Which cartel will prevail? The Sinaloa cartel and the upstart Los Zetas are locked in a vicious fight to be the top dog. I discussed this with a good friend of mine, Mexican journalist Jose Carreño, over dinner the other day in Mexico City. He said: “The most remarkable thing about Los Zetas is how quickly they have grown and expanded since they broke with the Gulf Cartel and they have done so by sheer barbaric violence but what allowed them to expand so quickly is what will result in their downfall. The Sinaloa Federation is confrontational too but it is willing to form alliances and to compromise and to deal. Los Zetas isn’t and no one can afford to tolerate their survival – not the Mexican establishment, not the U.S. government and not rival cartels.”
Mexico’s two most powerful cartels – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas – appear deadlocked in their efforts to gain the upper hand but in the longer term the Sinaloans are likely to remain Mexico’s largest crime organization and emerge as the clear top dog.
The struggle for mastery has left hundreds of foot-soldiers dead and comes at a time that Mexican authorities are redoubling their efforts to hunt down the cartel leaders but, barring a devastating blow against the Sinaloa Federation or an internecine blow-up, experts say the Sinaloans are better established, more rooted and better organized.
“The Sinaloa cartel is more entrenched in society and Los Zetas are barely starting to build a social base founded on intimidation and corruption,” says Alberto Islas Torres, the founder of Risk Evaluation, a risk management company, and a former adviser in the presidential administration of Ernesto Zedilllo.
José Luis Valdés-Ugalde , a political scientist at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, agrees that in the longer term the Sinaloans will prevail. “Both organizations are very strong and cross national borders. Los Zetas have shown tremendous ability in a short period of time and great strength to break away from the Gulf cartel. But the Sinaloa cartel has a dominant position and over time that will increase,” he says.
The competition between the two crime organizations that’s triggered massacres and assassinations is dominating the criminal landscape in Mexico. Other cartels and crime gangs are being squeezed by Los Zetas and the Sinaloans and forced to align themselves with one or other.
In recent months, Mexican authorities have pulled off some significant operations against both cartels with a series of arrests and fatal shootings of top lieutenants, including the Sinaloa Federation’s Cabrera Sarabia brothers and Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, the alleged leader of the Gente Nueva gang, a Sinaloan enforcement group.
And Sinaloan production of methamphetamine has been disrupted by several significant seizures of precursor chemicals in west coast ports.
Political scientist José Luis Valdés-Ugalde believes the government’s offensive against the cartels has fallen more heavily on Los Zetas than the Sinaloa Federation. “Federal operations against los Zetas in the states of Veracruz, Zacatecas, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi and Quintana Roo, have involved the capture of 17 of its leaders and plaza heads. Based on the number of detainees, I estimate that the group of key senior members has been greatly reduced,” he says.
The capture of El Chapo or of Los Zetas’s top leader Heriberto Lazcano could be a game-changer. But the arrest of Lazcano would likely be more damaging for Los Zetas than the capture of El Chapo would be for the Sinaloa Federation, says Islas in an interview with Agora.
He says the Sinaloa Federation is a maturer organization and with its horizontal leadership structure would better absorb the challenge of the loss of El Chapo than Los Zetas with its pyramid structure would if Lazcano were captured.
He notes “board member disputes” could hurt the federation as was seen in the fallout of the quarrel between the Sinaloan leaders and their allies the Beltran Leyva brothers. But the federation has a basic strength “because it is based on family connections and alliances through marriages and kinship.”
Last year saw significant geographical gains for Los Zetas in the struggle for mastery.
A map breaking down cartel dominance and presence released by Mexico’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) at a forum for crime experts at the National Institute of Penal Sciences suggests that Los Zetas is now operating in 17 Mexican states. The Sinaloa Federation is operating in 16 states. Four years ago, the Sinaloa Federation was operating in 23 states.
Heriberto Lazcano’s crime organization maintains a presence in Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tabasco , Chiapas, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The Sinaloa Federation operates in Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Baja California, Sonora, Jalisco, Colima and Guerrero.
According to OFDI, the major flashpoints in terms of the struggle for mastery between the two cartels are in the states of Durango, Coahuila, Sonora, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí.
While Los Zetas may be operating now in more states than the Sinaloa Federation, the latter is not only the oldest but still the largest cartel with tens of thousands of operatives and gang members under its sway. El Chapo’s organization dominates most of western Mexico and controls Ciudad Juarez, a crucial drug plaza.
Further, aside from the differences in command structure and membership, Los Zetas, who are primarily dealers, are in many ways less rooted in the drug business. “The Sinaloans are farmers – marijuana and heroin will always be grown by them,” says Islas. “They are producers and that is why they where able to develop the meth market.”
He believes that Los Zetas’ greatest weakness lies in its membership base. “Their recruitment process is based on recommendations and this is why they are easier to infiltrate.” It is a vulnerability the cartel seems aware of: the cartel has a “counterintelligence apparatus to detect intruders and is more violent (than the Sinaloan Federation)” in order to enforce loyalty.
Both cartels are expansionary further afield in Central America and the Caribbean. Central America offers vulnerable states with underfunded and ill-equipped armed forces and high levels of poverty, and Los Zetas has exploited that visibly in Guatemala, triggering alarm across the region.
But of the two, say Mexican and Central American officials, the Sinaloa cartel is making more headway overseas, despite the publicity that has followed Los Zetas’ entry into Guatemala.
According to PGR officials El Chapo is searching constantly to develop more international alliances and has highly developed ties and pacts across Latin America, Asia and West Africa. Since 2005 the Sinaloa Federation has pursued and cultivated ties in China, Thailand and India to secure precursor chemicals.
In the last two years a series of arrests of Sinaloa operatives in the cocaine-producing states of Peru and Bolivia suggests that the Sinaloans are not nervous about moving into territory traditionally considered the preserve of Colombian organized crime.
And that includes Colombia itself, where in 2009 more than seventy properties worth more than $50 million were seized by authorities linked to the Sinaloa Federation. At the time of the asset seizures, the Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo said: “We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellin, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla.”
And El Chapo has increased the federation’s presence in the Caribbean, where authorities in the Dominican Republic say they have detected in the north of the island the presence of the Sinaloa cartel. Anibal de Castro, the Caribbean country’s ambassador to the United States, told a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”
In the struggle for mastery, Los Zetas may go in for more gruesome and headline-catching violence, but according to a federal government study called “Information on the Phenomenon of Crime in Mexico,” until August 2010 at least the Sinaloa cartel was behind 84 percent of the drug-related slayings in Mexico.