Pandora’s Box: The War on Drugs, Organized Crime Groups now Control 80% of Mexico

Yaqui from Borderland Beat from: Sin Embargo y Vanguardia

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CJNG and  9 drug trafficking cartels … along with 74 armed groups dominate 80 percent of Mexico

Almost the entire Mexican territory , ie 80 %, has the presence of organized crime; in Guerrero alone there are 350 criminal organizations.

“80% of the municipalities in Mexico are governed by authorities that have direct or indirect links to  organized crime  in any of its forms,”  writer and journalist  Ricardo Ravelo Galó told  SinEmbargo.

For the organized crime specialist, “this means that [criminals] have 80% of state and municipal police corporations under control,” and “that is why there is no security” in the country.

Today there are nine major cartels, ie organized crime groups,  in the nation of Mexico:  Arellano Felix  (or Tijuana),  Beltrán Leyva ,  Carrillo Fuentes  (or Juarez),  Gulf ,  Knights Templar ,  Sinaloa  (or Pacific),  Jalisco New Generation ,  La Familia  and  Los Zetas – in addition to five – Los Viagras of the  Northeast , the  West , the  Southeast  and  Nueva Gente – which have been gaining strength in the last five years.

This amount of large criminal organizations is twice that of the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) – recognized in 2005, when the main cartels were those of  Tijuana ,  Sinaloa ,  Juárez  and  Colima  (which was absorbed by the CJNG just over 10 years ago).
The increase in criminal groups – including at least 74 armed arms of the main cartels nationwide – was a natural process for adapting organized crime to market demands, according to Dr.  Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera , associate professor of Politics and Government of the American University George Mason.

Today “we have many cells operating as adaptive complex cells,” said the organized crime specialist. 

**Como los cárteles del Sureste, del Noroeste, de Tláhuac, de Tepito, de Santa Rosa de Lima, del Pacífico, Nuevo Imperio, Nueva Plaza y de Doña Leti, además de las bandas “El Misa”, “El G1”, “La Plaga”, “Los Duques”, “Los Erres”, “Pluma Blanca”, “Guardia Guerrerense”, “El Ruso”, “Capuchino”, “La Gente de la Sierra”, “Chano Arreola”, “Tequileros”, “Los Rodolfos”, “El H”, “El Nacho”, “El Balta”, “La Unión Fuerza AntiUnión”, “El Salchicha con Huevo”, “La Patrona”, “Batlea”, “Los Sapos”, “La Banda del Monterrey”, “Unión Tepito”, “Banda de Los Mazos”, “Los Arzate”, “Los Akiles”, “Los Uriarte”, “Los Monitos”, “Los Pilotos”, “La Barredora”, “Los Javieres”, “Los Tegoripeños”, “Los Guzmanes”, “La Unión de León”, “MV”, “Grupo Élite”, “Nueva Familia”, “Ántrax y Changuito”, “Don Beto”, “Comandante Fierro”, “El Bucanas”, “Familia Treviño Morales”, “Grupo Gafe”, “Grupo Sombra”, “Metros”, “Grupo Pantera Ciclones”, “Escorpiones”, “Grupo Operativo R”, “Los Katas”, “Los Colombianos”, “Maras”, “Los Viagras”, “El Cholo”, “Los Marros”, “Solazares”, “El Chapo Isidro” y “Pura Gente Nueva”. etcetcetc                                 

This means that there was a process of “fragmentation” of criminal groups during the last 19 years, in which criminal organizations specialized and organized to compete for the drug market and other criminal activities (weapons, extortion, prostitution , kidnapping, treats, among others).

Among the key moments to understand the evolution of organized crime in Mexico are the “political transition of 2000”, the emergence of Los Zetas between 1993 and 2003, as well as the beginning of the so-called “war on drug trafficking” of 2006.

During those years, the dismantling of the traditional power structures of the hegemony of  the Institutional Revolutionary Party  (PRI), the  militarization  of Mexican cartels and the implementation of   more violent frontal strategies to defend against the Mexican State occurred, Ravelo and Correa-Cabrera agreed .

Due to the nature of organized Mexican crime – which operates as a set of “criminal companies” motivated by money, rather than by the “political infiltration” they have and that feeds them – the federal government will have the challenge of fighting against “The crime that is generated by the vacuum of the State that deprives the entire country”, with dynamics that go far beyond the  National Guard ,  social programs  and the end of the  war on drug trafficking , explained Ravelo and Correa-Cabrera to Sin Embargo.

