April 21, 2011 | 1214 GMT
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Editor’s Note: Since the publication of STRATFOR’s2010 annual Mexican cartel report, the fluid nature of the drug war in Mexico has prompted us to take an in-depth look at the situation more frequently. This is the first product of those interim assessments, which we will now make as needed, in addition to our annual year-end analyses and our weekly security memos.
In the first three months of 2011, overall violence across Mexico continued to rise. The drug cartels are fighting for control of lucrative ports of entry along the U.S. border and strategic choke points in the interior of Mexico — urban crossroads on both major and minor smuggling routes. These crossroads include cities like Ciudad Victoria, San Luis Potosi, Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Durango, Torreon, Saltillo and Chihuahua. Some of them are important because they straddle vital north-south routes running along the coastlines. Others have strategic value because they sit on major highways that serve as direct routes through the interior of the country, from various points on the Pacific coast to ports of entry on the Texas border. And along that border, the control of plazas that have border crossings is being hotly contested from Juarez to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico.
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The Gulf cartel, still battling its former enforcer arm Los Zetas, is holding on to Matamoros, a vital Gulf asset. With the Sinaloa Federation’s help, the Gulf cartel has repelled Zeta offensives both at Matamoros and Reynosa but has not displayed the force necessary to push Los Zetas out of Monterrey. Los Zetas, suffering the loss of 11 mid- to upper-level leaders and plaza bosses, continue to fight their primary war with the Gulf cartel while training and assisting allied cartels in Juarez, Tijuana and Acapulco.
The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) cartel is managing to keep Sinaloa forces at bay in Juarez but has lost its outlying territories in Chihuahua state as well as its primary drug supply line from Chihuahua City. Sinaloa’s effective blockade of Juarez has begun to choke off VCF’s supply and revenue flow. VCF is not yet out of the game, but it is limping noticeably. Another cartel on the decline — a shadow of its former self — is the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO, aka the Tijuana cartel). AFO has very little territory left that it holds alone and is now subservient to the Sinaloa Federation, to which it pays for the right to access the California ports of entry.
The Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS) and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA), both of which comprise splinter factions of the former Beltran Leyva Organization, are battling each other for control of Acapulco’s seaport. CPS is the more successful of the two, with its territorial control stretching north along the Gulf of California coast into Sonora state, though smuggling corridors up the coastline are regularly disputed by the Sinaloa Federation.
After what seemed to be the sudden death of La Familia Michoacana (LFM) in January, it is now apparent that a portion of LFM of undetermined size has rebranded itself as the Knights Templar, which emerged on the scene in mid-March. Other members of LFM continue to operate under that name. This development is very new and it is not clear yet who the Knights Templar leaders are, how many are in the new group, what kind of relationship they have with their former brethren in LFM and what, if any, relationship either group has with the Sinaloa Federation. A great deal likely depends on the willingness of Sinaloa and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera to allow LFM or the Knights Templar to re-establish their former infrastructure and smuggling routes.
As for the Sinaloa Federation, it is now the regional hegemon in the western half of Mexico and is actively expanding its territory. Currently there are Sinaloa forces helping the Gulf cartel battle Los Zetas in the northeast, slowly strangling the VCF in Juarez, running the show in Tijuana and fighting for supremacy in Acapulco. Wherever there is a conflict in Mexico between or among a cartel’s current or former factions, you will find Sinaloa’s helpful hand. And in every case Sinaloa is gaining territory. While internal strife and external pressure from the Mexican military and federal law enforcement agencies have weakened all of the other cartels, the Sinaloa Federation has proved impervious to the turmoil — and it is growing.
In the next three to six months, STRATFOR expects Sinaloa to lead the pack in the fights for Acapulco and Durango. However, Sinaloa has so much going on around Mexico that Guzman may redeploy some of his fighters — from regions already solidified under his control, such as Tijuana — to Durango and Acapulco to facilitate quicker, more decisive victories there. STRATFOR anticipates an even greater level of violence in Juarez as Sinaloa’s chokehold tightens, and we expect to see a major push by Los Zetas to recover control of Reynosa, where the Gulf cartel will lose its hold if Sinaloa pulls fighters from there to fight elsewhere. Los Zetas are highly likely to hold onto Monterrey in the near term, absent a major government push or a massive effort by Gulf and Sinaloa, which is unlikely at this point but cannot be ruled out.
