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Mexico and the War Against the Drug Cartels in 2008

December 9, 2008
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.

By Fred Burton and Stephen Meiners
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.

Changing Geography
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 States remains among the primary destinations for drugs produced in South American countries such as Peru and Colombia, and Mexico continues to serve as the primary transshipment route. The path between South America and Mexico is shifting, however.

One of these shifts involves the increasing importance of Central America. After the Mexican government implemented greater monitoring and control of aircraft entering the country's airspace, airborne shipments of cocaine from Colombia decreased more than 90 percent, according to an October report. Similarly, maritime trafficking reportedly has decreased more than 60 percent over a two-year period. As a result, Mexican smugglers have expanded their presence in Central American countries as they have begun to rely increasingly on land-based shipping routes to deliver drugs from South American producers. In addition - and likely as a result of the more difficult operating environment - Mexican drug-trafficking groups also have increased their operations in South America to begin providing drugs to markets there and in Europe.

The presence of Mexican cartels in Central and South America illustrates two important points. First, there is no question that Mexican groups are now the central figures in the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere. Nothing demonstrates this better than the fact that it is the Mexican traffickers - not the Colombian or Peruvian producers - who are conquering new turf and even expanding to other markets. The second point is that the drug trade does not necessarily have to revolve around U.S. consumers. While the United States remains a top consumer of cocaine, expanding markets in Latin America and Europe, as well as a continued crackdown in Mexico, could produce a more profound shift in drug-trafficking routes.

Deteriorating Security
One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that, even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country's security situation has continued to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate. Just last week, the total number of drug-related homicides in Mexico in 2008 surged past 5,000. This puts Mexico on track to more than double the previous annual record of 2,700 killings, set in 2007.

In addition to the drastic rise in the number of killings, the violence has escalated in other important ways that are more difficult to quantify. For one, Mexican cartel violence has remained a brutal enterprise, with this past year registering perhaps the most significant beheading incident. Second, attacks on security forces have increased. Law enforcement and military personnel have represented some 10 percent of cartel casualties, compared to approximately 7 percent during 2007.

In addition, a series of assassinations of high-ranking government officials in Mexico City made it clear that almost anyone can be considered a cartel target. An expansion of the cartels' arsenals also contributed to the escalation in violence, including the July discovery of explosive-actuated improvised incendiary devices in vehicles near a cartel safe house, and the February failed assassination attempt with an improvised explosive device (IED) in Mexico City.

Finally, 2008 witnessed the first clear case of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, when alleged members of the La Familia crime organization threw two fragmentation grenades into a crowd during Mexico's Independence Day celebration in Morelia, Michoacan state.

Of particular concern to the United States is how this rampant violence continues to cross the border. No single incident better demonstrates this than the Phoenix home invasion in June. In that incident, cartel hit men armed with assault rifles and wearing Phoenix Police Department raid shirts killed a drug dealer. The assault had all the makings of a Mexican cartel hit, especially in the attackers' willingness to engage police officers if necessary.

Looking Ahead
The deteriorating security situation certainly has become the top priority for the Calderon administration, with Mexico's crime problem now officially considered a matter of national security. The government is considering the implications of increasing casualties, not only among security forces but also among civilians.

Moreover, the initial strategy of relying on the military only over the short term appears increasingly unfeasible, as police reforms have proven far more difficult to achieve than the administration anticipated. Despite the costs, Calderon has shown no signs of letting up. Assistance from the United States will begin expanding under the Merida Initiative, but foreign assistance is only one part of the solution. Perhaps recognizing that at present it is the cartels - not the government - that ultimately control the level of violence in the country, the Calderon administration is exploring plans to escalate the military's commitment to the fight.

Of course, a sudden drop in violence could make such an escalation unnecessary. There is currently no indication that the violence will soon taper off, but it might also be premature to assume that the violence will continue to escalate in the way it has so far. Attacks involving IEDs or the indiscriminate killing of civilians, for example, have yet to be repeated.

Despite this caveat, the obvious danger is that the cartels have shown themselves to be remarkably innovative, vicious and resilient when backed into a corner. Given their powerful arsenals and deep penetration of the country's institutions, a further increase in attacks against security forces and government officials seems all but inevitable.
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