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Mexico's War on Drug Cartels

Mexico's War on Drug Cartels
Greg Purdy | June 2015

Well-documented by increasing public news and government accounts/sources, Mexico has been experiencing a tremendous upsurge in violence in recent years, largely due to the activities of the various organized crime groups in the country and their efforts to reinforce and consolidate their operations in specific regions of the country. Much of the success of these various groups (or cartels as they are often publicly referred to) has been due to the strength of their respective leadership ranks which are continually changing and evolving by virtue of a) government capture/killings, b) internal feuds and fighting or c) intra-cartel rivalries. All these factors contribute to an increasing level of violence throughout Mexico which shows no signs of abating and indeed could be on the increase in areas once considered off-limits to the cartels (i.e. tourist zones).

In 2006, then Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided to declare war on the various drug cartels and their respective leadership resulting in a dramatic increase in the security forces zeroing in on the leadership of the cartels, creating disruption within their ranks and ability to continue to carry out their criminal activities. His specific focus was on the violence in his own home state of Michoacán where the “La Familia” cartel were causing major problems for security authorities. While there are some variations on the exact numbers of cartels operating in Mexico depending on the sources referred to, generally speaking, there are roughly fifteen to twenty major drug cartels in the world with approximately eight or nine of those being Mexican-based. These include the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, Beltrán Leyva, Los Zetas, Las Familia, Carillo Fuentas with some other splinter groups coming out of the woodwork including the Knights Templar, the Cartel Pacifico Sur, the New Federation and other smaller ones. As the ongoing intra-drug wars and security forces success’ continue to change the cartel leadership landscape, more smaller groups are likely to emerge or, conversely, mergers may occur to enlarge their membership and ensure their continued survival in the face of heightened Mexican security forces’ efforts to effect their capture and/or death.

Over the past few years, several senior drug cartel leaders have been killed and/ or captured by government security forces which have clearly benefited from the increased training and financial resources being thrown at their abilities to attack this problem head-on throughout the country.

Briefly, some of the more notable successes by these forces in recent years are as follows:

Knights Templar: On February 27, 2015, the Mexican Federal Police captured Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, one of Mexico’s most wanted drug lords who once controlled Calderon’s home state of Michoacán as leader of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) organization.(1) Two of his aides were also later captured in April 2015. (2) Gomez was the prime target in Calderon’s successor, Pena Nieto’s, drive to regain control of Michoacán from the Knights Templar. Gómez was involved in extortion, controlling politicians, and engaged in everything from drug trafficking to the export of minerals such as iron ore. He had a $2 million price tag on his head at the time of capture.(3)

Juarez Cartel: On April 19, 2015, Jesús Salas Aguayo, suspected top leader of the Juarez drug cartel was captured by security forces. He had taken over from Vicente Carillo Fuentes who had also been captured back on October 9, 2014. (4) Carillo had had a $5 million price tag on his head and oversaw what one news report characterized as a “brutal turf war” with the rival Sinaloa Cartel that saw thousands of Mexicans killed in Ciudad Juarez. Salas picked up where Carillo left off and ordered kidnappings and “hits” on members of rival gangs, specifically the Sinaloa Cartel.(5)

La Familia: On March 9, 2014, the Mexican army killed Nazario Moreno (“The Doctor”) González, leader of the extremely violent “La Familia Michoacán” in the remote mountains of Michoacán which coincidentally is former President Calderón’s home state. He had previously been thought killed back in December 2010 but this report was erroneous.(6) He would also later head up the Knights Templar and used religion to advocate the so-called “protection” of the local population from other drug cartels. In reality, he was just as violent as the leaders of the other cartels.(7)

Sinaloa Cartel: On February 22, 2014, Mexican authorities with U.S. assistance captured the infamous and perhaps most powerful drug lord of them all, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mazatlán. Guzmán had, ironically, been anointed one of the richest men in the world by Forbes. Magazine and he had avoided capture for many years after escaping a Mexican prison. If there was any one cartel leader that was at the top of the list of “most wanted” by the U.S. and Mexico, it was Guzmán.(8) Los Zetas: On March 04, 2015, Mexican authorities in Monterrey captured Omar Treviño Morales (alias “Z-42”), leader of the Zetas cartel who replaced his brother (Miguel Angel) who was captured on July 15, 2013. Morales, in turn, replaced Heriberto Lazcano who was the founder and top leader of the Zetas and was killed by the military on October 7, 2012. (9) Another Zetas regional leader, Salvador Alfonso Martínez Escobedo, suspected of killing a U.S. citizen in 2010, had been arrested on October 6, 2012.(10)

Gulf Cartel: On September 12, 2012, Mexican marines captured Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez (alias: “El Coss”), the reported top Gulf Cartel leader who had a $5 million reward on his head.(11). Costilla had been wanted by the U.S. since 2002 and his arrest was hailed as “a notable victory in the battle against drug trafficking leaders” in Mexico.(12)