The CIDA may fade out completely in the next three to six months, with its remaining territory and assets likely split between the CPS, aided by Los Zetas, and Sinaloa. As for the Knights Templar, STRATFOR expects to see it pick up where LFM left off in December, though re-establishment of its methamphetamine production probably will be gradual.
Current Status of the Mexican Cartels
Los Zetas have had setbacks over the last three months — reduced territory, captured or killed regional leaders, internal control issues — but the organization appears to be able to absorb such losses. Los Zetas have maintained control of their strongholds in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo as well as the key Gulf of Mexico port of Veracruz, despite the best efforts of the Gulf cartel and elements of the New Federation. STRATFOR sources indicate that the Gulf cartel maintains constant surveillance of all roads leading to Matamoros, making a Zeta move in that direction difficult at best and at this point unlikely. It is more likely that Los Zetas will make a concerted effort to retake Reynosa in the coming months.
Since the beginning of 2011, actions by the Mexican military and federal police have resulted in the loss of at least 11 mid- to upper-level Los Zetas leaders, including Flavio “El Amarillo” Mendez Santiago, one of the original founding members, captured by federal police in Oaxaca on Jan. 18. One of seven Zeta gunmen killed Jan. 25 by Mexican soldiers during a running gunbattle through the Monterrey metropolitan area was identified only as “Comandante Lino,” who is believed to have been the top Zeta leader in Nuevo Leon state.
STRATFOR has heard rumors of a split between Los Zetas leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano and No. 3 leader Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales. However, we have not been able to confirm this or determine if the attrition of secondary leaders was affected — or caused — by such a division.
One of the most significant events involving Los Zetas since December 2010 was the Feb. 15 attack against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The motivation for the attack remains unclear, but viewed against documented Zeta operational behaviors and priorities, it clearly was not consistent with the top leadership’s doctrine and past practices. There has been much speculation regarding the attackers’ motives, but a planned and sanctioned attack against U.S. officials would be certain to bring the full weight of the U.S. government onto the perpetrators, and that is not something the top Zeta leadership would want to invite. This suggests the possibility that lower-level regional leaders either lost control of their operational cells or actually condoned and/or ordered the attack.
Regarding the possibility of neglected control, the erosion of Zeta forces through battle, targeted assassination and capture has been high over the past year. There have been numerous indications that recent Zeta recruits have tended to be younger and less experienced than those who joined prior to 2010. The attrition in leadership has also resulted in leaders who are themselves younger and less experienced. Such a mix may be creating conditions in which young men equipped with vehicles and weapons but with little discipline or oversight are left to their own devices.
A number of mid-level Zeta leaders came from military and law enforcement backgrounds and had received some level of institutional training and education. But many of them likely do not grasp the gravity — or even know about — an incident 26 years ago, when the Guadalajara cartel kidnapped, tortured and killed Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In response, the U.S. government orchestrated the annihilation of the Guadalajara cartel in a massive offensive called Operation Leyenda. It is possible that certain midlevel Zetas, lacking knowledge or appreciation of that operation, may not be aware of the potential repercussions of an attack on known U.S. government personnel.
If that is the case, there may be a few sporadic attacks on U.S. government agents in the coming months. But unless such events go unanswered by U.S. agencies, thereby lending the cartels a sense of impunity, it is doubtful that more than a handful of such attacks will occur.
To some extent, out-of-control gunmen within Los Zetas are a self-solving problem. Rash actions by low-level Zetas can and do trigger the occasional harsh “house cleaning,” in which the transgressors, on the orders of top-level leaders, are either killed or betrayed to authorities to send a message to the rest of the organization. Either way, the internal problem weakens the cartel and reduces both its numbers and its organizational efficacy, and it is unlikely that the internal punishment of wayward Zetas protects the organization as a whole from the consequences of their actions.
Los Zetas’ current organizational dynamics suggest that we are likely to see more unsanctioned operations such as the ICE and Falcon Lake shootings. This obviously has implications for U.S. law enforcement personnel and innocent bystanders. Such operations also will continue to induce internal culling of the elements responsible for such attacks. In all likelihood, this internal pressure, when combined with external pressures brought against Los Zetas by their cartel rivals, the Mexican government and American authorities, will continue to take a heavy toll on the cartel. And as losses are replaced with younger and less-experienced operatives, ongoing violence and destabilization will likely erode Los Zetas’ power.
