The dissolution of the Gulf Cartel – Lessons amidst the bloodshed (November 19, 2011)

As the prohibition laws in the United States (US) came to a close on December 5, 1933, criminal organizations across the World wondered to themselves how they could replace their lost profits. Revenues from the illegal sale of liquor brought in billions of dollars by today’s currency standards, formalizing criminal groups such as the American and Canadian Cosa Nostra into multinational entities. Illegal networks stretched from every Caribbean and Latin American nation as well as stills in Ireland, Britain and, of course, Canada. Yet while many brewing dynasties, such as the famous Kennedys, Sleemans and Labatts, simply began to move into legitimate enterprises, other criminal organizations began to think about the new era of prohibition and the profits that could be made from it. While already illegal across the US, many illicit narcotics were not popular with the public and simply did not have the social impact that the sale of illegal drugs has on communities today. Meaning, essentially, that authorities were simply not on the lookout for the smuggling, distribution or consumption of illegal drugs. In this new environment transnsational criminal organizations (TCOs) realized the potential of narcotics and, as drug sales began to soar throughout the 1950s, many American cities became urban wastelands. At the forefront of this recognition was a relatively small group of Mexican smugglers, who were based primarily along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Never reaching the same levels of publicity or social penetration within American society as the American Cosa Nostra, this group, now known as the Gulf Cartel, grew to become one of the premier criminal organizations in the history of the modern World. At its height in 2002 the Gulf Cartel, then under the leadership of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was one of four major criminal cartels operating out of Mexico and enjoyed wealth, power and influence that easily rivalled their Colombian counterparts in the 1980s. Mainly interested in Cocaine distribution, the cartel had grown from the small band of smugglers in Tamaulipas State in the 1920s into a highly diversified criminal organization. The rise and fall of the Gulf Cartel is part of a historical pattern that has been replayed throughout the history of Mexico’s drug trade and offers a glimpse into what the country may soon be facing.

Today, the Gulf Cartel is a shadow of its former self. However, while this may seem a blessing to the people of Mexico’s Gulf Coast regions, this organization’s fall from grace has not been peaceful or serene. Torn apart by internal rebellions, much of its leadership from a decade ago is now dead or in jail. With the decapitation of the group bloodshed soon followed and there are now at least three different criminal entities that were formerly a part of the Gulf’s organization currently battling for control of the restive states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, where Mexican military units and federal police appear completely unable to deal with the increasing violence. The conflicts in this region have produced thousands of casualties and continue to destroy the economic base of north-eastern Mexico. Most disturbingly of all, the Gulf Cartel is now being replaced by a far more brutal organization, which was once the enforcement wing of the Cartel itself . This legacy is Los Zetas, and before any thought can be put into what the future holds for the Mexican underworld and, consequently, the Mexican people, it is important to understand how the Gulf’s rise and fall came to pass.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a trio of smugglers who specialized in shipping contraband goods, people as well as heroin and marijuana into the US began to form the basis of the modern Mexican cartel. These founding members, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, laid down smuggling networks that stretched from South America, along the mountainous regions of western Mexico and on into the western US. Their successes would bring heat from Mexican law enforcement and by the early 1980s both Quintero and Carrillo had been arrested, allowing Miguel Gallardo to assume complete control over this ever-growing organization. Gallardo ran his operation from the central city of Guadalajara, which gave its name to the organization.

By 1980 the Guadalajara Cartel controlled access points into the US from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez and Gallardo soon realized that the size of the geography he controlled necessitated delegation. Establishing a series of routes that relied on the geography of Mexico and its growing network of highways that connected seamlessly to the US Interstate highway network, Gallardo segmented each region into a series of plazas, which were essentially the crucial transhipment points of the smuggling network. Under him he placed the members of regional criminal families, who each controlled their own semi-autonomous organizations but who all owed their allegiance to him as the supreme hegemon of the organization. In Tijuana, the Arellano-Felix brothers assumed control, while in Ciudad Juarez the plaza would be controlled by the Carrillo-Fuentes family, whose patriarch, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, had been one of Gallardo’s major partners before his arrest in April, 1985. These groups would eventually become the Arellano-Felix and Carrillo-Fuentes organizations, more commonly known today as the Juarez and Tijuana cartels. Besides these groups, Gallardo established his other main lieutenants, Joaquin Guzman Loera and Ismail Zambada Garcia, who later involved their compatriot Hector Luis Palma Salazar, along a region on Mexico’s Pacific coast, known as the Sonora Pipeline. This group would eventually become the most powerful criminal group in Mexico, which is commonly known as the Sinaloa Cartel. Led by Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman Loera, the Sinaloa Cartel today continues to face its own internal problems and has spawned at least four other competing criminal networks, some of which are now defunct.

