By Tristan Reed
Mexico Security Analyst
Mexico City continues to demonstrate that it does not discriminate among the numerous crime groups operating in its territory, despite earlier popular perceptions that it selectively targeted crime groups while ignoring favored rival criminal groups. Since 2013 — the first full year that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto occupied the presidency — Mexico's military and law enforcement have targeted the top-tier leadership from each of Mexico's major regional organized crime umbrellas, based in Sinaloa state, Tamaulipas state and the Tierra Caliente region.
From 2013 through 2014, Mexico's security forces killed or captured top-level crime bosses from all regions. Figures who fell during this offensive included top leaders from the Sinaloa Federation, the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel, Los Zetas, the various Gulf cartel gangs and the Knights Templar. The trend continued into 2015 with the March 5 arrest of top Los Zetas leader Omar "Z-42" Trevino Morales, the Feb. 27 arrest of top Knights Templar leader Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez and the April 10 arrest of top Sinaloa Federation trafficker Cesar "La Senora" Gastelum Serrano.
As with any arrest of a high-level crime boss, the leadership losses seen during the first quarter increase the chances of major organizational disruptions within each respective criminal organization. For the Knights Templar, which has been all but dismantled since all of its founding leaders were killed or imprisoned, and the Sinaloa Federation, which began decentralizing as early as 2012, this would only cement an already established decline and create a void for smaller, less centralized crime groups to fill. But the arrest of Omar Trevino and of several other ranking Los Zetas members during the first quarter will challenge the Zetas' integrity, even though the group largely managed to evade targeted operations in 2014.
Still, with federal troops conducting campaigns in multiple regions, resource limitations have prevented targeting every group at once in some cases. This has been seen with groups in Tierra Caliente: There, Mexico City has focused primarily on the Knights Templar and, more recently, on the Guerreros Unidos, while the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion has thus far evaded significant government pressure. This has opened up opportunities for the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion to expand at the expense of Tamaulipas-based organized crime — and perhaps even for the formation of a fourth regional umbrella group.
A Geographic View of the Cartel Landscape
As indicated in our 2015 Cartel Annual update, Stratfor now divides Mexican organized criminal groups into the distinct geographic areas from which they emerged. This view is not just a convenient way of categorizing an increasingly long list of independent crime groups in Mexico, but rather it reflects the internal realities of most crime groups in Mexico. Leaders from groups such as Los Zetas, the various Gulf cartel successor groups and the Velazquez network climbed the ranks of organized crime through communities based in Tamaulipas state; the criminal brand names that seemingly divide the leaders from each stated group are misleading.
In fact, at one point or another, leaders from each group (both past and present), such as Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, Omar and Miguel Trevino Morales, and Juan "El 98" Francisco Carrizales worked with one another. Each of their criminal careers began in Nuevo Laredo. Whether fighting or allied with one another, leaders from the various Tamaulipas-based crime groups share much in common. The same dynamic applies to leaders from the other two major umbrella groups in the Tierra Caliente region and Sinaloa state. It is the interconnected nature of both rival and allied crime groups that makes categorizing organized criminal groups by regional umbrellas useful.
Thus, though a group like the Knights Templar suffered rapid leadership losses in 2014 and 2015, other crime bosses from the Tierra Caliente region seamlessly absorbed the criminal operations left behind without an eruption of territorial conflict in most cases (though ongoing rivalries between individual Tierra Caliente groups continued). This dynamic enables the regional umbrellas to maintain a more constant trend of expansion and continuity of activities, even when individual groups within suffer significant losses.
Setbacks to Tamaulipas-Based Groups
By contrast, leadership losses in 2015 significantly impacted all organized criminal groups based in Tamaulipas state. There, Gulf cartel successor groups operating east of Los Zetas' area of operations continue to fight each other while federal troops aggressively pursue them. As with each quarter of 2014, leaders of Gulf cartel successor groups were frequently captured or killed throughout 2015. The comparatively small footprint of each Gulf cartel gang means there are far more leaders to target, all of whom are much less resourceful in evading the authorities than leaders from much larger transnational criminal organizations.
Examples include the April 4 arrest in Tampico of Alfredo "Comandante 58" Martinez Aguilar, a former operator for former top Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and the Feb. 15 arrest in Matamoros of Gulf cartel leader Jorge Omar Aguilar Gallardo and two of his accomplices, including his accountant. Meanwhile, the Velazquez network suffered significant leadership losses during the first quarter of 2015 with the arrest of Juan Daniel "El Talibancillo" Velazquez Caballero, one of the top-tier leaders of the Velazquez network and the brother of former top leader and founder Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero.