Since late January, the Gulf cartel has been solidifying its hold on Matamoros. As both a northbound smuggling route into the United States and an inbound supply port for receiving waterborne shipments, Matamoros is vital to the Gulf cartel’s survival. The organization is not down for the count, but it continues to be weakened and dependent on its allies in the Sinaloa Federation to protect it from Los Zetas. With Los Zetas in control of the port of Veracruz, Matamoros serves as the cartel’s primary resupply point for Colombian cocaine, Central American arms shipments and other logistical operations. Certainly, Gulf cartel logistics are not constricted solely to that corner of Mexico, but seaport access enables large-volume resupply that minimizes the losses inherent in land routes through hostile areas.
Though Gulf cartel control encompasses Matamoros and Reynosa, both smuggling plazas with vital ports of entry on the border, the ownership of that territory has been contested. On Jan. 29, Los Zetas launched a sizable offensive that they had prepared in advance by placing resupply caches in and around Matamoros shortly after Antonio “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen was killed last November. Several weeks of heavy fighting flared up in Matamoros and to the south and west, as Zeta fighters hit Gulf cartel groups and Mexican military units took on both cartels. Smaller fights broke out along the border northwest to Nuevo Laredo as well as southward between Matamoros and Monterrey.
The fighting died down toward the end of February, and the Gulf cartel took the opportunity to ramp up revenue streams and restock. According to STRATFOR sources, cocaine seizures by U.S. law enforcement agencies rose steadily from mid-February to late March in the Rio Grande Valley portion of the south Texas border zone — a significant increase of high-value/low-volume contraband. To offset losses from the early February Zeta offensive, the Gulf cartel tried to bring in substantial revenue very quickly.
The upswing in cocaine smuggling corresponded with the lull in cartel battles and the need for quick cash. According to a Jan. 11 U.S. Department of Justice report on illicit drug prices, wholesale cocaine prices in the area were approximately $25,000 per kilogram (more than $11,000 per pound) versus $440 to $660 per kilogram for marijuana. There is no way to calculate the ratio of contraband seized to the total contraband smuggled in any given area at any given time, but various STRATFOR sources have made conservative estimates of 1:10 to 1:12 (seized to total smuggled). Since approximately 348 kilograms (767 pounds) of cocaine were seized between the last week of February and April 1, a reasonable extrapolation of the expected revenues — after the loss of the seized cocaine — would be $87 million.
The Gulf cartel leadership does not appear to have taken as big a loss as the Los Zetas leadership did in the first quarter. On March 4, however, authorities arrested Gustavo “El 85” Arteaga Zaleta and Pablo Jesus “El Enano” Arteaga Zaleta in Tampico, Tamaulipas. The brothers were wanted on charges of kidnapping, extortion, and arms and drug trafficking for the Gulf cartel in the states of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi. Secretariat of Public Security intelligence reports indicate that Gustavo Arteaga Zaleta is a former municipal policeman from Ciudad Madero, Tamaulipas, and was the “jefe de plaza” (plaza boss) in El Ebano, San Luis Potosi.
The loss of two Gulf cartel leaders over the past few months does not appear to have adversely affected the organization, though as a whole the cartel continues to be stretched thin. With federal forces occasionally entering the fray and Los Zetas seeking any weaknesses to exploit, the Gulf cartel is engaged in a large, bloody game of “whack-a-mole” in which its dual opponents further stretch its resources — augmented though it may be by Sinaloa elements.
While the Gulf cartel has held its territory and successfully repelled a Zeta offensive this past quarter, it has not been able to wrest Monterrey, Veracruz or Nuevo Laredo away from Zeta control. In northeast Mexico, the battle lines have not shifted, there are no clear winners and the violence will continue for the foreseeable future.
The Sinaloa Federation remains the largest and most cohesive of the Mexican cartels. Under the leadership of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, Sinaloa has been steadily making inroads into the territories of other cartels, friend and foe alike. This expansion has been seen in Durango, Guerrero (specifically Acapulco and its vital seaport) and Michoacan states as well as Mexico City. Because it has remained a cohesive organization and maintained widely diversified revenue streams — from narcotics to avocados — the Sinaloa Federation stands to benefit most from the chaos across Mexico.