This arrangement of Gallardo as the overlord over the subservient narcotics networks worked well for half a decade until he was arrested by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1989, following the death of DEA agent Enrique Salazar at the hands of the Cartel in 1987. The detention of Gallardo in the US signalled the end of the Guadalajara Cartel, essentially beginning a period of decentralization within Mexico’s cartels that is still being felt today. While considered the most powerful criminal group in Mexico, the Guadalajara Cartel never assumed control over Mexico’s northeast, where the Gulf Cartel had been established for decades. While not part of the initial process of formalized cartel creation, the Gulf would soon find itself drawn into the quagmire of this ongoing conflict.

Set apart from the criminal dynasties in Mexico’s northwest, the origins of the Gulf Cartel were much more sanguine. In the north-eastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila the dynasty of Juan Nepomucino Guerra, known locally as “Don Juan,” controlled a vast criminal network. As mentioned earlier, starting with heroin in the 1930s the regional crime group had expanded its reach following Prohibition to include any form of smuggled contraband that had significant value in the US. By the 1970s Guerra started to relinquish control to his nephew, Juan Garcia Abrego, who began to move the organization into the far more lucrative cocaine trade. While the Guadalajara Cartel began its process of violent decentralization in the 1980s, Abrego extended his reach throughout the Mexican plazas along the Rio Grande. Establishing ties with the powerful and more secretive of the Colombian cartels, which was based in the city of Cali, Colombia, the Gulf Cartel was able to obtain vast quantities of cocaine at prices far below what other, less stable criminal organizations in Mexico were paying for the drug. Previously just a localized form of mafia that controlled unions, smuggling and extortion rackets, the organization, now known as the Gulf Cartel, became the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico during the first half of the 1990s.

By 1995 Abrego’s success had landed him on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) “Most Wanted List,” the first drug trafficker to gain that distinction. However, in the criminal underworld gaining publicity produces problems and by 1996 Abrego was arrested outside of his ranch in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state. A similar development had shattered the cohesiveness of the Guadalajara Cartel seven years earlier, and the Gulf Cartel also struggled to remain intact following the capture of its leader. Between Abrego’s arrest in 1996 and 1999 the Gulf Cartel had no fewer than five leaders, all of which were killed or arrested shortly after their ascension to the top post in the Cartel. However, in 1999 Osiel Cardenas Guillen climbed to the top. He did so over the body of his long-time friend Salvador Gomez Herrera, earning him the epithet Mata Amigos, or friend killer. Yet this period of instability within the Gulf Cartel had allowed other cartel groups a chance to try and seize control of lucrative plazas along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The Sinaloa, Juarez and Tijuana cartels, who had grown used to the violence they had wrought on each other since the fall of the Guadalajara Cartel, brought this new breed of violence to the north-eastern border regions of Mexico. For the duration of Cardenas’ reign at the top of the Gulf Cartel he fought increasingly bloody turf wars with the encroaching Guadalajara successors.

In order to gain the upper edge over his competitors in the increasingly volatile cartel conflicts Cardenas made what would be the most significant and fateful decision in the history of contemporary Mexican organized crime. Utilizing the Gulf Cartel’s considerable political and economic resources, Cardenas corrupted thirty members of Mexico’s elite Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Specials (GAFE) unit, a special forces group that had even received specialized training at the US military’s base at Fort Benning, Georgia. This new group, which had been formed by 1999-2000, was subsequently named Los Zetas and they became the feared enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel – Zetas being the call-sign for the top members of Mexico’s judiciary on Mexican military radio interactions. While other cartels attempted to copy the example of Los Zetas and recruited their own enforcement wings with military and police training, Los Zetas soon established themselves as the most proficient killers within the cartel conflicts. However, as with every Mexican organized crime group, arrests and deaths would soon lead to chaos.

In 2002 Arturo Guzman Decena, one of Cardenas’ top lieutenants and the founding leader of Los Zetas, was assassinated. His death was soon followed by the arrest of Cardenas himself, and he was subsequently extradited to the US and removed from influence within the Cartel. Cardenas was succeeded by his brother Antonio Ezekiel Cardenas Guillen, who possessed the disturbing epithet Tony Tormenta due to his unhindered use of torture. This leadership post was shared with another of Cardenas’ powerful lieutenants Jorge Eduardo Castillo Sanchez, but, more importantly, none of the Los Zetas leadership assumed any top post within the organization.

