Mexican Cartels and the Pan American Games: A Threat Assessment
By Scott Stewart
The 2011 Pan American Games will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, from Oct. 14 through Oct. 30. The games will feature 36 different sports and will bring more than 6,000 athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to Mexico's second-largest city. The Parapan American Games, for athletes with physical disabilities, will follow from Nov. 12 to Nov. 20.
Like the Olympics, the World Cup or any other large sporting event, planning for the Pan American Games in Guadalajara began when the city was selected to host them in 2006. Preparations have included the construction of new sports venues, an athletes' village complex, hotels, highway and road infrastructure, and improvements to the city's mass transit system. According to the coordinating committee, the construction and infrastructure improvements for the games have cost some $750 million.
The preparations included more than just addressing infrastructure concerns, however. Due to the crime environment in Mexico, security is also a very real concern for the athletes, sponsors and spectators who will visit Guadalajara during the games. The organizers of the games, the Mexican government and the governments of the 42 other participating countries also will be focused intensely on security in Guadalajara over the next two months.
In light of these security concerns, STRATFOR will publish an additional special report on the games. The report, of which this week's Security Weekly is an abridged version, will provide our analysis of threats to the games.
Due to the violent and protracted conflicts between Mexico's transnational criminal cartels and the incredible levels of brutality that they have spawned, most visitors' foremost security concern will be Mexico's criminal cartels. The Aug. 20 incident in Torreon, Coahuila state, in which a firefight occurred outside of a stadium during a nationally televised soccer match, will reinforce perceptions of this danger. The concern is understandable, especially considering Guadalajara's history as a cartel haven and recent developments in the region. Even so, we believe the cartels are unlikely to attack the games intentionally.
Historically, smuggling has been a way of life for criminal groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, and moving illicit goods across the border, whether alcohol, guns, narcotics or illegal immigrants, has long proved quite profitable for these groups. This profitability increased dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s as the flow of South American cocaine through the Caribbean was sharply cut due to improvements in maritime and aerial surveillance and interdiction. This change in enforcement directed a far larger percentage of the flow of cocaine through Mexico, greatly enriching the Mexican smugglers involved in the cocaine trade. The group of smugglers who benefited most from cocaine trade included Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, who would go on to form a Guadalajara-based organization known as the Guadalajara cartel. That cartel became the most powerful narcotics smuggling organization in the country, and perhaps the world, controlling virtually all the narcotics smuggled into the United States from Mexico.
The Guadalajara cartel was dismantled during the U.S. and Mexican reaction to the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique Camarena by the group. Smaller organizations emerged from its remains that eventually would become the Arellano Felix Organization (aka the Tijuana cartel), the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (aka the Juarez cartel), the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa Federation. The sheer number of major cartel organizations that came out of the Guadalajara cartel demonstrates the immense power and geographic reach the group once wielded.
Even after the demise of the Guadalajara cartel, Guadalajara continued to be an important city for drug smuggling operations due to its location in relation to Mexico's highway and railroad system and its proximity to Mexico's largest port, Manzanillo. The port is not just important to cocaine smuggling; it also has become an important point of entry for precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. For many years, the Sinaloa Federation faction headed by Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villarreal was in charge of the Guadalajara plaza. Although Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco continued to be an important component of the cocaine trade, Coronel Villarreal became known as "the king of crystal" due to his organization's heavy involvement in the meth trade.
Guadalajara remained firmly under Sinaloa control until the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) split off from Sinaloa following the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January 2008. This caused the Beltran Leyva Organization to ally itself with Los Zetas and to begin to attack Sinaloa's infrastructure on Mexico's Pacific coast. In April 2010, Coronel Villarreal's 16-year-old son Alejandro was abducted and murdered. Like the murder of Edgar Guzman Beltran, the son of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, the BLO and Los Zetas were thought to have been behind the murder of Coronel Villarreal's son. In July 2010, Coronel Villarreal himself was killed during a shootout with the Mexican military in Zapopan, Jalisco state.
Coronel Villarreal's death created a power vacuum in Guadalajara that several organizations attempted to fill due to the importance of Guadalajara and Jalisco to the smuggling of narcotics. One of these was La Familia Michoacana (LFM). LFM's attempt to assume control of Guadalajara led to the rupture of the alliance between LFM and Sinaloa. (LFM has since fractured; the most powerful faction of that group is now called the Knights Templar.) The group now headed by Hector Beltran Leyva, which is called the Cartel Pacifico Sur, and its ally Los Zetas also continue to attempt to increase their influence over Guadalajara.
But the current fight for control of Guadalajara includes not only outsiders such as the Knights Templar and the CPS/Los Zetas but also the remnants of Coronel Villarreal's network and what is left of the Milenio cartel (also known as the Valencia cartel) which has historically been very active in Guadalajara and Manzanillo. One portion of the former Milenio cartel is known as "La Resistencia" and has become locked in a vicious war with the most prominent group of Coronel's former operatives, which is known as the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). CJNG appears to have gotten the better of La Resistencia in this fight, and La Resistencia has recently allied itself with Los Zetas/CPS out of desperation.
