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May 4, 2012 | 13:01 GMT

Mexico: Barrio Azteca's Fraying Ties with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Barrio Azteca, an El Paso-based gang originally formed in a Texas prison in the mid-1980s, has long been involved with Mexican drug cartels. Around 2008, the group appeared to enter an exclusive partnership with the Vincente Carrillo Fuentes organization, aka the Juarez cartel, via an alliance with that group's enforcement arm, La Linea. However, the dismantling of La Linea by law enforcement and the Sinaloa Federation since 2011 and the overall weakening of the Juarez cartel likely mean Barrio Azteca will begin partnering with other criminal groups in Mexico, if it has not already done so.

Barrio Azteca, or "Aztec Neighborhood," originated in 1986 as a Hispanic prison gang. It was started by a group of inmates in a Texas state prison who were looking for protection from gangs like the Texas Syndicate and the Texas Mexican Mafia. In the 1990s, the group expanded from a prison gang to a nationwide U.S. street gang, though it operated primarily in El Paso, Texas, and across the Mexican border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state.

El Paso is one of the most valuable ports of entry into the United States, allowing Barrio Azteca, known in Mexico as Los Aztecas, to work closely with Mexican cartels. It worked with several cartels, including the Sinaloa Federation and the VCF, to traffic and distribute narcotics, and it engaged in other criminal enterprises, such as assassinations, extortion, car theft and kidnapping. Notably, Barrio Azteca is not the only U.S. gang with operational ties to Mexican organized crime. Mexico's drug trafficking organizations often use U.S. street gangs to deliver illicit drugs into the U.S. market. Other U.S. gangs with known ties to Mexican cartels include Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the Texas Syndicate and Texas Mexican Mafia and others. 

But unlike many U.S. street gangs, by 2008 Barrio Azteca had developed exclusive ties with one group: the VCF. This development coincided with the battle between the VCF and the Sinaloa Federation for control of Ciudad Juarez. The VCF controlled Ciudad Juarez plaza until the Sinaloa incursion dramatically weakened the VCF and led it to look for outside assistance. Employing Barrio Azteca to work exclusively under La Linea was part of that effort.

The alliance between Barrio Azteca and the VCF made sense for both parties. By supporting what had been (and still was, to a lesser degree) one of the country's most powerful cartels, Barrio Azteca received a discount on narcotics and used its alliance with the Juarez cartel to become the dominant U.S. gang in El Paso. In turn, Barrio Azteca gave the VCF a dedicated organization to distribute illicit drugs across the border and more manpower to conduct attacks against its rivals. Since Barrio Azteca is one of the largest street gangs operating in Ciudad Juarez, this pool of individuals provided a significant force for the VCF to counter the Sinaloa Federation's incursion.  

Beginning in 2010, however, La Linea suffered heavy losses from law enforcement and military operations as a result of its brazen threats against U.S. assets. Following the March 13, 2010, murder of U.S. consulate employees by La Linea and Barrio Azteca, Mexican and U.S. authorities arrested 35 Barrio Azteca members, 10 of which were charged with the murders. Later in July 2011, La Linea leader Jose Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez was captured by the Mexican military in Chihuahua, Chihuahua state. Acosta said that he had united Barrio Azteca with the Juarez cartel. His capture likely strained the groups' ties. La Linea currently operates under the name New Juarez cartel, but its operational capabilities have been greatly diminished and its level of cooperation with Barrio Azteca is unclear.

At the same time that the Juarez cartel was dealing with an attack on its enforcement arm by the Mexican military and police, it was also under attack by the Sinaloa Federation. Sinaloa's efforts to take Ciudad Juarez began with gathering intelligence on the group and paying off locals for information. This escalated to subverting elements of Barrio Azteca with bribes for information on the Juarez cartel and its own members working on Juarez's behalf, creating factions within the gang and between the gang and its employer. After sowing these divisions, Sinaloa sent in its own enforcement arm, La Gente Nueva, to launch attacks on Juarez operatives. These attacks largely succeeded in seizing control of the Juarez-El Paso port of entry that was once controlled by the VCF. The extent of the subversion is unclear, but since Sinaloa has the VCF on the defensive already, its goal is likely not to foster internal turmoil but simply to have Barrio Azteca members switch over to its side. It should be noted, however, that Barrio Azteca still has not officially split from the VCF.

Because of the weakened state of the VCF and the surge of Sinaloa's operations in Ciudad Juarez, Barrio Azteca probably will stop being the exclusive allie of the VCF. Barrio Azteca likely will turn to any cartel that can replace the financial or operational resources it previously received from the VCF. With Sinaloa already in control of much of the Ciudad Juarez plaza and emerging unconfirmed reports saying that Barrio Azteca is working with Los Zetas, it is likely that Barrio Azteca already is operating with other cartels — which would be another significant loss for the VCF.

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