Beltrán Leyva Cartel: On August 30, 2010, a former leader of the cartel, Edgar Valdez “La Barbie” Villareal, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in the central state Morelos.(13) This followed the December 2009 killing by Mexican Navy special forces of Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was the leader of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel at the time. The Leyva Cartel responded shortly thereafter by murdering the entire family of one of the Navy Special Forces members who had been killed in the operation.(14)

These arrests and killings of several of the many cartel leaders in recent years have been the result of the Mexican security forces making a concerted effort to both combat and diminish the cartels’ presence and keep them from tearing the country apart. Not an easy goal to achieve, it is far from certain that any definable sense of achievement in this regard has been secured so far in 2015. In many ways, there are essentially two types of wars on cartel leadership currently raging in Mexico: the first is the direct war by the government on the leadership of the various cartels and the second is a parallel war among the various leaders as they compete for control of the lucrative drug supply routes throughout Mexico into the U.S., Canada and abroad. Indeed, it would not be incorrect to suggest that these various leaders, each of whom have a vested interest in expanding their own operational areas of interests, are now having to combat new challenges to their leadership.

These new challenges represent a direct threat to their respective organizations’ continued existence. One Mexican analyst at the firm “EM-PRA” has gone so far as to say that: “Mexico’s large cartels are (now) fracturing, leading to the creation of hundreds of smaller organizations that are fighting each other and extorting mining (and other resource industries) to get cash to meet their objectives”. (15) Throw in a more concerted effort by Mexican security authorities to capture or kill the leaders of these cartels and you now have a very complicated battleground for intercartel and anti-government wars currently at play throughout the country.

Sometimes, the attempt to capture an important leader of one of these cartels results in severe retaliation with unintended consequences for the security forces themselves such as that noted in the Beltrán Leyva Cartel case above. A more recent example occurred in late April and early May 2015 when Mexican forces launched an offensive against the leader of the Jalisco New Generation (NG) cartel only to face a severe retaliation against not only the Mexican military but also the surrounding community at large. In Jalisco, local buses and gas stations were fire-bombed and numerous cartel road blocks were set up around the State which includes Guadalajara and the resort town of Puerto Vallarta. Several soldiers were also killed and a military helicopter was shot down. When the violence finally abated, the total body count reached 44 people, most of whom were members of the New Generation itself.(16). To say the least, this was a major blow to the Pena Nieto administration. In their efforts to capture the leader of this cartel, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantos (“El Mencho”), Mexican security forces sparked a level of violence that prompted both the Canadian and American Embassies in Mexico City to warn their respective citizenry to refrain from travelling in Jalisco and to be vigilant at all times. One ex-intelligence official from Mexico’s security apparatus felt that the military should have targeted only mid-level operatives within the New Generation thus “weakening the gang’s ability to react with coordinated violence”. Other security experts dismissed this assessment saying it did not matter who the military targeted – the New Generation has the capacity to react violently and, to do so in a tourist zone, showed the extent to which the NG would defend itself against any government attack upon its leadership. U.S. authorities now consider the Jalisco New Generation one of the most powerful of the new cartels to emerge strongly as the Knights Templar and Los Zetas were weakened after the arrests of many of their senior operatives.(17)

This latest incident in a tourist area of Mexico reinforced what one Mexican ex-security source stated was his government’s inability to not only protect its own citizenry from the violence of these various cartels but also now quite clearly foreigners and tourists visiting Mexico. (18) While it may be too early to make such a definitive assessment, it is most certainly an ominous turn of events to bring tourists into the line of fire in the war between the cartel leaders and Mexican government forces. As noted above, former President Calderón’s declaration of war on the cartels in 2006 was the first concerted effort by the Mexican government to take out the leaders of many of these cartels which control roughly 17 to 20 of the 31 Mexican states (including the capital district). He threw roughly 45,000 military forces and police at the cartels at that time and yet, nine years later, the war goes on with even more federal forces being deployed in tourist zones which have historically been relatively free of the violence.(19) This is a war that is also being fought with efforts to root out the corruption within the federal security apparatus which the leaders of the cartels specifically target in an effort to facilitate their ongoing efforts at ensuring operational security. Even the mayors of tourist resorts such as Cancun have now been arrested for cooperation with local drug operatives.(20) In many ways, while Calderón declared war on the cartels, the cartels also declared war on him and the Mexican government as a whole and the current violence evolved from that critical point in time.

Clearly, corruption and the reach of the various drug cartels is extensive throughout Mexico and will continue to exist though leaders of these cartels come and go either through capture and/or killings by government security forces or through internal wars which are an everlasting characteristic of the drug landscape that characterizes the country. While analysts may differ on their assessment of the overall impact of the rise and fall of many of these leaders, most would tend to agree that the drug business and overall impact of these cartels within Mexican society will continue in one form or another long after top leadership changes have occurred. In many cases, well known cartel leaders are replaced by younger, more violent personalities with no allegiance to the departed leader or his particular supporters within the cartel. In other cases, leaders simply fade away either in captivity or are permanently removed from existence by the security forces and/or their internal rivals. This fact also affects allegiances among the cartel leaders which are often temporary and only exist due to mutual interests in gaining a specific foothold in one or more of the drug trafficking areas of Mexico.

