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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Changing of the Narco Guard in Mexico?

by Sylvia Longmire

New year starting on positive note for Mexican government.

2010 is off to a relatively good start for Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

Shortly before the holidays on Dec. 16, Arturo Beltrán Leyva – the head of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) – was killed in a shootout with Mexican navy commandos. On Dec. 30, his brother, Carlos, was arrested after showing a fake ID during a traffic stop. Although Hector Beltrán Leyva remains at large and is ostensibly in charge of what remains of the BLO, the organization has been considerably weakened.

The latest New Year’s victory came in the form of Eduardo Teodoro “El Teo” Garcia Simental’s arrest on Jan. 12 by Mexican federal police. Garcia used to be a lieutenant in the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), the dominant DTO in northern Baja California. In April 2008, he split off from the AFO, and with rival DTO Sinaloa Federation’s backing, began a brutal turf war to wrest control of the Tijuana drug trafficking corridor from the AFO.

The huge spike in drug-related violence in the Tijuana area in the last year and a half can be attributed to activities sanctioned and directed by Garcia, with the support of Federation leadership.

So now that two Beltrán Leyva brothers and “El Teo” are out of the picture, what does that mean for drug war dynamics in Mexico?

Unfortunately, the answer probably won’t be as pleasant as we might think. The BLO may be in a weakened state as a stand-alone organization, but Hector has friends in very shady places. The BLO has a standing alliance with Los Zetas, the former hitmen-turned-DTO.

Neither the BLO nor Los Zetas have any love for the rival Sinaloa Federation headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, so an alliance between the two would make strategic sense.

The BLO also has a reputation for carnage in the wake of arrests or killings of its members, and the DTO has reflected that in recent weeks. Shortly after Arturo was killed, four family members of a Mexican navy commando involved in the raid were brutally murdered in their home. As the BLO continues to be dismantled, the revenge killings will also continue.

In Garcia’s case, a likely successor has been identified – Raydel “El Muletas” López Uriarte, Garcia’s right hand man. “El Muletas” means “the crutches,” and he’s reportedly known by this nickname because his beatings leave so many using them.

This leadership transition needs to happen quickly, as the Federation likely wants to ensure it can maintain control of corridors in northern Baja California it has secured through Garcia’s operations.

Some analysts who follow these issues speculate that López will have to get vicious pretty quickly to establish his credibility to the Federation as a worthy successor to Garcia. This would be very bad news to both Tijuana residents and President Calderón.

The bottom line is that this “changing of the guard” in two of Mexico’s dominant narco-trafficking organizations means we need to keep an eye on a few things. First, what will the unintended consequences of these government victories mean for violence levels in Mexico? The celebration of these major arrests will likely be short-lived.

Second, how will the relationships between the remnants of the BLO and its friends—Los Zetas in particular—and López Uriarte and the Federation play out? If the transitions are smooth and seamless, then it may mean business as usual, and that’s not good news for President Calderón. If the changes in leadership are bumpy and lead to rivalries and intra-DTO fighting, that may present weak spots that the Mexican military and federal police can exploit.

If there is anything that is a constant in Mexico’s drug war, it’s change. This is not the first time so many organizational changes have occurred in a short time span, and it certainly won’t be the last. The key is for the Mexican government to try to anticipate how those changes will affect the flow of operations, and identify any weaknesses or opportunities during those transitions.

Sylvia Longmire is an intelligence professional with military law enforcement experience and analytical experience covering Latin America, Mexican DTOs and border violence issues for the California Emergency Management Agency."

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