By Steven Dudley
With Mexican security forces' arrest of 36 alleged members of the Familia Michoacana drug trafficking organization, and the deaths of another 15, the rift between two leaders of the group has spilled into public view.
The confrontation with authorities took place along the Jalisco-Michaocan state border. A large group of forces belonging to Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias "El Chango," had gathered there for an assault on the Knights Templar, the newly minted gang of Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," the authorities said.
This came after a May 24 attack on a government helicopter in Apatzingan, where authorities say Gomez's group has its stronghold. Another helicopter crashed in the area on May 28, which authorities attributed to mechanical difficulties.
The two groups are fighting for control of a lucrative methamphetamine corridor. Methamphetamine precursor chemicals are accumulated in these two states to produce large quantities of the drug, which is shipped to the United States. At its height, Mexican authorities estimated that the Familia Michoacana was making between $600 million and $900 million a year exporting methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States.
The money allowed them to expand in Guerrero, Mexico State, Guanajuato, and Jalisco. But expansion has also had its costs, as clashing ambitions and splits inevitably arose in what is an impossibly fluid situation. At the heart of the fight is a division of loyalties that may accelerate into a full-fledged war.
The battle dates back to December 2010, when authorities killed Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” the presumed leader of the Familia, in the state of Michoacan where the group has its base and from which it takes its name.
Prior to his death, Moreno reportedly sent word to Mendez that he and his men were corralled and needed reinforcements. Mendez allegedly refused, and when Moreno died, the split within the Familia emerged.
On one side was Mendez, who fled to Jalisco and made a pact with members of a newly-formed organization calling itself La Resistencia. This group was itself a former subset of a large criminal enterprise that was run by Ignacio Coronel, who was allegedly killed in July 2010 by Mexican military forces, as well as a smattering of other criminal groups including the Familia’s former rivals, the Milenio Cartel.
On the other side was Gomez, who, along with Enrique Plancarte Solis, alias “La Chiva” or “El Tio,” formed the Knights Templar after the death of Moreno. At the time of their appearance, the Knights seemed to simply be an attempt by the Familia to rebrand itself. But it has since become clear that the divide is real and is having bloody consequences.
Mexican authorities told InSight that they have found numerous bodies, presumably soldiers for Mendez’s organization, with notes warning against further “treason.” But this fight has also spilled into neighboring Jalisco where La Resistencia (and Mendez) has battled a new organization calling itself the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion - CJNG), also made up of former members of Coronel’s operations.
For the moment, especially after the massive blow to Mendez’s organization, it appears that the Knights Templar have the advantage. But these are Pyrrhic victories for all parties involved. The government said in its press release, for instance, that while the recent deaths and the arrests severely “weakened” Mendez’s organization, he may seek new alliances to continue his battle with Gomez’s Knights Templar.
What will happen next is not clear. None of these underworld alliances are firm, and they seem to last for shorter and shorter periods of time. Each group seeks to solve the problem in front of it without measuring the consequences or implementing any long-term strategy. Perhaps this is the greatest success of the Mexican policy so far: a divide and conquer strategy that keeps these groups off balance and drives them to attack one another.