Following the ascension the of Tony Tormenta and Sanchez the Los Zetas wing of the organization began a process of continued separation from the hierarchy of the Gulf Cartel, a process that was accelerated by the arrest of Decena’s successor Rogelio Gonzalez Pizana, who was arrested in 2004. This development brought Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano to the leadership post of Los Zetas. These continual changes in leadership are significant because the original partnership of Osiel Cardenas and Decena was, by 2005, now two or three people removed from the original relationship, with the new partners not necessarily enjoying the same levels of loyalty and friendship that had existed between Osiel Cardenas and Los Zetas. Indeed, by 2004 it is believed that Los Zetas had come to resent Tony Tormenta and the new Gulf Cartel hierarchy, considering them poor replacements for the diplomatic and capable Osiel Cardenas. Consequently, by 2006 Los Zetas had expanded their operations beyond muscle work and enforcement and had begun to develop their own smuggling and drug distribution networks. While still tacitly a part of the Gulf Cartel the rift between the two organizations had begun to emerge.

By 2008, back in Mexico’s restive northwest, the Beltran-Leyva brothers had split from the Sinaloa Cartel following the arrest of Alfredo Beltran-Leyva. Blaming the Sinaloa leadership for the arrest of their eldest brother, the Beltran-Leyva clan commenced a bloody war against their former organization, founding their own cartel in the process known as the Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO). In an effort to garner support for their cause and because to Los Zetas’ own natural dislike for the Sinaloa Cartel – due to the Sinaloa Cartel’s increasing attempts to encroach on the Gulf Cartel‘s plazas – the BLO and Los Zetas founded their own  economic partnership and alliance. Significantly, this arrangement occurred without the involvement of the Gulf Cartel leadership, who were not a part of the agreement. At this point Los Zetas had become a separate cartel in its own right and, whether Gulf Cartel recognized this growing divide at the time or not, their control over their former enforcers had become tenuous at best. By 2010 Los Zetas controlled its own smuggling and distribution networks, both within Mexico and the US, that operated outside of any Gulf Cartel oversight; more significantly, they now had firm control over geography and plazas that were crucial for any control over the Rio Grande smuggling corridors, corridors which were crucial to all operations conducted by the Gulf Cartel.

In February 2010 the growing tensions between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel came to a head over the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, located across the border from McAllen, Texas. A senior lieutenant within the Gulf Cartel’s Reynosa contingent had a senior Zeta murdered over their growing competition over the smuggling routes through the city. Los Zetas asked for the death of the Gulf members responsible, which the Gulf Cartel leadership refused. Within weeks all out war had broken out in Tamaulipas and had spread into neighbouring Nuevo Leon as Gulf and Los Zetas members conducted gruesome counterattacks on one another. On November 5, 2010, Tony Tormenta met his end at the hands of hundreds of Mexican marines in a gun battle that involved over 50 Gulf Cartel gunmen in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. The death of Tony Tormenta at an earlier time in the Gulf Cartel’s history might have resulted in the end of the conflict and some form of renewed arrangement or blending between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. However, as has been seen through the evolution of Mexican cartels’ behaviour and methodology since the fall of the Guadalajara Cartel in 1989, the Gulf Cartel had become far too embroiled in the chaotic nature of Mexican organized crime since the fall of the Guadalajara Cartel and the result was therefore far more chaotic. The joint leadership of the Gulf Cartel between Tony Tormenta and Jorge Eduardo Castillo Sanchez had further segregated the factions of the organization, resulting in the formation of two clearly distinct groups. As can be expected when looking at Mexican organized crime’s recent history, the faction formerly led by Tony Tormenta, known as Los Rojos and based in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, has refused to accept the leadership of Sanchez, whose faction is now known as Los Metros and is currently based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. At this point Los Rojos appears to have remained loyal to the Cardenas dynasty and seems willing to continue to fight to remain independent. This competition is not expected to remain strictly economic.

As of November, 2011, the situation does not appear to be one of outright warfare; however, the first casualties already appear to have fallen. In September, 2011, Samuel Flores Barego, a key lieutenant in the Los Metros faction was assassinated, allegedly by members of the Los Rojos group. In response, Los Metros revealed the location of Rafael Cardenas Vela – a nephew of Osiel Cardenas and a lieutenant in the Los Rojos group – to US authorities while he was travelling through Texas. According to STRATFOR, this tip-off could only realistically have been supplied by Los Metros, who would still have the ability to infiltrate the activities of their former compatriots. With the end of 2011 the Gulf Cartel appears to be but a shadow of its former self, possessing only a fraction of the plazas and wealth it once enjoyed. Both Mexican and US government pressure along with the violent breakaway of Los Zetas have severely weakened the organization and, as if these problems weren’t challenging enough, it appears that another destructive civil war amongst the remaining factions appears all but inevitable.

