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Mexico's Drug War: Stability Ahead of Fourth Quarter Turmoil

Written by Tristan Reed

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Editor's Note: This Security Weekly assesses the most significant cartel-related developments of the third quarter of 2013 and provides updated profiles security-weeklyof Mexico's powerful criminal cartels, as well as a forecast for the rest of this year. It is the executive summary of a more detailed report available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.

Despite the high-profile arrests of Los Zetas' top leader, Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, on July 15 and Gulf cartel leader Mario "El Pelon" Ramirez Trevino on Aug. 17, the third quarter much like the second quarter experienced a continuation of existing trends in organized crime. Tit-for-tat cartel conflicts continued, but Mexico's various organized criminal groups largely controlled the same territory they did at the beginning of the quarter. The third quarter did see intermittent periods of escalated violence by rival groups seeking territory. These included the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion's conflict with the Knights Templar in Michoacan, Guerrero, Guanajuato and Jalisco states and the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel's conflict with Los Zetas in northern and central Mexico.

While no criminal organization in Mexico suffered any substantial losses in capabilities or territory in the third quarter, the fourth quarter will likely see variations in this trend, particularly as cartels adjust to the arrest of Mario Ramirez Trevino. The Velazquez faction will become the widest-operating branch of the Gulf cartel and the most active challenger to Los Zetas for control of the northeast. As Stratfor noted during our first quarterly update, the Velazquez faction was formerly led by the now-captured Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, a former regional boss for Los Zetas, which split from Los Zetas around March 2012 and later returned to operating under the Gulf cartel name. The Velazquez faction continues to operate unhindered by the arrest of Ivan Velazquez on Sept. 26, 2012.

There are a variety of reasons for the relatively stable cartel dynamics in Mexico during the third quarter. For one, it has been less than three months since Miguel Trevino was detained by the Mexican navy and less than two since Mario Ramirez's detention. Miguel Trevino's brother, Omar Trevino, appears to have assumed leadership over Los Zetas, and -- notably -- there has been no significant challenge to his new role. Mario Ramirez's arrest will certainly alter the dynamic within the umbrella of the Gulf cartel, particularly as it relates to Gulf allies such as the Knights Templar and the Sinaloa Federation, and Gulf rivals, such as Los Zetas. Any changes related to dynamics within the Gulf cartel have yet to be reflected in open source reporting.

Also, the balkanization of Mexican organized crime has shifted the focus of all criminal organizations from planning new incursions to addressing existing challenges within their territory. The Sinaloa Federation continues to combat regional rivals in northwestern Mexico, including northern Sinaloa, southwestern Chihuahua, and northern Sonora state. Los Zetas continue their fight to regain complete control over much of Zacatecas state after Velazquez Caballero's split in 2012. Los Zetas also continued to engage in violent attacks against the Gulf cartel in the rest of northeastern Mexico and against the Knights Templar (and possibly Gulf cartel) in Tabasco state, although these offensives have not accomplished any real gains. The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar continued to focus on their traditional strongholds in southwestern Mexico, trading tit-for-tat incursions into one another's territories.

Moreover, many of the changes in cartel dynamics reported in the third quarter actually occurred during the first quarter. For example, Stratfor first identified the arrival of a new challenger to Los Zetas into Tabasco state operating under the name People United Against Crime (commonly referred to by its Spanish acronym, PUCD), but during the second and particularly third quarter it became apparent that People United Against Crime are really just pre-existing Zetas rivals operating under a new label (most likely the Knights Templar or its allies, the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel). And it came to light in the third quarter that Los Zetas have entered the Ciudad Juarez area in northern Chihuahua, though they actually began building their presence at least as far back as the first quarter.

In contrast to the minimal disruptions in the overall cartel landscape in Mexico in the past two quarters, the fourth quarter will likely see substantial changes. The Gulf cartel will likely feel the effects of Mario Ramirez's capture, which will shift the balance of power in Tamaulipas state and thus invite another offensive by Los Zetas or further control by Gulf allies, particularly the Knights Templar. Meanwhile, should Omar Trevino be capable of retaining the organization's ability to stage significant incursions into Sinaloa Federation territory, Los Zetas efforts in Ciudad Juarez could spark a new turf war in Chihuahua state.