In July, CJNG announced it was moving some of its forces to Veracruz to attack Los Zetas' infrastructure there. This CJNG group in Veracruz began to call itself "Matazetas," Spanish for "Zeta killers." It is believed that the CJNG is responsible for the recent killings of low-level Zeta operators in Veracruz. Taken with the Los Zetas/La Resistencia alliance, the CJNG offensive in Veracruz means that if Los Zetas have the ability to strike against the CJNG infrastructure in Guadalajara, they will do so. Such strikes could occur in the next few weeks, and could occur during the games.
As illustrated by the recent body dumps in Veracruz, or the bodies dumped in Acapulco during Mexican President Felipe Calderon's visit to that city in March, the Mexican cartels do like to perform a type of macabre theater in order to grab media attention. With the attention of the press turned toward Guadalajara, it would not be surprising if one or more cartel groups attempted some sort of body dump or other spectacle in Guadalajara during the games.
And given the ongoing fight for control of Guadalajara, it is quite likely that there will be some confrontations between the various cartel groups in the city during the games. However, such violence is not likely to be intentionally directed against the games. The biggest risk to athletes and spectators posed by the cartels comes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the cartels frequently employ fragmentation grenades and indiscriminate fire during shootouts with the authorities and rival cartels.
One of the side effects of the Mexican government's war against the cartels is that as some cartels have been weakened by pressure from the government and their rivals, they have become less capable of moving large shipments of narcotics. This has made them increasingly reliant on other types of crime to supplement their income. Crime always has been a problem in Mexico, but activities such as robbery, kidnapping and extortion have gotten progressively worse in recent years. According to the U.S. State Department's 2011 Crime and Safety report for Guadalajara, crimes of all types have increased in the city. Indeed, due to the high levels of crime present in Mexico, athletes and spectators at the Pan American Games are far more likely to fall victim to common crime than they are to an act of cartel violence.
The Mexican government will employ some 10,000 police officers (to include 5,000 Federal Police officers) as well as hundreds of military personnel to provide protection to the athletes and venues associated with the Pan American Games. But when one considers that the Guadalajara metropolitan area contains some 4.4 million residents, and that there will be thousands of athletes and perhaps in excess of 100,000 spectators, the number of security personnel assigned to work the games is not as large as it might appear at first glance. Nevertheless, the authorities will be able to provide good security for the athletes' village and the venues, and on the main travel routes, though they will not be able to totally secure the entire Guadalajara metropolitan area. Places outside the security perimeters where there is little security, and therefore a greater danger of criminal activity, will remain.
When visiting Guadalajara during the games, visitors are advised to be mindful of their surroundings and maintain situational awareness at all times in public areas. Visitors should never expose valuables, including wallets, jewelry, cell phones and cash, any longer than necessary. And they should avoid traveling at night, especially into areas of Guadalajara and the surrounding area that are away from the well-established hotels and sporting venues. Visitors will be most vulnerable to criminals while in transit to and from the venues, and while out on the town before and after events. Excessive drinking is also often an invitation to disaster in a high-crime environment.
As always, visitors to Mexico should maintain good situational awareness and take common-sense precautions to reduce the chances of becoming a crime victim. Pickpockets, muggers, counterfeit ticket scalpers, and express kidnappers all will be looking for easy targets during the games, and steps need to be taken to avoid them. Mexico has a problem with corruption, especially at lower levels of their municipal police forces, and so this must be taken into account when dealing with police officers.
While traditional kidnappings for ransom in Mexico are usually directed against well-established targets, express kidnappings can target anyone who appears to have money, and foreigners are often singled out for express kidnapping. Express kidnappers are normally content to drain the contents of the bank accounts linked to the victim's ATM card, but in cases where there is a large amount of cash linked to the account and a small daily limit, an express kidnapping can turn into a protracted ordeal. Express kidnappings can also transform into a traditional kidnapping if the criminals discover the victim of their express kidnapping happens to be a high net worth individual.
It is also not uncommon for unregulated or "libre" taxi drivers in Mexico to be involved with criminal gangs who engage in armed robbery or express kidnapping, so visitors need to be careful only to engage taxi services from a regulated taxi stand or a taxi arranged via a hotel or restaurant, but even that is no guarantee.
In addition to the threats posed by the cartels and other criminals, there are some other threats that must be taken into consideration. First, Guadalajara is located in a very active seismic area and earthquakes there are quite common, although most of them cannot be felt. Occasionally, big quakes will strike the city and visitors need to be mindful of how to react in an earthquake.
Fire is also a serious concern, especially in the developing world, and visitors to Guadalajara staying in hotels need to ensure that they know where the fire exits are and that those fire exits are not blocked or locked.
The traffic in Mexico's cities is terrible and Guadalajara is no exception. Traffic congestion and traffic accidents are quite common.
Visitors to Mexico also need to be mindful of the poor water quality in the country and the possibility of contracting a water-borne illness from drinking the water or from eating improperly prepared food.
Privately operated medical facilities in Mexico are well-equipped for all levels of medical care, and foreign visitors should choose private over public (government-operated) health care facilities. Private medical services can also stabilize a patient and facilitate a medical evacuation to another country (such as the United States) should the need arise.
In conclusion, the most dangerous organizations in Mexico have very little motivation or intent to hit the Pan American Games. The games are also at very low risk of being a target for international terrorism. The organizing committee, the Mexican government and the other governments that will be sending athletes to the games will be coordinating closely to ensure that the games pass without major incident. Because of this, the most likely scenario for an incident impacting an athlete or spectator will be common crime occurring away from the secure venues.