Because Mexico City was successful in pursuing Tamaulipas state crime bosses from all major crime groups based there, these groups are unlikely to expand during the remainder of 2015. In fact, should organizations like Los Zetas and the Velazquez network prove unable to adapt to leadership losses, the overall territory in Mexico controlled by Tamaulipas organized crime could shrink by the end of 2015. This would open up room for either of the other two regional umbrellas to expand, or for the formation of a new regional umbrella comprising former Tamaulipas organized crime elements now based in southern Mexico, around Veracruz and Tabasco states.
A rapid succession of arrests has significantly compromised Los Zetas. In addition to the arrest of the group's top leader, other notable arrests include the March 14 arrest of Los Zetas regional boss Daniel Menera Sierra in San Pedro Garza Garcia, Nuevo Leon state; the March 14 arrest of Severo Gonzalez Lunas, an alleged financial operator for Los Zetas in Coahuila state; and the March 12 arrest by U.S. authorities of Jose Manuel "Z-31" Saldivar Farias in Laredo, Texas. Authorities have also captured numerous other Zetas members and lower-ranking leaders since March 4, mostly in operations in northeastern Mexico, particularly Coahuila and Tamaulipas states.
Our Cartel Annual Report forecast that Los Zetas were expected to resume their geographic expansion in 2015. Despite the recent arrests of their leaders, Los Zetas have in fact renewed their efforts to reclaim territory lost to the Velazquez network in Zacatecas state in 2015. Violence emerging between the two groups in many areas of the state where signs of Los Zetas operations had previously disappeared show that Los Zetas have begun returning to lost territory. However, the substantial arrests of Zetas leaders in the first quarter will make further Zetas expansion difficult.
Typically, when one crime group's operational capabilities decline — whether because of emerging internal rivalries or leadership losses — another group within the same regional umbrella vies for the first group's territory or criminal operations. But given the blow to Los Zetas from the recent arrests, and given that all Tamaulipas crime groups either continued or began facing significant pressure from authorities, it is unclear whether the Velazquez network or any of the Gulf cartel successor groups could effectively absorb any lost Zetas territory. This makes it more likely that an outside group will expand into territory controlled by a Tamaulipas-based crime group.
Opportunities for Tierra Caliente Groups and a New Umbrella
Tierra Caliente-based organized crime is the most likely to take advantage of continued setbacks to Tamaulipas-based organized crime. Though the frequency of fighting between the two regional umbrellas declined in 2014, active turf wars remain in places like Guanajuato, northern Jalisco, Veracruz and Tabasco states. Tierra Caliente groups such as the Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion have been particularly active in fighting Tamaulipas crime groups since 2012, particularly Los Zetas and the Velazquez network, in regions such as the Bajio and the southeastern coast of Mexico. The group most likely to expand into Zetas' turf is the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, which has operations in Veracruz, Veracruz state, dating back to 2011.
But a fourth regional crime umbrella might emerge to challenge the Tamaulipas-based umbrella by the end of 2015. Currently, Tamaulipas state crime bosses control Los Zetas, but Zetas leaders from outside the state have emerged since 2014 as possible contenders for authority over their respective operations. Notably, Jose Maria Guizar Valencia, who goes by both "El Charly" and "Z-43," oversees Zetas operations in southern Mexico and hails from Tabasco state.
The combination of Los Zetas' Tamaulipas-based leadership suffering rapid losses during the first quarter, all other Tamaulipas-based crime groups facing pressure from authorities, and the existence of a strong crime boss in Guizar Valencia with separate (albeit possibly subordinate, at present) operations raises the chances of a new regional crime group emerging. In this case, control of some geography and operations once under crime groups in Tamaulipas could shift to the south. The geographic advantages of Guizar Valencia's area of operation for organized criminal activities helps explain his growing role within Los Zetas and possible emergence as the overseer of a distinct crime group.
Like many Mexican crime groups, a significant portion of Los Zetas' drug trafficking operations relates to land routes entering Mexico from Central America. This means control of the drug trafficking routes in Mexico's southern region provides significant leverage for any crime boss within Mexico's organized crime landscape. Guizar Valencia's operations in Tabasco and Veracruz states also means he likely oversees a significant portion of maritime routes connecting to Mexico's east coast, whose states also play a critical role in smuggling migrants into the United States and in expanding fuel theft.
The fate of Tamaulipas organized crime for the remainder of 2015 is not yet sealed. Groups like Los Zetas have proved resilient to aggressive government action before. Meanwhile, Mexico City continues to pursue all high-level crime bosses regardless of group affiliation or region. Just how Tamaulipas organized crime and other regional crime umbrellas adjust during the second quarter to the losses in Tamaulipas during the first quarter remains to be seen. Should the operational tempo of government operations targeting Tamaulipas organized crime leaders continue or even increase during the second quarter, the continued expansion of Tamaulipas organized crime in Mexico and elsewhere in the world will finally stall by the end of 2015 — perhaps even fragmenting into separate regional crime umbrellas as part of the continuous Balkanization of organized crime.