Only two significant members of the Sinaloa leadership were captured during the first quarter of 2011. The first was Cesar “El Placas” Villagran Salazar, arrested by army troops on Feb. 12. Villagran Salazar is alleged to be a key operator for Guzman in northern Sonora and coordinator of Sinaloa drug shipments for distribution across the border into Arizona. The second, on March 18, was Victor Manuel “El Senor” Felix, who is presumed to be a relative and confidante of Guzman and runs one of the cartel’s financial networks.
According to a STRATFOR source, the Mexican government’s current priority is getting the violence under control, not eliminating the cartels. It is a pragmatic approach. While some of the cartels may be breaking up or in the process of being absorbed, it is not possible at this point to eliminate them all — or to stop the trafficking of narcotics. Systemic corruption at all levels of government, well-entrenched for many years, turns a blind eye to cartel activities at best and enables them at worst. Apparently, the Mexican government has decided that the best course of action in this environment is to wage a war of attrition, taking out the low-hanging fruit and letting Sinaloa do the rest.
Extreme levels of violence are not in the best interests of cartels, whose primary goal is to make money. When violence goes up, revenue goes down. As the largest and most widespread Mexican cartel — incapable of being eliminated in the current environment — the Sinaloa Federation likely will continue to be relatively impervious to government efforts. It also is the organization most likely to assume the dominant position in the cartel landscape, which would enable it ultimately to impose a forced reduction in the cartel violence. Sinaloa could use its dominance to keep weaker groups in line, which would suit the government’s purposes.
As Sinaloa has steadily gained influence and territory over the past several years, its competition has been fragmenting. The destabilization that began in 2006 with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s anti-cartel campaign thoroughly upset the cartel equilibrium and created power vacuums. With the possible exception of Los Zetas, the fragmentation and power vacuums have weakened or destroyed cartels while Sinaloa has either been unaffected or strengthened as the primary beneficiary. Even those elements within the Sinaloa Federation that were neutralized — the Beltran Leyva brothers and Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel Villarreal — were elements that posed a potential challenge to the leadership of Sinaloa head Guzman.
In the case of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), once a part of the Sinaloa Federation, the remaining Beltran Leyva brother Hector (see section on Cartel Pacifico Sur below) believes that Guzman betrayed his brothers and used the government to remove a potential challenger — the BLO. This was borne out by events in the first quarter of 2011, when Sinaloa expanded into the territories of cartels that were fragmented or floundering such as its New Federation allies La Familia Michoacana (LFM) and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA). “Divide and conquer” works, even when a third party causes the fragmentation, and Guzman knows this well.
As was discussed in STRATFOR’s 2010 annual cartel report, the death of Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno Gonzalez in a shootout with federal authorities on Dec. 9, 2010, was a blow to LFM. Moreno was a charismatic and compelling leader, around whom grew a curious blend of religious cult, merciless killing machine and highly specialized drug-trafficking organization. Without Moreno’s centrally focused leadership, the bands of LFM killers fractured and seemed to engage in directionless violence in late December and into January.
LFM continued to devolve with the loss of its methamphetamine labs to government takedowns (and probably efforts by other cartels as well). As with the territorial grabs in other parts of Mexico, LFM’s leaderless cells did not hold onto the bulk of the cartel’s smuggling routes but likely lost them to regional hegemon Sinaloa. At this point in the degeneration of the organization, it is likely that the faithful core of Moreno’s followers saw the need to reorganize or rebrand the group in order to reunify its scattered elements. Such an effort at organizational self-preservation would require a particular sort of leader to fill the void left by Moreno’s death.
As with most charismatic pseudo-religious organizations and their inherent strongman leadership, there was a fiercely loyal cadre of lieutenants who surrounded Moreno. From that group alone will be found a successor who will be followed, since most of the LFM rank and file will align themselves only with someone who has complete faith in Moreno’s teachings. In the chaos of last December, following Moreno’s death, the two top members of his inner circle were rumored to have fled the country. STRATFOR has been unable to confirm the rumor (or, if it is true, whether they have returned), but the two — Servando “La Tuta” Gomez Martinez and Jose Jesus “El Chango” Mendez Vargas — are the prime candidates to replace Moreno and bring the elements of LFM back together. They fit the mold for being the most likely to succeed in the reconstitution and rebranding of the group.
LFM announced its dissolution in January. Authorities and analysts dismissed the announcement and waited to see what evolved. The wait was not very long. On March 17, banners appeared in multiple cities and villages in Michoacan that proclaimed the presence of a previously unknown group — Los Caballeros Templar, aka the Knights Templar.
