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Mexico: The Price of Peace in the Cartel Wars

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By Fred Burton

So far, 2007 has been a bad year for one of Mexico's two most powerful drug-trafficking enterprises: the Gulf cartel. In January, the organization suffered a major hit when Mexico extradited its captured leader, Osiel Cardenas, to the United States. Then, on April 17, authorities arrested five Gulf members just south of the Texas border in Reynosa. Among those taken into custody was Juan Oscar Garza, purportedly an important Gulf cartel leader in the city. Less than a week later, authorities in Nuevo Laredo captured Gulf cartel leader Eleazar Medina Rojas. The Mexican Attorney General's office described Medina as "a major killer."

During his 2006 election campaign, Mexican President Felipe Calderon pledged to take measures to quell the brutal cartel war that has been raging in his country since 2003 -- a war that has escalated dramatically over the past two years. Calderon, in attempting to fulfill his campaign promise, is responsible for the angst currently being felt by the Gulf cartel. Sources familiar with the operation say the Gulf cartel is the government's primary target now, and that Calderon hopes to have it dismantled within a year. Should this operation succeed, it will have public security ramifications on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The immediate benefit, of course, would go to Mexico's other main cartel, the Sinaloa organization, which would assume control of the Gulf cartel's operations in many areas. However, with the long-running turf war between these two organizations concluded, the brutal violence that has spread across the country could subside, at least for a time. On the other hand, members of the cartel's infamous Los Zetas enforcement arm would be left without a master -- or the protection that comes with being part of a powerful cartel. At least some of the Zetas would flee into the United States, spreading their particularly brutal style of violence north of the border.

The Cartels

Given its geographic location, Mexico has long been used as a staging and transshipment point for narcotics, illegal aliens and other contraband destined for U.S. markets from Mexico, South America and elsewhere. The smuggling routes into the United States are controlled by the cartels, which operate major transshipment points, or plazas, run by a top figure within each cartel known as the "gatekeeper."

Currently, the majority of Mexico's smuggling routes are controlled by three key cartels: Gulf, Sinaloa and Tijuana -- though Tijuana is the least powerful. This has not always been the case. As recently as November 2005, the Juarez cartel was the dominant player in the center of the country, controlling a large percentage of the cocaine traffic from Mexico into the United States. The death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in 1997, however, was the beginning of the end of the Juarez cartel. After the organization collapsed, some elements of it were absorbed into the Sinaloa cartel -- a relatively young and aggressive organization that has gobbled up much of the Juarez cartel's former territory.

Over time, the balance of power between the various cartels shifts as new ones emerge and older ones weaken and collapse. The interplay between cartels is, in fact, very much like that between some nations: The chances for peace are highest when a kind of stable coexistence is maintained and profits flow freely. However, a disruption in the system -- such as the arrests or deaths of cartel leaders -- generates tensions and, frequently, bloodshed as rivals move in to exploit the power vacuum.

Leadership vacuums sometimes are created by law enforcement successes against a particular cartel -- thus, cartels often will attempt to use law enforcement against one another, either by bribing Mexican officials to take action against a rival or by leaking intelligence about a rival's operations to the Mexican government or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Current Cartel War

The collapse of the Juarez cartel, the February 2002 death of Tijuana cartel leader and chief enforcer Ramon Arellano Felix, who was killed in a shootout with police in Mazatlan, and the March 14, 2003, capture of Gulf cartel kingpin Cardenas in Matamoros combined to spark the current period of unrest -- and particularly brutal warfare -- among what were then the three main cartels. The aggressive Sinaloa cartel saw those developments as an opportunity to expand its territory -- and profits -- and made its move.

Sinaloa's expansion efforts forced the Tijuana cartel to cede the plaza in the northwestern border city of Mexicali, while Sinaloa's move into Gulf territory in Nuevo Laredo made that town a war zone. The Gulf and Tijuana organizations did unite briefly against the powerful Sinaloa cartel through a deal their leaders struck in prison in 2004. The alliance crumbled, however, as Cardenas and Benjamin Arellano Felix fell to squabbling in 2005. At that point, the Gulf cartel began launching violent incursions into the Tijuana cartel territories of Mexicali and Tijuana, and the three-way war was on again, though the heaviest fighting has been between Gulf and Sinaloa.

The Tijuana cartel was further weakened in August 2006 when its chief, Javier Arellano Felix, was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard on a boat off the coast of Southern California. Mexican army troops also were sent to Tijuana in January in an operation to restore order to the border city and root out corrupt police officers, who mostly were cooperating with the Tijuana cartel. As a result of these efforts, the Tijuana cartel is unable to project much power outside of its base in Tijuana.

This current cartel war is being waged not only for control of the smuggling plazas into the United States, such as Nuevo Laredo, Mexicali and Tijuana, but also for the locations used for Mexico's incoming drug shipments, in places such as Acapulco, Cancun and Michoacan, and for control of critical points on transshipment routes through the center of the country, such as Hermosillo.

While there has always been some level of violence between the Mexican cartels, the current war has resulted in a notable escalation in the level of brutality. One significant cause of this uptick is the change in the composition of the cartels' enforcement arms. Historically, cartel leaders performed much of their own dirty work, and figures such as Cardenas and Ramon Arellano Felix were recognized for the number of rivals they killed on their rise to the top of their respective organizations. In the recent past, however, the cartels have begun to contract out the enforcement functions to highly trained outsiders. For example, when cartels such as the Tijuana organization began to use active or retired police officers against their enemies, their rivals were forced to find enforcers capable of countering this strength. As a result, the Gulf cartel hired Los Zetas, a group of elite anti-drug paratroopers and intelligence operatives who deserted their federal Special Air Mobile Force Group in 1991. The Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, formed a similar armed force called Los Pelones, literally meaning "the bald ones" but typically understood to mean "new soldiers" for the shaved heads normally sported by military recruits. Although the cartels had long outgunned Mexican police, these highly trained and aggressive enforcers upped the ante even further, introducing military-style tactics and even more advanced weapons.

