El Chapo or Los Zetas?

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.

 

 

The Arrest of El Jaguar

Another serious law-enforcement blow delivered against the Sinaloa cartel in the state of Chihuahua has prompted confidence among Mexican officials that it is only a matter time before they manage to catch the transnational crime group’s elusive leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The arrest in February of Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, the alleged leader of the Gente Nueva gang, an enforcement group within the Sinaloa drug cartel, came just days after the fatal shooting by an army special-forces unit of another aide to Guzman, Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia.  Cabrera’s brother, Felipe, thought to be one of the most trusted of Guzman lieutenants, was arrested in December.

All three fulfilled major roles for the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua and the neighboring state of Durango. Their collective loss to the cartel represents the biggest setback Guzman has experienced in years, say Mexican law-enforcement officials.

Marrufo was arrested in Leon, in central Guanajuato state, along with his bodyguard, Manuel Alonso Magaña Barajas, a 26-year-old native of Mazatlan, Sinaloa. The two were traveling in a Land Rover and weapons, crystal meth and communications equipment were seized by police. Mexico’s counter-narcotics police chief, Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, said at a press conference during which Torres was presented to the media: “This arrest represents a strong blow to the Cartel del Pacifico.”

Torres Marrufo, nicknamed El Jaguar, was wanted in connection with numerous crimes, including murder, extortion, kidnapping and the sale and distribution of drugs, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office, who offered a $150,000 reward for his capture.

He is subject also of an arrest warrant issued by U.S. authorities in El Paso, Texas. The U.S. federal indictment in El Paso charges him with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine, distribution of cocaine, money laundering and supplying drug traffickers with firearms.

His most infamous alleged crime was masterminding the September 2009 massacre of 18 people at Casa Aliviane, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Ciudad Juarez —  a massacre thought at the time to be connected to a settling of scores between rival cartels. The mass slaying was surgical and methodical in nature: masked gunmen raised the clinic, ordered patients to line up in a corridor and shot them.

According to a statement to the press released by the federal police, Torres was the mastermind of the operation.

He has also been linked by Mexican and U.S. authorities to the slayings of a New Mexico bridegroom, Morales Valencia, and several of his relatives during a wedding in Juarez. In that incident, gunmen burst into the wedding ceremony at Senor de la Misericordia Catholic church, abducted the bridegroom, his brother and uncle.

In the arrest of Torres Marrufo, intelligence was crucial – as it was in the fatal shooting in January of Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia, and of his brother, Felipe, in December. In all three cases, federal chose in their statements to stress the importance of intelligence and of intelligence sharing between federal and state law-enforcement agencies.

Federal police said in their statement after the arrest of Torres Marrufo that the operation to seize him was “based on intelligence work, placing him in the city of Leon.” In its statement, the Public Safety Secretariat said the arrest “followed an intelligence operation and the exchange of information with law enforcement agencies.”

According to Milenio magazine, Torres Marrufo had only recently moved to Leon on the orders of his boss, Guzman. During his time in the city he visited frequently a golf club, El Bosque Golf Club, but never played a round of golf. At the clubhouse he met regularly a woman with dark skin and who spoke with a northern accent. They arrived and left the clubhouse separately, workers at El Bosque told the magazine.

He used to arrive at the club casually dressed but always wore brand-name clothing, including shirts and other clothing from GAP, Lacoste and Polo. When paraded before the media after his arrest, El Jaguar wore designer jeans and a burgundy T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Armani.”

Federal police say that Torres Marrufo confessed to having been recruited by the Sinaloa cartel in 2002 and oversaw the elimination of rivals to the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua state and Juarez, especially the Juarez cartel and La Linea. He worked initially under the command of Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, the alleged number two of the Sinaloa cartel.

At the press conference, Pequeno Garcia said Marrufo had been the leader of an assassination group known as the Murdering Artists (Artistas Asesinos) since 2009 and was made the head of Sinaloa’s Gente Nueva after the arrest in October 2011 of Noel Salgueiro Nevarez, nicknamed “El Falco”, in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state.

Other rivals Marrufo targeted included Barrio Azteca, a gang linked to the Juarez drug cartel. Barrio Azteca is allegedly headed by Eduardo Ravelo, alias “El Tablas.”

Last April, a raid by Mexican police on a property owned by Marrufo in Juarez turned up 40 high-powered assault weapons linked with Operation Fast and Furious, the controversial Phoenix-based operation run by the Arizona field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which allowed illegal gun purchases to be made in Arizona for tracing purposes.

According to the Mexican police, the basement of the house had been converted into a gym with a wall covered with built-in mirrors and in a hidden room there the Fast and Furious weapons were discovered along with an antiaircraft machine gun, a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher. After the seizure, Chihuahua state Governor Cesar Duarte said: “We have seized the most important cache of weapons in the history of Ciudad Juarez.”

Guzman, who was born in 1957, in La Tuna, Sinaloa, has eluded authorities since escaping from the Puente Grande maximum security prison in the western state of Jalisco in 2001 in a laundry truck. He had been arrested in 1993 in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico. Forbes magazine has ranked him as one of the world’s richest men and there is a $7m bounty on his head.

In the autumn, Mexican President Felipe Calderon indicated in a press interview that Mexican authorities were close on his heels and that the “Mexican army probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was.”

The recent setbacks being experienced by the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico are not, though, apparently impacting the transnational crime group’s efforts to expand operations to other countries in the region. Days before the arrest of Marrufo, authorities in the Dominican Republic said they had 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 that a Mexican named Luis Fernando Castillo Bertolucci confessed after his capture that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”

The diplomat said that there was evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is now operating in the Dominican towns of Santiago, La Vega and Jarabacoa and that the cartel may “be getting help from Dominican criminal groups in the Cibao region to acquire chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotics.”