The new name may have triggered a few chuckles in some agencies — and objections from members of the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, which traces its origins to the original Knights Templar, an order of Christian knights formed to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the First Crusade. There is some parallel to the religion-centric LFM, with its stated goals of protecting the people of Michoacan from criminal elements, including corrupt government officials.
Banners announcing the emergence of the Knights Templar in Michoacan read: “To the people of Michoacan, we inform you that starting today we will be carrying out here the altruistic activities previously realized by La Familia Michoacana. We will be at the service of the people of Michoacan to attend to any situation that threatens the safety of Michoacanos. Our commitment is to: keep order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, extortion; and protect the state from possible (interventions) by rival organizations. — The Knights Templar.”
The Knights Templar banners bore the same type of message and tone as previous LFM banners, which suggests that the activities of the Knights Templar in the next few months will likely be consistent with documented LFM activities. This development is recent, and information regarding the composition of the group, its leadership and its relations with remnant LFM cells and the Sinaloa Federation is very sparse. STRATFOR will continue to monitor events in Michoacan over the next quarter, paying particular attention to the emergence of the Knights Templar leadership and the reconstitution of LFM alliances and business, enforcement and smuggling operations. It is too soon to know whether the former LFM partnership with the Sinaloa Federation will be reinstituted.
Cartel Pacifico Sur
The groups that evolved from the factions of the BLO no longer are recognizable as such. The BLO split into two separate groups, with an unknown number of BLO operatives electing to return to the Sinaloa Federation rather than join either of the two new drug-trafficking organizations.
The first of these two independent groups, Cartel Pacifico Sur (CPS), centers around Hector Beltran Leyva and is allied with Los Zetas. During the first quarter of 2011, CPS demonstrated an addition to its skill set: the use of an improvised explosive device (IED) placed in a car in Tula, Hidalgo state, with an anonymous call to local law enforcement to lure victims to the booby trap. The small device detonated on Jan. 22 when one of the vehicle’s doors was opened, injuring four police officers.
Though no one claimed responsibility for the IED, a connection can be made that suggests CPS involvement. Last summer, STRATFOR discussed the use of an IED in a car in Juarezin which the first responders were targeted and killed following an anonymous call regarding a wounded police officer. That IED is believed to have been detonated by members of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes cartel (VCF, aka the Juarez cartel). In both the Juarez and Tula bombings, the devices used were small, composed of industrial hydrogel explosives and placed in vehicles to which local police were lured by some ruse.
The common denominator is likely Los Zetas. Though the cities of Juarez and Tula are about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) apart, and the Juarez cartel and CPS do not share assets, both organizations are allied with Los Zetas — and Los Zetas have members with military demolitions training. In the coming months, STRATFOR will be watching for any other indicators that this connection has led to other permutations in CPS tactics previously not associated with the BLO.
Independent Cartel of Acapulco
The second group that broke off from the BLO is the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (Cartel Independiente de Acapulco, or CIDA). This group is still evolving and information about it remains rather muddled. At this point, STRATFOR has identified CIDA as a large part of the BLO faction loyal to Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal. Since Valdez Villarreal was arrested in September 2010, his faction has apparently become somewhat marginalized. Some CIDA members came from La Barbie’s faction, some did not. There are also some former LFM elements in the CIDA as well as a handful of miscellaneous Acapulco street thugs and miscreants. There continues to be sporadic violence attributable to, or claimed by, the CIDA, but there is mounting evidence that the organization is fading from the picture in some areas.
That said, the CIDA is not giving up without a fight. STRATFOR sources recently indicated that the group is locked in a battle with CPS for control of the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos state. Sources say CPS gunmen currently control the east side of Cuernavaca and CIDA operatives control the city’s west side. Particularly dangerous areas are the Jiutepec sector on the city’s southeast side and the Carolina neighborhood on the west side.
According to Mexican media reports, federal police arrested Benjamin “El Padrino” Flores Reyes, one of the suspected top CIDA leaders, on March 6 in Acapulco, Guerrero state. Flores Reyes reportedly controlled the distribution of drugs, managed the cartel’s lookout groups and is said to have reported directly to cartel chief Moises “El Koreano” Montero Alvarez.
