Southern Pulse: The Four Corner Stones of Mexico’s Criminal System

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Between March 2011 and the last day of President Calderon’s mandate in 2012, Mexico’s narco-underworld will evolve at a fast pace as Calderon’s strategy forces more fractures between the already cracked alliances that currently shape Mexico’s criminal landscape. Fractures lead to atomization and combustion, while impunity, corruption, and an endless supply of weapons and men ensures sustainability and amplification. Atomization and combustion, scalability and amplification are four cornerstones of the Mexican underworld – each ensure that organized crime will continue to thrive in Mexico if deeply flawed structural issues – judicial and political systems, the police, etc – are not addressed. This week, we will focus on the first two cornerstones: atomization and combustion.

Two distinct waves of violence have occurred in Mexico since the end of 2007. The arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January 2008 marked the first. The death of his younger brother, Arturo, in December 2009 marked the second. Within both waves, we have seen the very principle of how atomization leads to violence, or combustion.

Alfredo’s arrest put just enough doubt in his younger brother’s mind to think twice about staying in league with the leader of the Sinaloa Federation, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who he thought had led the authorities to his older brother’s door. Until approximately April 2008, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) had worked hand in hand with the Sinaloa Federation. Alfredo’s arrest, however, catalyzed the May 2008 murder of El Chapo’s son, Edgar Guzman – thought to be ordered by Arturo Beltran-Levya and carried out by his new allies, Los Zetas.

The violence that followed in the wake of Edgar Guzman’s murder lasted until approximately January 2009 – driven largely by the Sinaloa Federation fighting against the Beltran Leyva organization on all fronts where the two former allies had once worked together. Not a year later, Mexico’s second significant wave of violence began soon after the Mexican Navy killed Arturo in an apartment in Cuernavaca, Morelos just six days before Christmas.

Alfredo’s arrest broke apart the Sinaloa Federation-BLO alliance. Arturo’s death broke apart the BLO – a true work of atomization. The BLO leadership mantle fell to Carlos, who was summarily arrested. It then fell to Hector, who retains it to this day, but even before the dust had settled in the wake of Arturo’s death, his long time associate and confidante, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal, was already thinking of making his own name in Mexico’s narco-underworld.

Indeed, on the day that Arturo died, many observers wondered why La Barbie had not died with him – the two men were rarely apart. Whether he knew the attack was coming or not, La Barbie seized on the moment to capture the important cocaine-reception point of Acapulco for himself and his small group of followers. Violence broke out between Hector Beltran Leyva and La Barbie’s group. This rivalry continues to this day, long after La Barbie’s arrest and the arrest of many of Arturo’s other lieutenants, who all sought to form their own groups. A third-generation group known as La Mano con Ojos – the hand with eyes – is a direct result of Arturo’s death and has recently begun to terrorize the periphery of Mexico City.

Mexican analysts have used the word combustion to describe the violence that follows atomization. As groups split apart, they fight over territory, personnel, supplies and long standing personal grievances. Combustion is clear in other cases beyond the BLO atomization. Simply observe Tamaulipas, a state currently fought over by two former allies, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Observe Jalisco, a state formerly controlled by a high-ranking Sinaloa Federation operative, Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel, whose 29 July 2010 death led, in part, to the formation of two rival groups, La Resistencia and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generation (CJNG).

Atomization also opens doors for new alliances. When Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel split in late January 2010, few expected that the Gulf Cartel would immediately announce an alliance with their formal rivals in the Sinaloa Federation and La Familia Michoacana. The truth is, Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla, the de facto head of the Gulf Cartel for many years, had been negotiating a truce with the Sinaloa Federation since early 2009. Once Los Zetas spun off into its own group, it made sense for the Gulf Cartel as an organization to seek aid in combating its former attack dogs.

This triple alliance, known at the New Federation, appears to remain in place today, but could at any moment atomize into smaller groups. And inside Los Zetas, rumors circulate of yet another potential split, right down the middle. The 2011 run on arrests of Los Zetas leaders in Oaxaca, Monterrey and other locations around Mexico has led more than one observer to consider that Los Zetas number two, Miguel “El 40” Treviño Morales, has been feeding information to the Mexican government to ensure the arrest of Zetas commanders loyal to Los Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano. Indeed, if Los Zetas breaks into two groups during the course of this year, 2011 could become the most violent year so far in Calderon’s presidential mandate.

Across the board, atomization and combustion are closely linked to the four phases of violence any criminal organization passes through in its life cycle. Each phase overlaps the first, and any given organization may find itself in a transition period from one phase to the next. There are no clean breaks.

The first phase is to conquer – clear and hold – and establish a footprint in the black market. For each of Mexico’s top-tier organizations – the Arellano Felix, the Carillo Fuentes, the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel, La Familia MIchoacana, and Los Zetas – this phase has been complete. The second phase, to clean-up and force weaker rivals to join or die, appears to be endless for some groups, such as Los Zetas. Some geographical areas of Mexico calm down when the controlling criminal organization completes this phase such as Sinaloa and Sonora where the Sinaloa Federation holds sway, while other areas in Mexico flare up when smaller organizations form to fight against the stronger criminal force, as is currently the case in Jalisco and Acapulco.

The third phase, which largely involves brand protection and a focus on cleaning out smaller groups that unofficially use another group’s criminal brand to further its own endeavor, is a semi-constant endeavor for some groups, such as Los Zetas, which are still struggling to establish themselves as an organization strong enough to exist at the highest order of criminal nobility yet nimble enough to enforce its rule of law in every corner where it purports to operate. This preoccupation cannot be a focus unless the group has passed completely through the first phase.

The final phase, one where the organization must deal with succession normally caused by the death or arrest of a leader, is often the most turbulent and violent. Over the years, we have seen how the Arellano Felix, Carrillo Fuentes, and Beltran Leyva criminal families have all dealt with the successive loss of their leaders, with the BLO in 2008, 2009, and 2010 providing the best example of how a criminal organization passing through this phase often spins-off smaller groups which in turn begin their own cycles of violence. The Gulf Cartel has also weathered this phase with an atomization – the loss of Los Zetas – that as an independent group began its own cycle of violence as it established itself as an independent organization in Mexico’s criminal landscape.

For Calderon, it is this fourth phase that creates challenges for his security strategy. Going after the criminal leadership is necessary, but also leads to more violence when it is not combined with stronger and reformed police and judicial institutions. As long as Mexico’s institutional reforms lag behind, every ‘win’ for the Mexican security forces creates a more atomized and violent set of drug trafficking organizations. This is the pattern that explains why 2010 was so violent in spite of numerous successes by the Mexican security forces. Unfortunately, Calderon isn’t in complete control of this issue. His critics consider the Mexican government itself as simply one more “criminal entity” on the map, with the next presidential election forcing this group into a fourth phase. Regardless of the Mexican security force actions and critics’ claims, should the Zetas split or the New Federation face challenges from new small criminal organizations, the violence will increase in lock step with election season.

(Reprinted with permission from Southern Pulse.)

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