Overall Violence

Los Zetas

After the July 15 capture by the Mexican navy of top Zeta leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, his brother Omar "Z-42" Trevino ascended to the top position within the criminal organization. Thus far, it does not appear anyone within Los Zetas has publicly challenged Omar Trevino.

Many of the challenges to Los Zetas by rivals during the second quarter continued into the third quarter. While efforts by the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel to seize Zetas territory were renewed in part because of Miguel Trevino's capture, primarily affecting Zacatecas state and southern Tamaulipas state, the renewed fighting is only a continuation of the dispute that began after the former leader of the Velazquez faction, Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, split from Los Zetas around March 2012. Elsewhere, Los Zetas have been unable to mitigate challenges for territorial control in some regions, a trend that emerged before Miguel Trevino's arrest.

Tamaulipas and Zacatecas states remain the most critical areas to follow in assessing the integrity and capability of Los Zetas, particularly Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state. This is due to the value of Nuevo Laredo to Los Zetas' operational capabilities and to the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel being the most active and closest rival of Los Zetas in geographic proximity to Nuevo Laredo. While the Velazquez network operates along the entire eastern coast of Mexico, its center of operations remains in northern and central Mexico, including Zacatecas, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi states; its reach extends into southern Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states (specifically Monterrey) thanks to its ties to other Gulf cartel factions.

With the exception of Zacatecas during September, however, there have been no indications that such violence has yet posed a substantial threat to Los Zetas operations in the aforementioned states. The lack of change in criminal activities in Nuevo Laredo, including inter-cartel violence, has been most notable in the Los Zetas-Gulf cartel competition. This suggests Los Zetas' rivals have yet to find the opportunity to mount another incursion against them.

Los Zetas' have thus far maintained their capabilities in terms of drug smuggling and other criminal activity plus the ability to defend against their rivals despite the loss of their top leader, and the organization continues to operate deep into rival territorial. During the third quarter of 2013, it became apparent that Los Zetas have been operating in the Sinaloa Federation-controlled territory of northern Chihuahua state, most notably in Ciudad Juarez, via its allies La Linea and Los Aztecas (both former enforcer groups of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, better known as the Juarez cartel). Los Zetas are funding and training both groups, but they have yet to operate in an offensive manner in Ciudad Juarez at present.

However, Los Zetas have been using the area for their trafficking operations into the United States, particularly southeastern Ciudad Juarez. In exchange for support, Los Zetas can operate in areas still controlled by La Linea around Ciudad Juarez, helping avoid an overt conflict with the Sinaloa Federation. Stratfor has received reports Los Zetas have attempted to avoid drawing attention to their presence by eschewing violent acts. Although Los Zetas' presence in the area only became apparent in the third quarter, it had begun prior to the arrest of Miguel Trevino.

Although Los Zetas do not overtly appear to have suffered any substantial losses in operational capabilities since Miguel Trevino's arrest, uncertainties persist about whether his brother, Omar Trevino, can successfully manage one of the two largest criminal organizations in Mexico. These uncertainties make it difficult to forecast Los Zetas' strategy and the potential challenges that could lead to a degraded security climates in its own and rival territories. Should the Gulf cartel in Zacatecas state make progress in its territorial dispute with Los Zetas, then rivals to Los Zetas would likely vie for territory closer to Nuevo Laredo, probably leading to an increase in violence. Additionally, should Los Zetas try to use their established presence in Ciudad Juarez to attempt a takeover from the Sinaloa Federation, violence in Chihuahua would likely increase drastically.

Gulf Cartel

The Gulf cartel suffered yet another substantial blow to its leadership during the third quarter with the capture of its most powerful leader, Mario "El Pelon" Ramirez Trevino, on Aug. 17. This arrest will likely lead to further tumult within the Gulf cartel, which had already devolved from a cohesive criminal organization into an umbrella group with factions loyal to individual leaders but operating on a transnational level.

The fall of Ramirez will likely propel the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel to become one of the most powerful Gulf cartel factions in the northeast during the fourth quarter, barring any unforeseen captures or deaths at the hands of Mexican authorities. This is because the Velazquez faction maintains the widest geographic reach in Mexico under a cohesive network. The leadership of the Velazquez faction since the arrest of Ivan Velazquez in September 2012 remains something of a mystery, though likely successors include two of his brothers, Daniel "El Talibancillo" Velazquez Caballero and Rolando "El Rolys" Velazquez Caballero.