The CIDA was aligned with LFM and the Sinaloa Federation, and until late last year it was most likely in control of the Acapulco plaza and seaport. The disbanded LFM, reincarnated into the Knights Templar, probably has not provided any help to the weakened CIDA, and Sinaloa has likely taken full advantage of the chaos and helped itself to the Acapulco plaza. STRATFOR has asked its sources which cartel controls the Acapulco seaport itself, and while conditions are sufficiently murky to prevent any definitive answers, the working hypothesis is that the port is also in the hands of Sinaloa.
Currently, the CIDA is at war with former ally Sinaloa, likely triggered by Guzman’s move to take CIDA territory after the arrest of Valdez Villarreal. The CIDA appears to be taking a beating on that front. During President Calderon’s visit to Acapulco last month, five dismembered bodies were found in front of a department store on Farallon Avenue in Acapulco. The discovery was made about an hour after Calderon opened the 36th Tourist Marketplace trade fair in the International Center of Acapulco. Pieces of two of the bodies were scattered on the ground near an abandoned SUV, and body parts from the other three were found in plastic bags inside the vehicle. Messages left at the scene said the victims were police officers killed by the Sinaloa Federation because they worked with the CIDA.
The outlook for the CIDA over the next three to six months is not promising. Unless something occurs to revitalize the group, such as a successful escape from prison by Valdez Villarreal, the CIDA may fade into obscurity within the year. Certainly the next three months will be telling.
Arellano Felix Organization
Fernando “El Ingeniero” Sanchez Arellano, nephew of the founding Arellano Felix brothers, is still in control of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO, aka the Tijuana cartel), though the group is only a shadow of its former self. Little changed in the cartel’s condition in the first quarter of 2011 from how it was described in the 2010 annual cartel report. Sinaloa’s “partnership agreement” with the AFO has relegated the once-mighty Tijuana cartel to vassal status, with the bulk of its former territory and all of its smuggling avenues across the border now controlled by the Sinaloa Federation. The AFO now pays Sinaloa for access to its former territory.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization
The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization (VCF, aka the Juarez cartel) is holding on. Though STRATFOR has previously reported that the VCF was hemmed in on all sides by the Sinaloa cartel, and essentially confined to the downtown area of Ciudad Juarez, recent reports from STRATFOR sources indicate that this is not quite the case. The VCF retains control of the plaza and the border crossings in Juarez, from the Paso Del Norte port of entry on the northwest side to the Ysleta port of entry on the west side of town. However, the VCF’s territory is significantly diminished to the extent that it no longer controls the city of Chihuahua, which is now held by Sinaloa, as is the rest of Chihuahua state and the border zone on both sides of Juarez/El Paso.
As we have discussed in previous cartel reports, VCF second-in-command Vicente Carrillo Leyva has been in Mexican federal custody since his arrest in Mexico City in 2009. He is the son of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, founder of the cartel, and nephew of the current leader (and cartel namesake) Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. On March 15, Carrillo Leyva was formally charged with money laundering, which diminishes the possibility of his eventual release. Given how long he has been detained and the foibles of the Mexican legal system, Carrillo Leyva may yet be released, but it seems doubtful at present.
In the absence of Carrillo Leyva, his right-hand man, Juan “El JL” Luis Ledezma, has been acting as the No. 2 in the organization, running the cartel’s operations and those of its enforcement arm, La Linea. But one of the other high-ranking VCF leaders has been taken out of the mix. On Feb. 22, Luis Humberto “El Condor” Peralta Hernandez was killed during a gunbattle with federal police in Chihuahua City, which removed the leader of the network holding open the cartel’s supply lines. As it stands now, STRATFOR sources indicate that most of the contraband seized by law enforcement on the U.S. side of the border with Chihuahua state is owned by Sinaloa, not the VCF, though the percentage remains unclear.
The VCF is surrounded by Sinaloa-held territory. Barring an unlikely reversal of Sinaloa’s fortunes, such as a massive operation by Los Zetas/VCF with all their allied gangs that successfully routs Sinaloa, the VCF is facing slow strangulation as its supply lines close and its revenue streams dry up. This will not happen overnight or even within the next three months, but as the noose tightens we can expect violence in Juarez to skyrocket beyond its current record-breaking level because the VCF will not go quietly.
In the short term, the inability to move narcotics will cause the VCF to continue to seek operational funding through other means, such as kidnapping, extortion, alien smuggling and cargo theft. We have seen indications of that with a couple of recent nightclub shootings that are thought to have been associated with VCF extortion rackets. As hard as it might be to imagine, the violence in Juarez may actually get worse.