Mexico and the War Against the Drug Cartels in 2008 - Stratfor
By Fred Burton and Stephen Meiners
December 9, 2008 | 2225 GMT
Editor's Note: This week's Global Security & Intelligence Report is an abridged version of Stratfor's annual report on Mexico's drug cartels. The full report, which includes extensive diagrams depicting the leadership of each cartel, will be available to our members on Dec. 11.
Mexico's war against drug cartels continued in 2008. The mission President Felipe Calderon launched shortly after his inauguration two years ago to target the cartels has since escalated in nearly every way imaginable. Significant changes in Mexico's security situation and the nature of the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere also have occurred over the last 12 months.
In this year's report on Mexico's drug cartels, we assess the most significant developments of the past year and provide an updated description of the country's powerful drug-trafficking organizations. This annual report is a product of the coverage we maintain on a weekly basis through our Mexico Security Memo and various other reports.
Mexico's Drug-Trafficking Organizations
Gulf cartel: As recently as a year ago, the Gulf cartel was considered the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. After nearly two years of bearing the brunt of Mexican law enforcement and military efforts, however, it is an open question at this point whether the cartel is still intact. The group's paramilitary enforcement arm, Los Zetas, was the primary reason for Gulf's power, but reports of Zeta activity from this past year suggest that the much-feared group now operates independently. Without the Zetas, the Gulf leadership has struggled to remain relevant.
Los Zetas: During the past 12 months, Los Zetas have remained a power to be reckoned with throughout Mexico. The group operates under the command of Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano. The organization's leadership suffered significant losses during 2008, including the April arrest in Guatemala of Daniel "El Cachetes" Perez Rojas, who commanded Zeta operations in Central America. Even more significant, however, was the November arrest of Jaime "El Hummer" Gonzalez Duran, who was captured during a raid in the northwestern city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. Gonzalez was believed to rank third in the Zeta chain of command.
Beltran Leyva organization: The Beltran Leyva family has a long history in the narcotics business. Until this past year, the organization formed part of the Sinaloa federation, for which it controlled access to the U.S. border in Sonora state, among other responsibilities. By the time of Alfredo Beltran Leyva's January arrest, however, the Beltran Leyva organization's alliance with Sinaloa was over, as it is rumored that his arrest resulted from a Sinaloa betrayal. Since then, the organization has quickly become one of the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico, capable not only of smuggling narcotics and battling rivals but also demonstrating a willingness to order the assassination of high-ranking government officials. The most notable of these was the May targeted killing of acting federal police director Edgar Millan Gomez.
Sinaloa cartel: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is the most wanted drug lord in Mexico. Despite the turbulence that his Sinaloa cartel has experienced this past year, it is perhaps the most capable drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. This turbulence involved the loss of key allies, including the Carrillo Fuentes organization in Ciudad Juarez, as well as the split with the Beltran Leyva organization. But the loss of these partners does not appear to have affected the cartel's ability to manage the trafficking of drugs from South America to the United States. On the contrary, the Sinaloa cartel appears to be the most active smuggler of cocaine and has demonstrated the ability to establish operations in new environments like Central America and South America.
Carrillo Fuentes organization: Also known as the Juarez cartel, the Carrillo Fuentes organization is based out of the northern city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state. The cartel is led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who took over after the 1997 death of his brother Amado, the cartel's former leader. Throughout this year, the Juarez cartel has maintained its long-standing alliance with the Beltran Leyva organization, which has been locked in a vicious battle with the Sinaloa cartel for control of Juarez.
Arellano Felix organization: Also known as the Tijuana cartel, the Arellano Felix crime family has been weakened almost beyond recognition over the past year due to the efforts of both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to capture several of its high-ranking leaders. Of these, perhaps the most symbolic was the October arrest of Eduardo "El Doctor" Arellano Felix. Fighting among the various elements of the cartel itself has resulted in the splitting of the organization into two factions that continue to do battle on a daily basis.
Calderon's Success Story
Since taking office in December 2006, President Calderon has undertaken extraordinary measures in pursuit of the country's drug cartels. The policies enacted by Calderon's administration saw some progress during his first year in office, although it has only been during the past year that the continued implementation of these policies has produced unprecedented results in the fight against the cartels.
One such result has come in the form of record seizures of illegal narcotics, weapons and drug-manufacturing laboratories, including the July raid of the largest methamphetamine production facility ever discovered in Mexico, where authorities seized some 8,000 barrels of precursor chemicals. The Mexican government also has succeeded in pursuing the cartels' leadership. Important members of nearly all the country's drug-trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. One indication that the government's crackdown has made it increasingly difficult to smuggle drugs in and out of Mexico is the revelation that many drug traffickers have turned to other illegal activities, such as extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking, to supplement their incomes.
Despite the endemic challenges presented by bureaucratic infighting and rampant corruption, there is simply no denying that the Mexican government has disrupted the cartels' operations in meaningful ways.
2008: A Year of Flux
One consequence of these achievements has been greater volatility in the balance of power among the various drug-trafficking organizations in the country. Mexican security forces' relentless focus on the Gulf cartel has severely damaged the organization's capabilities.
This development presented opportunities to the other criminal groups over the past 12 months, and it has led to even greater turf battles and power struggles. It is premature to predict which cartels will remain on top once the dust has settled.
Historically, the Mexican drug trade has been controlled by two large and competing drug cartels, each of which has had a base of operations in a Mexican city along the U.S. border. A similar outcome after the current flux is certainly possible, but changes in the country's security environment and shifting areas of cartel operations might add new dimensions to the country's criminal landscape.
The year 2008 has seen a shift in the geography of the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere, nearly all of which can be attributed to the situation in Mexico. The United Stat