David Shirk, associate political science professor at the University of San Diego recently noted the following and used the changing leadership of the Knights Templar as an example: “It’s a dangerous proposition to suggest the Knights Templar is dismantled…. It may take six months or a year but this is a group of illegal ‘actors’ that has staying power. Their roots go back to the ‘80s and ‘90s. They just had different stages. The names change and the leaders change but the problems in many ways persist”. (21)

This analysis could also be accurately extrapolated to the leadership changes in the other drug cartels operating throughout Mexico and whose activities can be traced back many years. The Calderón and Pena Nieto governments have been remarkably successful in taking down many of these leaders since roughly 2006 and it could be argued that the cartels are no longer as individually strong as they once were and are now perhaps less of a monolithic threat within Mexican society. Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco – Inside the Hunt for ‘El Chapo’ - the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord” noted a couple of years ago: “If there is one certainty that has emerged from roughly six years of fighting the cartels in Mexico, it is that the country’s drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented than ever and now lack the leadership of organized business-oriented kingpins…. Without these former leaders, the Zetas (and the other Mexican cartels) will likely remain ragtag operations and … increasingly disorganized”(22).

In many ways, it could indeed be argued that becoming fragmented in their operations likely will encourage only more cartel violence in geographic areas that, a few years ago, would have been unthinkable (ie. tourist resorts) when the old leadership of each of the cartels was more or less stable and considered immune from capture and/or killing by Mexican security authorities. In the past, there were defined limits as to where the cartel leadership would engage in violence with either security forces or other cartels but now this may no longer be the case. It could also be said that no matter how successful the Mexican government is in capturing or killing individual cartel leaders, there will always likely be a renewal of operational capability from within the cartel itself which always has someone next in line to fill the leadership vacancy. Indeed, while it may take longer to recover from a government attack, the recovery will most assuredly take place in one form or another and often under a new name or new leader possibly even more violent than the outgoing leader. The emergence of the Knights Templar out of La Familia in Michoacán is but one example of this transition which is often based on the internal forces behind the leadership change but the operational priorities of the cartel will most certainly continue as new personalities take over. As one news commentator put it after the arrest of Servando “La Tuta” Gómez of the Knights Templar earlier this year: “Crime will only shift around as the now weakened (Knights Templar) cartel regroups, or even splinters, as has happened with some of Mexico’s drug gangs after the killings or capture of top leaders. Others continue business as usual after top leadership hits.”(23) In summary and as Mexican security contacts are prone to point out, there is no question that Mexican cartels and their respective leaders are very much a product of their own particular regional environment within the country. Their desire to control particular territory and the drug trade therein will always be a constant factor in both how and where they operate and, more importantly, how they respond to any government attacks on the leadership itself. In light of Beith’s assessment that the cartels themselves will likely become “ragtag” in appearance and increasingly disorganized, the important thing to remember is that they will inevitably remain an integral part of the Mexican economic, social and criminal landscape for years to come in Mexico. This factor alone makes it extremely difficult to combat or eliminate them even as their leaders come and go either by internal pressures, inter-cartel rivalry or external security forces unleashed by the government in “whack-a-mole” fashion.


1. Associated Press: February 28, 2015; 
2. Huffington Post: February 27, 2015;
3. Latino Post: February 27, 2015;
4. NBC News: October 10, 2014;
5. CNN: March 11, 2014;
6. Fox News: April 19, 2014;
7. Christian Science Monitor: March 10, 2014;
8. New York Times: February 22, 2014;
9. BBC News: July 16, 2013; CNN: March 05, 2015;
10. New York Times: October 2012;
11. Borderland Beat: September 13, 2012;
12. New York Times: September 13, 2012;
13. Huffington Post: March 18, 2012;
14. CNN: December 23, 2009;
15. Calgary Herald: April 20, 2015;
16. Associated Press: May 04, 2015;
17. Reuters: May 22, 2015;
18. Mexican Security Source;
19. Calgary Sun: September 05, 2010;
20. Ibid;
21. Fox Latino News: February 28, 2015;
22. Insight Crime: September 25, 2013;
23. Latino Fox News: February 28, 2015.


The views and opinions expressed in this
article are those of the author/s and do not
necessarily reflect those of the LARC.

Mr. Purdy holds an Honors B.A from Dalhousie University and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Toronto.   He joined XPERA Corp. as their International Risk Advisor in 2009 after 33 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service.   Having worked in the Service’s foreign liaison, counter-terrorism, and counter-intelligence departments, he has extensive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean, specifically Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba.  He holds a fellowship with the Latin America Research Center (LARC) at the University of Calgary and is a member of the Canadian Council for the Americas (CCA) and the Canadian International Council (CIC).   He has presented to various academic, business and government audiences on a variety of current Latin America security issues.