The Need for Nuance in Protective Intelligence Part 5: Mexico’s Criminal Cartels
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
This is the fifth installment in an occasional series examining threat actors from a protective intelligence perspective. Earlier articles in this series examined the Islamic State pole of the jihadist movement, Antifa, the Boogaloo movement, and Extinction Rebellion. This installment examines Mexico’s criminal cartels.
One of the things I frequently notice in media and government reports about Mexico’s criminal cartels is the tendency to portray them as hierarchical organizations, as if they are some sort of military unit or government bureaucracy.
Even several years after a cartel has totally disintegrated in the true sense of the word—broken down into its constituent parts—like the Gulf Cartel has, journalists and even government reports continue to reference the Gulf Cartel as if it remains some sort of coherent entity.
However, the reality is that rather than hierarchical organizations, Mexico’s criminal cartels are entities that meet the legal definition of a cartel: “a group of independent corporations or other entities that join together to fix prices, rig bids, allocate markets, or conduct other similar illegal activities.”
Mexico’s criminal cartels are networks of independent criminal gangs and clans who joined together to conduct illegal activities. And just as those gangs and clans can band together in a network they can also disaggregate. As the large Mexican cartels have disintegrated due to the dynamics and economics of the drug trade, the result has been the creation of an extremely complex and chaotic threat environment.
The Rise of Mexico’s Super Cartels
As long as there has been a U.S./Mexico border, there have been criminal gangs and clans that have specialized in smuggling contraband across the border for profit. They have smuggled everything from alcohol during the prohibition era, to guns, to household appliances—and yes, illegal drugs.
In terms of illegal drugs, traditionally Mexican smuggling clans and gangs trafficked marijuana, pharmaceuticals, and some heroin. However, the dynamics of these smuggling organizations changed dramatically as the popularity of cocaine in the U.S. surged in the 1970s.
Mexico became an even more important smuggling route for cocaine destined for the North American market as the U.S. government clamped down on smuggling across the Caribbean in the early 1980s as it launched the so-called “war on drugs.”
The resulting constriction of the Caribbean cocaine smuggling pipeline meant that Mexico became an increasingly important smuggling route for Colombian drug lords. It was simply more difficult for the U.S. government to identify drug shipments hidden among the massive flow of ground traffic crossing the U.S./Mexico border every day than it was to identify and interdict shipments being brought by boats and planes across the open expanse of the Caribbean.
This reliance on Mexico for cocaine smuggling allowed the Mexican gangs to demand a greater share of the immense profits generated by the cocaine trade. This in turn brought unprecedented wealth to Mexican smugglers—especially those smugglers who maintained close relationships with Colombian cartels like the Medellin and Cali Cartels. Wealth equals power in the criminal underworld, as it does elsewhere, and this permitted Mexican gangs to grow both in size and power.
Two Mexican smugglers in particular, Juan Garcia Abrego and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo used the power they acquired via their Colombian connections to finance mergers—and sometimes forceful acquisitions—of other criminal organizations within their respective geographic spheres of influence. The result was the creation of two very powerful “super cartels,” the Gulf Cartel on Mexico’s East coast, headed by Garcia Abrego, and the Guadalajara Cartel on Mexico’s Pacific coast headed by Felix Gallardo.
Pride Comes Before the Fall
However, the power these two cartels amassed created a sense of hubris and impunity that would ultimately lead to the downfall of both their founders. Felix Gallardo was captured in 1989 as a result of the intense investigation that resulted from the Guadalajara Cartel’s 1985 abduction, torture, and murder of American DEA agent Enrique Camarena.
Garcia Abrego was arrested in 1996 after being the first narcotrafficker placed on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list—and following his attempt to recruit an FBI agent to be a spy within the U.S. government.
The arrests of these cartel founders began the process of cartel disintegration that would unfold over the ensuing decades.
The Guadalajara Cartel was hit hard in the wake of the Camarena murder, and several other leaders, including Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, were arrested in addition to Felix Gallardo. This effectively resulted in the decapitation of the Guadalajara Cartel, which splintered into several smaller geographic groups that had previously been a part of the Guadalajara Cartel including the Tijuana cartel, run by the Arellano Felix family; the Juarez cartel, headed by the Carrillo Fuentes clan; and a group of Pacific coast gangs that became known as the Sinaloa Cartel that fell under the joint leadership of Ismael Zambada Garcia, Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, and Joaquin Guzman Loera.
Within months of Felix Gallardo’s 1989 arrest, a dispute broke out between the Guzman Loera faction of the Sinaloa cartel and the Tijuana cartel over control of smuggling through Tijuana. This would ultimately result in a cartel war between the two groups for control of Tijuana that would last until 1993, when Joaquin Guzman Loera was forced to flee Mexico, and was arrested in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico.