The most significant change resulting from Ramirez's capture during the fourth quarter will likely be yet another reshuffle of allegiances and roles among Gulf cartel factions in addition to Ramirez's replacement. This will include another split within the Gulf cartel umbrella, assimilation at some level of Gulf cartel cells into existing factions or an external organization such as the Knights Templar and even Los Zetas, and an increased presence of the Knights Templar or the Sinaloa Federation in Tamaulipas state, both of which have thus far propped up the Gulf cartel in its conflict with Los Zetas. Of the current Gulf cartel factions, the Velazquez faction will become the most formidable rival of Los Zetas in the northeast.

Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

While the northeastern states of Mexico are typically the most fluid in terms of cartel dynamics and security due to the Zetas-Gulf cartel conflict, violence as a result of the ongoing dispute between the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar turned southwestern Mexico, particularly Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco states, into the most active in terms of inter-cartel violence.

As stated during our first quarterly update of 2013, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion has made a substantial bid to wrest control of the Knights Templar stronghold of Michoacan state. With community police in southwestern and northern Michoacan state a contributing factor, inter-cartel violence escalated dramatically during the third quarter and will likely continue at presence levels or even escalate further during the fourth quarter.

This has placed the Knights Templar on the defensive, something made apparent by their escalated aggression against authorities during the third quarter and the shifting of the focus of their propaganda from Los Zetas to both the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the community police. Despite this, the Knights Templar probably will not lose substantial territory in Michoacan state nor lose their ability to resist the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion incursion during the fourth quarter. The Knights Templar are simply firmly planted in Michoacan. The conflict will continue to pose a substantial security threat throughout the state. 

Sinaloa Federation

With the exception of Los Zetas in Ciudad Juarez, little has changed during the third quarter regarding the Sinaloa Federation. As Stratfor has noted, the Sinaloa Federation has been dealing with regional conflicts within its territory in the northwest. This includes the golden triangle region (encompassing northern Sinaloa, northwestern Durango and southwestern Chihuahua), northern Sonora state and southern Chihuahua state. These conflicts continued over the third quarter and will likely remain on course throughout the fourth quarter. None of the existing conflicts will present any serious challenge to the Sinaloa Federation's territorial control or criminal operations during the fourth quarter.

As mentioned above, Los Zetas have built up a presence around Ciudad Juarez during 2013, potentially marking a new criminal aggressor in Ciudad Juarez. The city already has seen a turf war between the Sinaloa Federation and the Juarez cartel and its allies, La Linea and Los Aztecas, since 2008. Thus far, Los Zetas' presence in Ciudad Juarez has largely been nonaggressive, and they have apparently limited their operations to trafficking drugs into far western Texas.

The Sinaloa Federation lost a prominent lieutenant overseeing the region, Gabino "El Ingeniero" Salas Valenciano, on Aug. 8 when Salas died in a firefight with the Mexican army. While no public reports suggest that Los Zetas are attempting to take advantage of his death by striking against Sinaloa interests, it is clear that Salas' death has triggered some conflict between La Linea and the Sinaloa Federation. On Sept. 22, gunmen opened fire on a family celebrating a local baseball game in Loma Blanca, a community located in southeastern Ciudad Juarez. Ten people died in the attack. While the identity and motive of the shooters remain unknown, some Mexican news agencies have attributed the killing to La Linea. Soon after the shooting, authorities discovered messages in at least eight locations in Ciudad Juarez attributing the shooting to La Linea. Notably, the messages were signed "the people of Gavino (sic) Salas."

While such messages cannot alone confirm the identity of the attackers or suggest a motivation, they do suggest at least a momentary escalation of violence between the Sinaloa Federation and La Linea. Such a renewed violent campaign could present a moment of opportunity to persuade their allies to attempt to wrest Ciudad Juarez from the Sinaloa Federation -- a scenario that would certainly lead to a sharp uptick in violence through Ciudad Juarez and possibly much of northern Chihuahua.

Mexico's Drug War: Stability Ahead of Fourth Quarter Turmoil is republished with permission of Stratfor." Follow Stratfor: @stratfor on Twitter | Stratfor on Facebook

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