Serving Mexico’s Cartels, Armed Cells Led to an Explosion of Violence

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Beginning in the 1990s, Mexico’s cartels began recruiting hired gunmen to act as armed cells. Since then, violence against civilians with no links to organized crime has escalated as these groups turn to exploiting the population as a source of revenue. 

In January 2010, 17 young people were killed at a party in Villas de Salvarcar, Chihuahua. The perpetrators were soon identified. They belonged to a criminal gang known as “La Linea,” linked to the Juarez Cartel.

Then-President Felipe Calderon was quick to declare the deaths to be a result of “a confrontation between gangs.” Just one more case, according to the government version, of “they only kill each other.”

But it was soon known that behind the crime were orders given to La Linea to finish off members of the gang known as the “Artistas Asesinos,” who worked with the rival Sinaloa Cartel.

This article was originally published by El Daily Post and is reprinted with permission. It is the second installment in a journalism project called NarcoData, developed by Animal Politico and Poderopedia, which seeks to explain the evolution and growth of organized crime in Mexico. See the original article here.

The investigation clearly showed, however, that the murdered young people had no link to organized crime. Even Calderon was eventually forced to offer an apology to the victims’ families.

The reality was that the deadly attack was one more of a growing number of examples of a criminal organization harming or killing a group that had nothing to do with disputes between cartels.  

The attacks on everyday uninvolved citizens have been more common ever since the 1990s, when the cartels began recruiting killers to form armed cells to attack rival groups or other citizens should the perceived need arise.

The same cartels that recruited the killer bands took it upon themselves to arm them with high powered weapons, turning them into the cartels’ first line of attack against rival organizations or government forces.

These armed cells have been the perpetrators of mass murders, such as the one in Salvarcar.

In 2008, for example, 24 bodies were found in La Marquesa in the State of Mexico. Investigators were unable to establish that any of those victims had any link to the criminal world.

The killers in the La Marquesa case turned out to members of La Mano con Ojos (the Hand with Eyes), a cell in the Beltran Leyva Cartel charged with eliminating operations in the State of Mexico by the rival Familia Michoacana.

Another similar case, in July 2010, took place in the major city of Torreon, Coahuila, where 17 persons were murdered at a birthday party by members of the Gente Nueva armed cell, working with the Sinaloa Cartel.

The Zetas Came First

The same cartels that recruited the killer bands took it upon themselves to arm them with high powered weapons, turning them into the cartels’ first line of attack against rival organizations or government forces.

The first armed wing operating under a criminal organization was Los Zetas. In 1998, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, leader of the Gulf Cartel, began recruiting former military men. The strategy turned out to be a key factor in the rise of the Gulf Cartel’s power.

SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel News and Profile

The Zetas took charge of stopping advances into Tamaulipas by the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels, both of whom were looking to take over the territory along the Texas border.

Juarez and Sinaloa, however, responded by forming their own armed militias — La Linea and the Pelones, respectively.

At the end of the Vicente Fox administration (2000-2006), those three killer cells were the only ones that existed, or at least the only ones for which any information existed.

By the end of the Calderon administration six years later, the number grew from three to 59.

Then, taking advantage of their intimidating firepower, they had branched out on their own into oil theft from pipelines, trafficking of migrants, kidnapping and extortion.

That huge leap in the number of armed cells inevitably led to a rise in the rate of aggression against everyday citizens. Society at large became a source of revenue, and a victim of daily attacks.

“What’s happening is that groups were created with the advantage of certain criminal infrastructure — arms, vehicles, safe houses, and hired killers who could operate with autonomy,” says Raul Benitez Manaut, a specialist in security issues with the Center for Research on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). And the best business other than trafficking drugs is to squeeze the population.”

There are various ways of doing that. The Zetas, for example, acting at first as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, soon opened up some new business lines, including retail drug sales and pirated goods. Then, taking advantage of their intimidating firepower, they had branched out on their own into oil theft from pipelines, trafficking of migrants, kidnapping and extortion.

“After the Zetas started operating with freedom and began to grow bigger and more powerful, other crime organizations saw that what they were doing was profitable,” points out Guillermo Valdes, former director of the National Investigation and Security Center (Cisen), Mexico’s top intelligence agency.

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile

So before 2000, organized crime activities primarily involved the illicit drug trade and were aimed at the exterior market. But after the cartels began recruiting killers to form armed cells, a thriving business took shape based on various forms of aggression against society at large, and the illegal exploitation of local economies.

How this evolution unfolded — its cause and consequences — will be explored in the next segment of NarcoData.

*This article was originally published by El Daily Post and is reprinted with permission. It is the second installment in a journalism project called NarcoData, developed by Animal Politico and Poderopedia, which seeks to explain the evolution and growth of organized crime in Mexico. See the original article here.

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