. 

What is certain is that Mexico City is surrounded by violent actors and is home to a lucrative local drug market. As Mexico’s larger drug trafficking organizations continue to fracture, they are constantly looking for new sources of revenue, and the capital is a prime location to do business. While the Federal District may have better security and a stronger state presence than other parts of the country, the city could yet find itself in serious trouble when it comes to organized crime.

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