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Feature 013012 Corcoran

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Rise of Street Gangs in Mexico's Crime, Drugs and Violence

By Patrick Corcoran

Southern Pulse's new report, "Beyond 2012," addresses a range of hemispheric security issues and predicts that today's big fish will no longer be the major drivers of violence in Mexico three years from now.

According to authors Sam Logan and James Bosworth:

By the end of 2014, the men organized by El Chapo and his principal rival Heriberto Lazcano will no longer be the principal drivers of violence across Mexico. At the hyper-local level, super-powered street gangs, armed with Twitter, You Tube, the weapon of fear, and an enviable armory will manhandle local politicians and municipal police. The likelihood of journalist cowling or murder, local kidnapping, and state displacement will rise....

This would represent a momentous change, as the pair are together responsible for some of the deadliest feuds in the country. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is widely blamed for initiating the battle with Vicente Carrillo Fuentes for control of Juarez in 2008, a fight that led to thousands of murders and for a time vaulted Juarez into the dubious status of the hemisphere's most dangerous city. Guzman's split with his erstwhile allies, the Beltran Leyvas, shook the underworld across the nation and contributed to increased violence in Morelos, Guerrero, and their native Sinaloa.

As for Lazcano, known by the alias "Z-3," he is the top leader of the Zetas gang, which has grown famous for its pattern of moving into new regions and upsetting the status quo. Originally an enforcer group operating primarily in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, the group has split with its founding patrons in the Gulf Cartel, and has established itself in far-flung states like Quintana Roo and Jalisco. It has also been perhaps the most aggressive gang in expanding its operations beyond drug trafficking and into extortion, kidnapping, and pirate merchandising, among other illicit activities. All of this has helped earn Lazcano's gang the reputation of causing more violence in Mexico than any other group.

There is much evidence to suggest that the decentralization of violence predicted in "Beyond 2012" is already underway. While Guzman and Lazcano remain big names, the relative power of the capos of their stature has been reduced during the Calderon years, ebbing away thanks in large part to the rise of smaller, more regionally isolated gangs.

Some of these form from the ashes of larger groups, like the Mano con Ojos (an offshoot of the Beltran Leyvas) and the Caballeros Templarios (a splinter from the Familia Michoacana). Others, like the Zetas, start as simple enforcer groups but evolve into something very different: perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is La Linea, a Chihuahua gang that has essentially subsumed the Juarez Cartel, its initial sponsor.

There are also innumerable local street gangs, which, though they have existed in some form for decades, are now more violent and more connected to the transnational groups than ever before. While the principal driver of violence in Juarez appears to be fighting between the forces of Guzman and Carrillo, local gangs are a significant factor in sustaining the bloodshed: Mexican authorities have estimated that there are up to 1,500 street gangs operating in Juarez alone.

There are even questions of the degree of control that Lazcano and Guzman exercise over the organizations they lead. "Beyond 2012" mentions rumors of a divide between Lazcano and his number two, Miguel Treviño, and as InSight Crime has pointed out, it appears that many of the most spectacular acts of violence perpetrated by the Zetas were not orchestrated by Lazcano and Treviño, but rather by lower-level members. Guzman's control over the Sinaloa Cartel appears less frayed, but a wave of violence last year in Durango -- a state long controlled by Guzman where hundreds of bodies were discovered in mass graves last spring -- was attributed to infighting among Sinaloa cliques.

Bosworth and Logan mention another factor that dovetails with the decline in power of the hegemonic groups: the continued growth of a violent consumer drug industry within Mexico, called "narcomenudeo."

Finally, there is at least one more consideration within our space allowed: drug consumption. As several mid- and small-sized groups surface in Mexico, they will all reach for the most lucrative black market product possible. Drugs will continue to play a strong role in black market forces, though local consumption will surely rise across Mexico....

While the number of consumers in Mexico is relatively small compared to developed nations, it is on the rise. For instance, according to Mexico's most recent National Survey of Addiction, published in 2008, the number of Mexicans who had tried cocaine doubled to 2.4 percent of the population in six years. Consumption of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana also increased.

Street drug sales have also fueled a great deal of violence throughout the nation. In recent years, "narcomenudistas," the drug pushers who must be available for their clientele and are therefore quite exposed to risk, have increasingly emerged as targets, as the larger gangs kill dealers associated with their rivals in order to make a play for a city or simply harass an adversary.

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Patrick Corcoran (corcoran25@hotmail.com), an InSight Crime researcher and writer, is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He blogs at Gancho (http://www.ganchoblog.blogspot.com/).  This commentary, " cowling," was first published at InSight Crime on Jan. 18, 2012, and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.  InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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