Following the arrest of Garcia Abrego, several of the leaders of the Gulf cartel-affiliated gangs fought for control of the organization. The struggle ended in 1991 when Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the leader of a powerful Matamoros-based gang used brute force to overcome his rivals and keep the cartel relatively intact. Cardenas Guillen earned the nickname “el mata amigos” or “the friend killer” due to his willingness to murder anyone who stood in his way. Cardenas Guillen also famously recruited a group of former Mexican special forces soldiers who became known as Los Zetas to help stave off threats from competitors—and the Mexican authorities.
When Cardenas Guillen was arrested in 2003, it again created a struggle for control of the Gulf cartel, and Guzman Loera of the Sinaloa cartel viewed the chaos as an opportunity to attempt to wrest the lucrative Nuevo Laredo border crossing away from the Gulf cartel. He tasked the Beltran Leyva brothers, a powerful smuggling clan affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel, to take the lead on the assault on Nuevo Laredo.
This resulted in a fierce battle for control of Nuevo Laredo. The Los Zetas enforcer group was able to maintain control of Nuevo Laredo, but their victory left them in control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo border crossing with the assistance of the Trevino smuggling clan, which led to them eventually breaking away from the rest of the Gulf cartel in 2010. By 2013 the Gulf Cartel had totally imploded and was just a collection of local gangs using the Gulf Cartel name. Los Zetas also disintegrated, but the Trevino clan, which assumed the name Cartel del Noreste (CDN) retains control of Nuevo Laredo to this day.
As noted above, the cocaine trade allowed for the consolidation of smaller gangs into large, powerful cartels by the criminal gangs with the closest ties to the Colombian cartels that produced the cocaine. But over the past two decades, the drug trade’s evolving economics have eroded the power of the Mexican gangs profiting from the cocaine trade.
One of the first developments was the ascendancy of Mexican heroin in the North American opioid market. This provided the groups that controlled the areas in Mexico where opium poppies were grown with a significant influx of wealth. These areas included the mountainous “golden triangle” in the Sinaloa/Chihuahua/Durango tri-border region, as well as the rugged Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range in Guerrero state. This provided considerable wealth to the gangs and clans that controlled growing areas, and they were able to use that wealth to fend off the groups that were profiting from the cocaine trade and maintain their independence from those larger groups so that they could retain the profits being generated by the heroin trade.
Another game changer was the emergence of Mexican methamphetamine production by Sinaloa Cartel gangs such as Ignacio Coronel’s organization. Methamphetamines provided a larger profit pool for Mexican cartels because they could produce the drug from relatively cheap precursor chemicals rather than having to buy a drug like cocaine from Colombian suppliers. Methamphetamine could be produced easily and did not require control of any specific growing areas like heroin. This led to almost every Mexican criminal gang and clan producing its own methamphetamine, although those gangs that controlled the areas around Mexico’s ports did have an economic advantage by having easier access to precursor chemicals. The methamphetamine trade created a paradigm shift because Mexican criminal gangs no longer needed to have connections to Colombian cartels or Mexican poppy growers to reap vast profits from the illegal drug trade.
This dynamic was amplified by the emergence of fentanyl, another synthetic drug that was even easier to synthesize than methamphetamine. Almost anyone can produce fentanyl, and indeed almost every criminal gang in Mexico is. This has resulted in a “criminal democratization” whereby a wide array of gangs reap significant profits from the synthetic drug trade. This democratization has resulted in the large Mexican organized crime networks breaking down into their constituent parts.
This breakdown of the larger cartel groups, or “balkanization” of the Mexican cartels as I’ve called it for the past decade, is not really an evolution of Mexican organized crime. Rather, it is a devolution or return to the state of Mexican organized crime before the cocaine trade facilitated the emergence of criminal hegemons like Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Juan Garcia Abrego. As noted above, operations by the U.S. and Mexican government to decapitate cartel groups has also served to accelerate the balkanization process.
However, there is one significant difference between today’s smaller cartel groups and those of the 1970s. The synthetic drug trade has provided today’s smaller gangs and clans with far more profits—and power—than gangs of similar size ever made in the pre-cocaine trade days. This not only means that there is a larger overall profit pool to fight over, but the profits also provide them with the ability to buy weapons and hire gunmen to fight with competitors for control of smuggling routes and local sales turf. The result is a wide array of conflicts between these smaller groups that span several regions of Mexico. This has produced a chaotic and unstable threat environment that is difficult to navigate, thus providing a significant security challenge for the Mexican government—and for anyone living or working in the country.