Battle for Jalisco

On February 20 in the early morning Mexican soldiers seized 13 Los Zetas members after tip offs from locals fed up with the extortion demands being made on them

The arrests in the town of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, 15 kilometers from Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco and Mexico’s second largest city, didn’t make major national headlines  – none of the group was senior enough for that. But the operation illustrates the determination of the commander in the region, General Genaro Lozano Fausto Espinoza, to keep the pressure on the cartels, from second-tier crime groups such as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) up to the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas.

The military’s  focus was rewarded in February , not just with the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members, two of whom were women. Earlier in the month, on February 2 five members of New Generation were surprised by marines at a checkpoint set up on a road on the outskirts of Tecalitlán Pihuamo in the southeastern of the state. The marines found weapons and crystal meth, according to the Ministry of Defense.

And on February 9 the general and his troops got their biggest break – the record-breaking discovery in Tlajomulco de Zuniga of a 15-ton stash of methamphetamine worth $4 billion, equal to half the total meth seizures worldwide in 2009, according to United Nations data.

The methamphetamine was stored in barrels on a ranch.

According to the general these successes – from the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members to the capture of the five New Generation operatives and on to the methamphetamine seizure – all comes down unrelenting work. But he points also to another factor that has advanced his struggle with crime organizations – improved coordination with local and municipal authorities, from law-enforcement chiefs to state and city officials.

But the challenge is big for the general and his men.

Jalisco has become in the last year a major flashpoint in the struggle for mastery between competing cartels and seven crime organizations are jockeying for advantage in the state. The competition has become fiercer and bloodier with the arrival towards the end of 2010 of Los Zetas.

In a 48-hour period in the last week of January, Jalisco racked up 30 homicides. In the small municipality of Ejutla clandestine graves containing 7 bodies were found – four of the dead were burned beyond recognition. In Lagos de Moreno two policemen were shot dead. A third officer was seriously wounded and was later shot dead by gunmen in the hospital he had been rushed to, triggering another firefight.

The other homicides were all in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara.

The number of murders in Jalisco has jumped from 570 in 2009 to 882 in 2010. Last year, there were 1,100 slayings.

Last November, 26 corpses were found stuffed in three vehicles by municipal police in a busy avenue in Guadalajara, marking a new stage in the face-off between the warring cartels. All the corpses were bound and gagged, some had been asphyxiated, some had died from blows to their heads and one was beheaded.  Jalisco Governor Emilio González wrote on his Twitter account he was “shocked” by the killings.

According to the state’s interior secretary, Fernando Guzman Perez, the words ‘Milenio Zetas’ or ‘Milenium’ were written on the chests of the dead in oil—indicating that the killers were affiliated to Los Zetas and a small crime gang they have recently aligned with, the Milenio Cartel.

The cartel battle in Jalisco in many ways is about who controls Guadalajara, an important city for the cartels. Control of the city means you have control of important narcotic shipment routes up from the south and to the west and north.

Until the summer of 2010, the city was seen as a Sinaloa cartel bastion and as a result was free of extreme inter-cartel violence, that is until the Sinaloa cartel’s tight grip was loosened by the death of its major lieutenant in Guadalajara, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, who died in a shootout with federal police.

Jalisco has become a target for Los Zetas, who have been expanding west from their bases on the Gulf coast and have taken over already the neighboring Zacatecas state in their push westwards.