The Fracture of the Main Cartels

Latin America

By Buggs for Borderland Beat
Some sources used are from Washington Post and Insight Crime. 

Two little-known criminal groups have made headlines in recent weeks for their alleged role in the ambush and murder of women and children in northern Mexico of Sonora state. How did these groups known as “little armies” emerged?

A group of 17 members of a prominent American Mormon family were traveling in three vehicles when gunmen opened fire on their caravan on November 4. Nine members of the family with dual US and Mexican citizenship – three women and six children – died in the attack near the municipality of Bavispe, state of Sonora, on the northwestern border of Mexico with the United States.

The attack was not perpetrated by Mexico’s powerful traditional cartels, but independently by two smaller criminal cell groups: one known as Los Salazar that has links to the Sinaloa Cartel and operates in the state of Sonora, and another called La Línea, a faction of the Juarez cartel with a strong presence in the state of Chihuahua.

The LeBarón family had denounced for years the presence and threats of organized crime groups in this anarchic border. In 2009, two members of this family were kidnapped and killed in Chihuahua. However, recently the family and Los Salazar lived together peacefully in Sonora.

But all that changed on November 4, 2019.

In the months before the deadly attack there were rumors about an escalation of territorial conflict. Los Salazar operating in Sonora had allegedly asked the LeBarón family, who lived in La Mora, not to buy fuel in the neighboring state of Chihuahua, since they said that it supported the finances of their rivals, La Línea.

On the other hand, La Línea perceived the possible incursion of Los Salazar in Chihuahua as a direct threat to its operations and therefore decided to send a violent message, this according to General Homero Mendoza, head of the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena).

With the attack, La Línea made it clear to rivals Los Salazar that they were the ones who controlled the roads out of Sonora, that crosses through Chihuahua and reaches the border with the United States. These routes are vital for drug smuggling, human trafficking and other lucrative criminal activities.

The armed group that allegedly committed the Sonora massacre emerged years ago as part of the outsourcing of security by the most dominant cartels in Mexico. Although they began as small family-based organizations, these networks eventually expanded, which led to increased profits and the militarization of their drug trafficking activities.

In addition to securing their areas of influence, the cartels also competed for the control of drug traffic corridors known as “plazas.” Once they gained control of a specific plaza, the dominant criminal group can begin to charge “piso” or a fee (quota) for other criminal organization to operate in their controlled plazas. This is like a tax charged to any other criminal group that traffics weapons, people or drugs through their territory. This tax system has become another important source of income to the cartels.

However, to win these territorial wars, it is essential to have a greater number of “soldiers” or sicarios ready to fight to the death.

As an example, the Tijuana Cartel, the Arellano Felix family sought out the members of the San Diego Logan Street gang, across the border, to whom they provided weapons and tactical training. The Gulf Cartel hired members of the Special Forces Aircraft Group of Mexico (GAFES) to be its operational wing, which later became known as Los Zetas.

For its part, in the early stages, the Sinaloa Cartel resorted to an internal faction of the group, known as the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO), to create a mini-army supported by smaller street gangs in areas that the group controlled along the U.S.-Mexico border to fight rival cartels. BLO lost a lot of their power when they turned against Sinaloa and were hit hard by the Mexican government, mainly Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed and his brothers, who were arrested and who had been heads of the criminal organization.

The Sinaloa cartel also had a powerful group known as Gente Nueva, but currently are not as powerful as they use to be mainly because of in-fighting, they formed alliances with the street gangs like Los Mexicles who not only operated in the barrios of Juarez but in the Mexican state penitentiaries. The recent violence reported in Ciudad Juarez was credited to the Mexicles who burned vehicles in the streets, executed many people and targeted members of La Línea in the Juarez jail.

The Juarez Cartel hired active and retired police officers to form what became known as La Línea, and also worked with a street gang located in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, known as Barrio Aztecas.

Over time, however, the structure of Mexico’s cartels changed and became less hierarchical. With the arrest of the top capos, these organizations became fragmented into numerous cells and many of these cells started to operate independently. These armed wings became more autonomous in terms of finances and decision making. In turn, this allowed them to expand their activities, so that they no longer only provided security but also advanced their own criminal activities, such as extorting local businesses and carrying out kidnappings. The Zetas, for example, would eventually separate from the Gulf Cartel and become one of Mexico’s most ruthless criminal groups.

La Línea also acquired more prominence, so much so that it came to be targeted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The former leader of the group, Carlos Arturo Quintana Quintana, alias “El 80”, was included in the list of the most wanted of the FBI and was arrested in May 2018 after a bloody criminal career that lasted almost a decade.

Under Quintana Quintana, La Línea bought several municipal police forces and co-opted political figures in northwestern Chihuahua to facilitate drug trafficking operations of the Juarez Cartel in Ciudad Juarez and across the border between the United States and Mexico.

The territorial war over the control of key routes for trafficking of drugs and smuggling of people in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, in northern Mexico, has extended for more than a decade. But although some of the so-called “small armies” of the country have emerged and disappeared, the brutal demonstration of strength by La Línea against Los Salazar at the expense of the LeBarón family indicates that they could be a fundamental piece of the Juarez cartel’s plan to regain power in their old fort (Insight Crime Analysis).

To gather further understanding of the fracture of the big cartels and understand the dismantling of the cartel structure, that took out the bigger than life capos that controlled with ultimate power, grab the book “Borderland Beat” available in Amazon, Lulu and anywhere books are sold.

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