The life of a Mexican drug cartel enforcer can be exciting, brutal -- and short. Los Zetas and Los Pelones are constantly attacking one another and some members of the groups even have posted videos on the Internet of them torturing and executing their rivals. Beheading rival enforcers also has become common. The current cartel war has proven to be a long and arduous struggle, and there has been heavy attrition among both organizations. Because of this attrition, the cartels have recently begun to bring fresh muscle to the fight. Los Zetas have formed relationships with former members of the Guatemalan special forces known as Kaibiles, and with members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang.

It is this environment of extreme and often gratuitous violence -- killings, beheadings and rocket-propelled grenade attacks -- that has sparked Calderon's actions against the Gulf cartel. Why he is focusing specifically on the Gulf cartel is unclear, though it is possible the government has better intelligence on it than on the others. Or perhaps it is because the Gulf cartel has a more centralized command structure than does Sinaloa, which is a federation of several smaller cartels. Of course, the Gulf cartel itself has argued that the Calderon administration is on the Sinaloa payroll and is being used by Sinaloa to destroy its rival. Another possible reason is that taking out Los Zetas -- who have become emblematic of extreme cartel violence -- would be a major accomplishment for the new president.

The Organizational Structure

The cartels are large, intricate crime syndicates often made up of supporting alliances of smaller cartels, such as the Sinaloa federation. Thus, even if the arrest of a leader or other figure damages one part of the organization, another part of the group can assume the damaged part's role. Additionally, the cartels often are compartmentalized so that one section's removal does not compromise the group as a whole. Further hardening them against law enforcement efforts are the cartels' robust organizational structures. They are distributed horizontally, and are based on family relationships and personal alliances. Because of this, multiple figures can fill leadership vacuums when high-ranking members are arrested or killed.

That said, however, the Gulf cartel has borne the brunt of Calderon's anti-cartel offensive to date -- and even a robust organization with redundant structures will begin to crack when it is hit repeatedly and in different locations, as the Gulf cartel has been. This pressure has resulted in retaliatory attacks against law enforcement and the Sinaloa cartel, which is being blamed for the government's targeting of the Gulf cartel. In the short term, then, the violence will continue, perhaps even escalating as the Gulf cartel fights to survive and maintain its territories and profit stream.

Once there is blood in the water, so to speak, other cartels are likely to swarm over the share of the market the weakened Gulf organization no longer can defend. Sinaloa already is attempting to wrest Nuevo Laredo from Gulf control, and there are indications that Sinaloa also has begun to make a grab for Matamoros. Should the Sinaloa cartel succeed in taking these vital (and lucrative) plazas from the Gulf cartel, it would significantly reduce Gulf's revenues and power. If that happens, and the government action against the Gulf cartel continues, the once-powerful organization could go the way of the Juarez cartel.

On the public security front, however, if Sinaloa is able to make a powerful move and quickly consolidate control over Gulf territory, the result could be the end of the current cartel war and a period of relative calm. The drugs and other contraband will continue to flow, but the violence that has placed so much pressure on the Mexican government will be over -- at least for a season.

Although the ferocious shootouts have been the most pressing issue in the press and public opinion -- and one that can be resolved by taking out one of the main cartels involved -- not all the violence is connected to inter-cartel warfare. Mexico also has a long history of attacks against journalists, as well as honest police officers and others who oppose the cartels and their criminal activities. Thus, even if the inter-cartel warfare is dampened by establishing Sinaloa as the new dominant entity, journalists, police and pro-justice crusaders still will have to live in fear of their area warlords. Average civilians, however, will be less likely to be killed in the crossfire between the cartels.

Consequences

Implosion of the Gulf cartel, though, would leave Los Zetas and their Kaibile and MS-13 allies exposed. Certainly, after the number of government officials and Sinaloa and Tijuana cartel members Los Zetas and their confederates have killed and terrorized, there will be many who would seek to hunt them down. A collapse of the Gulf cartel infrastructure and the organization and revenues required to maintain safety for the group could result in open hunting season on Los Zetas.

Facing that situation, the remaining Zetas could attempt to form an alliance with another cartel, form their own cartel or perhaps even be forced to flee from Mexico. Should they run, their links with the Kaibiles and MS-13 could prove to be mutually beneficial. MS-13 could help shelter Los Zetas in Central America or even the United States. Los Zetas, on the other hand, possess a level of training, discipline and experience that would be quite useful to MS-13. One thing is certain: the Zetas are brutal thugs and, wherever they land, they will continue to commit crimes.

Years of operating in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border has allowed the Zetas to form close relationships with a number of criminals and organized crime organizations in the United States. Some, in fact, already have been associated with killings as far north as Dallas. There also is far more money to be made in the United States than in Central America. Although that opportunity brings with it the risk of having to evade U.S. law enforcement, it is highly likely that a number of Zetas will find their way to U.S. cities.

Their history suggests they would be most comfortable living in cities along or near the border, where they could quickly flee back to Mexico should U.S. law enforcement close in. Being part of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas would have better connections in places adjacent to the cartel's plazas, such as the Texas border cities of Laredo and Brownsville, or in cities along the smuggling route, like San Antonio or Houston. However, the Gulf cartel's distribution network stretches to places such as New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington -- meaning Zetas also could turn up in those cities as well.

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