“They are already militarized, they already know how to extract income, they have access to high caliber weapons and you can’t tell them ‘have a good time!’ because we still don’t have the economic capacity to give them jobs ” that cover the income they are able to acquire dedicated to what they do. 

Therefore, Dr. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera said that although the strategy of President  Andrés Manuel López Obrador  (AMLO) is “interesting”, it is insufficient to cover the size of the problem in a context in which there are “many promises”, but in a country with an economy that “is not growing”.

For Ravelo, the actions of the current government “allow us to see a very negative immediate future”, since its strategy proposes to combat the shortcomings as a point of origin of violence, when “in reality”, crime originates from the lack of State of straight talk.

As an example, he mentioned the case of Tamaulipas, where there is no rule of law. “That is, there is a government authority, there is a Prosecutor’s Office and there are police officers; but these are at the service of drug trafficking. The same happens in Guerrero and Michoacán, where there are State gaps because the Law does not apply; because even knowing who is linked to drug trafficking, the federal government does not act to dismantle criminal groups linked to politics. ”

For analysts, international experience (Colombia and Italy) indicates that the solution is in the strengthening of the rule of law and in the prosecution of criminal networks of businessmen and politicians linked to criminal groups, so an intelligence system becomes essential financial and fiscal, as well as welfare strategies, fight against poverty and restructuring of frontal criminal combat.

Organized crime, its behavior and its operation is not the same on either side of the Mexican Republic; and “today we have a fragmentation of criminal cells,” explained Dr. Correa-Cabrera.

On the one hand there is the situation in the east (Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea) and west (Gulf of California and Pacific Ocean) coasts of the country, which are natural routes for  arms trafficking  between Mexico and the United States, as well as of  active  and  narcotic substances  that flow through the Americas and even to other parts of the world (such as Asia and Europe).

The situation in the coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico, especially in Tamaulipas and Veracruz, which extends from the east to half of the Mexican territory (Hidalgo, State of Mexico, Mexico City, Morelos, Tlaxcala and Puebla) experiences an environment of divisions of criminal gangs, characterized by having a “very sensitive balance” in which the fight for Plazas is more common than in other regions of the country.

Something similar occurs in the northern region of Mexico, in which there is a territorial dispute over the area – especially in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas – which was previously controlled by the  Gulf Cartel  and  Los Zetas , whose fragmentation –As in the case of the Northeast Cartel that emerged from Los Zetas– shook peace in the northern region, affecting part of the Bajío (especially Michoacán, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas) and the southeast (Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatan) from Mexico.

For Dr. Correa-Cabrera, the most emblematic cases of “clean” spaces by the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG) are in the states of Michoacán and Veracruz. However, the journalist and writer Ricardo Ravelo Galó explained that, in addition to these two federative entities, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco and Tamaulipas join the “most violent areas” of the country.

                                         Data as of July 2019, per 100,000 inhabitants

As an example of the existing disputes, Ravelo recalled that Michoacán is a state fought by four criminal organizations – the  CJNG ,  Los Viagras ,  Los Valencia , what remains of  the Knights Templar  and the  Familia Michoacan  – to which are added  self-defense groups, some of which they themselves turned to drug trafficking.

For Ravelo, “the violence in Michoacán partly intensifies because it is a supply or supply point. That is to say, a good part of the products and assets that come from Central and South America are unloaded on the coast of Michoacan , ie the Puerto of Lazaro Cardénas and that corridor reaches  Guerrero and also touches part of Morelos and the State of Mexico. ” Therefore, the writer said that Michoacán “is an important door on the Pacific Route.”
On the region of the Gulf of California and the Mexican Pacific, Correa-Cabrera said that there is a “greater logic” in the organization and stability of criminal groups, since although it is not free from the fight for plazas, there is a “greater control ” by the big cartels, such as the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel. About Bajío –Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas– I mention that today because we are experiencing the “expansion of the CJNG”.

In the scenarios of territorial disputes by criminal groups, the specialists highlighted the cases of northern, eastern and southeastern Mexico.

There in the north, they recognized that there is a dispute between the Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel, ie CDN, and Los Zetas for the border control of the “Durango-Coahuila-Nuevo León-Tamaulipas” corridor; In the Gulf of Mexico region, the CJNG and Los Zetas fight for all the trade that comes from the Caribbean, which extends throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and crosses through Tabasco to climb along the coast to Tamaulipas.