The destructive disintegration of the Gulf Cartel over the past three years is comparable with nearly all other Mexican cartel groups since the fragmentation of the Guadalajara Cartel in 1989. While the Sinaloa Cartel is still the largest cartel in Mexico’s criminal underworld it has fought a series of civil wars amongst itself for over five years. The BLO has been destroyed, fragmenting into several smaller groups that continue to battle for control of plazas along the pacific coast. This violence is most easily demonstrable in Guerrero State, where the popular tourist city of Acapulco has been the scene of intense fighting over the past 18 months as the Cartel Pacifico Sur, Los Negros and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, all former factions of the BLO, continue to fight for control of this lucrative plaza. In Michoacan State the once powerful La Familia Cartel has splintered leaving behind disparate competing groups, including the powerful Knights Templar Cartel. As these cartels split their influence is also now starting to be felt in regions where the violence had not yet spread. The infamous Hand with Eyes criminal group – another former faction of the BLO – was thought to be launching a series of attacks on other criminal organizations in Mexico City, at least until the recent capture of its leader Oscar Garcia Montoya, who subsequently confessed to being responsible for over 600 murders.

While these statistics are disturbing they do point to an obvious and destructive trend. Mexico’s criminal cartels never truly stabilized since the fragmentation of the Guadalajara Cartel in 1989. Internecine warfare amongst the competing factions has been fuelled by the arrests and deaths of key leaders, who had once maintained control over vast criminal enterprises. As the amount of deaths and arrests of key leaders continues to grow so does the chaos, as the new leadership within these groups appears unable to exercise real control over their disparate factions. While Los Zetas and the core of the Sinaloa Cartel remain exceptions, both have suffered from or, in Los Zetas case, were created by the chaos and the decentralization of control. Indeed, if “El Chapo” Guzman were to meet a violent end or be arrested (again) there is no guaranteeing the cohesiveness of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is likely too massive for one new leader to control.

This increasing decentralization was created by violence and chaos, which in turn creates more of both, adding to the confusing and destructive nature of Mexico’s criminal underworld. The wealth generated by the cocaine trade allows new groups or factions to maintain vast distribution and supply networks of drugs, weapons and manpower, meaning that violence in and of itself will not destroy these organizations; rather, the nature of the drug trade means that increased pressure will only marginally reduce their efficacy and profits while dramatically increasing their violent tendencies. This dangerous trend will likely lead to one of two conclusions. The Mexican government hopes that the pressure they exert and the cartels’ own penchant for violence will lead to further violent disintegration to the point where the groups no longer possess the means to effectively prosecute such a conflict and will be forced to pull back, establish truces and attempt to rebuild their distribution networks. This first scenario may occur as it is true that as the senior leadership disappears the cartels will lose their connections to South American suppliers and, thus, their ready access to cocaine. However, the cocaine trade is so lucrative and the Mexican population so impoverished that it does not take a lot of profit to induce loyalty amongst the poor of Mexico to join one of the local cartel groups. The more likely scenario involves the further disintegration of the smaller cartel groups until the largest and most brutal organizations succeed in wiping out or absorbing the smaller factions until peace is established through a lack of enemies to fight. Indeed, both the Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels seem likely to achieve this end; and, despite the lack of established connections provided by current leadership, the Mexican cartels have already demonstrated their ability to obtain contacts within the South American cocaine producing countries, with the Gulf, Juarez, Los Zetas and Sinaloa cartels all maintaining a considerable presence in both Central and South America. However, even if two or more groups do establish some equilibrium by wiping out the other cartel factions, it is unlikely that any peace between any major cartel groups or federations would be able to last indefinitely. Because, as history shows us, once these organizations get too large the removal of their leader necessitates immediate and violent decentralization, which starts the process all over again.

The fate of the Gulf Cartel reveals a trend that will replay itself out through Mexico’s underworld for the coming decades due to the sheer amount of money and resources available to even the smallest cartel groups. The sad fact remains that without a massive build-up in institutional strength within Mexico its beleaguered governmental institutions really possess no way to alter this destructive pattern. As can be seen in the history of Mexico’s cartels, any capture of senior leadership only brings new, more violent leaders to take their place, who generally have to prosecute extremely destructive conflicts to establish any form of control at all. And, while it is assumed that such groups might simply fade away due to their own chaotic nature, the wealth they are still able to generate means that fighting internecine wars still pays vastly more than working for 2 dollars a day inside Mexican maquilladora.

– Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime


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