“In Guerrero alone there are 350 criminal organizations and there are all the ramifications; there are groups that operate in two or three municipalities that have political control, have police control, kidnapping control, drug trafficking and also have kinship lines. They are familial clans that control everything. ”

This entity, which so far in 2019 had the fourth rate of malicious homicides and the sixth highest kidnapping rate nationwide according to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (SESNSP), “is an atypical case of multiplication of criminal groups ” in the country, because there organized crime has territorial control and political control ”, in addition to the impunity which reigns there and there is a unique geographical condition: “ It is the only state where poppy is grown on demand ”, according to Ravelo.


The so-called “war on drug trafficking” ended up opening the Pandora Box in 2006. But the resurgence of violence and the territorial struggle of criminal groups in Mexico was a gradual process that began in the 1990s, with a point of break in the year 2000, when the end of the PRI hegemony marked “the beginning of a new era in matters of organized crime” – not just drug trafficking -, explained Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Ricardo Ravelo Galó.

At that time, when the  National Action Party  (PAN) came to the Presidency of the Republic for the first time, “the capacity and control by the State to administer drug trafficking and drug trafficking routes is lost,” because there was a President of one party and governors of another – mostly PRI – who began, each one, to support different criminal groups. ” According to Correa-Cabrera, “then there begins to be a great struggle for the territory and drug trafficking plazas.”

The above implied a break between the criminal groups and the central power.

For Ravelo, before 2000 criminal groups negotiated “with the Army, the Navy or the President; but in the absence of this, [criminals] spread everywhere, occupied more territory and began to agree with minor authorities ” ie, such as mayors and high police officers. Consequently, little by little the traditional cartels “ceased to be large, regional groups and were transformed by the same business dynamics.”

“At the same time, in this bowel fight that is beginning to expand, a new model of organized crime arises […] in squabble fights in Mexican territory. What happened? The rise of  Los Zetas ” at the end of the 90’s.

According to Dr. Correa-Cabrera, “one of the reasons for the creation of Los Zetas was precisely this struggle for the territory. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén , who was at that time [1999-2003] leader of  the Gulf Cartel , tries to protect his most important territory , which is the Plaza de Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and is made of a Praetorian guard ” (a body of military protection) to fight against the  Sinaloa Cartel  and its then ally, the Valencia Cartel  .

With the creation of Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel was made up of a body of former special forces of the Mexican Army – former members of the Special Forces Aircraft Group or GAFE – that operated for the Federal Police (PF) on the northern border of Mexico (Tamaulipas). 

One of them was the former GAFE and co-founder of Los Zetas , Arturo Guzmán Decena , a military officer dedicated to training (1994-1997) military personnel in counter-insurgency operations to fight against the  Zapatista Guerrilla . However, “when Zapatismo was no longer a national security risk, [the former GAFE defected and] went to the border  for an  anti-narcotics operation assignment.”

According to Correa-Cabrera, “there they begin to dominate territories in a military manner, with military training and strategy and high-caliber weapons. The militarization of organized crime makes the control and control bodies of all criminal activities that were not only reserved for drug trafficking expand and diversify. ”

Gradually, this model began to extend from Tamaulipas to the entire northern corridor of Mexico, crossing vertically across the country, first from the west – especially in Guerrero and Michoacán – and then through Veracruz.

From the fragmentation and militarization of the criminal groups, a third transformation process began in the Mexican Bajío.

“Michoacán is a land where the Valencia brothers were controlling drug trafficking activities and Tamaulipas groups came hand in hand with other groups that were never drug traffickers,” but were self-defense-like surveillance groups that years later (in 2006)  would fragment – first in  Los Treviño  and  Los Lazcano – to form  La Familia Michoacána , the specialists explained.

These groups became militarized and “exported their model of diversification of criminal activities and income extraction through kidnapping and extortion in their different forms, such as the collection of piso rights”. It is at this point that organized crime, as we know it today, begins to take its form.

However, a couple more elements would be missing to explain the resurgence of violence. First, the war on drug trafficking (2006) that forced the cartels into an arms race and the adoption of more aggressive combat strategies; then the fight between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (2009-2010) that planted the seed for the creation of the CJNG; and the definitive capture of “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (2016).

The fight between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel “led to other dynamics that, together with the territorial struggle and the declaration of the war on drugs with  Felipe Calderón Hinojosa , caused very intestinal wars between the State and organized crime,” Correa-Cabrera explained.

The conflict first exploded in Veracruz – with the “Mata Zetas” that would become the CJNG – and spread like wildfire across the entire Gulf of Mexico. Then the same model of yesteryear was reproduced: A group (CJNG) protected by the Mexican State was formed, which ended up becoming one of the “most important cartels in the country”, after the death of former Los Zetas leader  Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano , in October 2012, and with the definitive imprisonment of  “El Chapo”  Guzman in January 2016.