Sinaloa cartel now calling shots in border region

Experts agree that his mark already being felt

Sinaloa cartel now calling shots in border regionJoaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the cartel he leads, from Sinaloa, appear to have emerged the as the winners in the battle to control drug trafficking in the Tijuana region. Mexican Attorney General’s Office
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the cartel he leads, from Sinaloa, appear to have emerged the as the winners in the battle to control drug trafficking in the Tijuana region. Mexican Attorney General’s Office

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By Omar Millán

TIJUANA – After a three-year bloody battle between the Arellano criminal organization and a breakaway cell that left 2,327 dead and dozens missing, the winner appears to be the Sinaloa cartel.

The Arellanos’ bitter rival has firmly established itself on this stretch of the border and is inaugurating a new era in organized crime, two experts agreed.

This has occurred despite the crackdown authorities have carried against organized crime in this region, which they have called a national success.

“One cartel has been dismantled, but another one has arrived because … consumption has not changed in a fundamental way and that leads to cartels being present in this city,” said Vicente Sánchez, a researcher in the respected think tank College of the Northern border.

Signs of this new phase can be seen already; the number of violent deaths and high-profile crimes are down significantly.

According to authorities, most of the murders that occurred this year are linked to disputes among drug dealers or among various groups or cells, a kind of “clean-up” or reorganization that’s going on at that level, mainly in the city’s east side.

Sánchez said the main difference with the old criminal organization that controlled the transportation and sale of drugs in this city is that the Sinaloa cartel is relatively less violent.

Although not dedicated to the kidnapping industry nor targets the general population, the Sinaloa cartel is a criminal group that, like the others, uses violence to impose its will, the researcher noted.

But that cartel, unlike other criminal organizations in Mexico, turns to violence as a last resort, according to Víctor Clark, a sociologist who has analyzed drug trafficking on the border for more than two decades.

The cartel runs its enterprise – from dealing drugs on the street to money laundering – more like a corporation, and treats each seizure as the price of doing business, Clark said.

The Sinaloa cartel is the largest and most powerful one in Mexico. The organization, headed by the fugitive Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, has faced several setbacks in Baja California this year.

These include the army’s discovery in July of 300 acres of marijuana plants south of Ensenada, the largest drug field ever found in Mexico; the tons of marijuana in packages seized headed into the United States in recent months; and the nearly 800 pounds of cocaine confiscated in Tijuana in early October.

Then there’s last week’s seizure of $15 million in cash found inside a vehicle, among other law enforcement operations.

On Wednesday, military authorities said that there were signs that the sophisticated crossborder tunnel discovered Tuesday in Otay Mesa was linked to the Sinaloa cartel. In all, a record 32 tons of marijuana were seized.

In fact, authorities have said most of the drugs, cash and tunnels uncovered this year belonged to the Sinaloa cartel, which challenges the claim law enforcement and military leaders have made frequently that no single organization controlled trafficking in the region.

Those seizures did not lead to a convulsion of violence, a common response by other cartels.

That’s not to say that the Sinaloa cartel will not use violence. The same week the $15 million was discovered in Tijuana, authorities found 23 people who had been assassinated in Guadalajara and 17 burned to death in Culiacán, events that Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office blamed on the Sinaloa cartel.

The organization is fighting other ones, including the Zetas cartel, for control of strategic drug routes along the border. These clashes have generated unprecedented levels of violence in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Chihuahua.

Clark explained that since the capture Nov. 4 of Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, the lieutenant of cartel leader Fernando Sánchez Arellano, the Sinaloa cartel has been able to dominate the border region.

He said it’s clear to him that the Arellano cartel has the least influence than it has ever had, and raised the possibility that its leader may have even signed an agreement with the Sinaloa cartel after the bloody internal fight from 2008 to 2010.

The beginning of the end for the Arellanos began in late 2007, when Teodoro García Simental did not recognize Fernando Sánchez Arellano, the nephew of the founders of the cartel, as the leader of the organization, Clark said.

A blood bath began the next year to eliminate Fernando Sánchez Arellano, known as “The Engineer,” according to state Attorney General Rommel Moreno.

Authorities said Sánchez Arellano had inherited the top job after Francisco Javier Arellano Félix, known as “El Tigrillo,” was detained off the Baja California Sur coast in August of 2006.

Without Francisco Javier Arellano new traffickers flocked to the border, including cells from the Sinaloa and La Familia de Michoacán cartels.

And the problems and violence escalated between García Simental and Sánchez Arellano.

In the ensuing three years, more than 2,000 people were killed, dozens disappeared and an indeterminate number moved out of Tijuana, all which combined to put an end to the Arellano organization.

Sánchez, the researcher for Colef, said the criminal groups currently operating in the city are not independent, rather associated with a cell or are paying a “user’s fee” to be able to work in a certain area. They are mercenaries that have no problem switching allegiances if need be, he said.

For his part, Clark said that, unlike the Arellanos, the Sinaloa cartel prefers to work silently, avoiding public attention.

However, like the other criminal organizations, the Sinaloa cartel uses the strategy of infiltrating law enforcement, in addition to bribing police and judicial leaders, Clark said. And it has far superior economic power than the other organizations, he noted.

The researcher attributes the drop in high-profile murders this year in Tijuana to this strategy rather than the coordinated law enforcement-military efforts to control drug trafficking. The other researcher, Sánchez, says the reduction of these crimes is due to a combination of both.

Baja California authorities said that there have been 436 murders in Tijuana through Nov. 19, about 300 less than the same period last year.

Authorities and politicians, for their part, say that the drop in violent deaths is the result of the efficient coordination between the various levels law enforcement agencies and the military.

They have held up the these efforts as a national model; in fact President Calderón has cited “the Tijuana model” as an example of how the war against drug traffickers can be won.

The Sinaloa cartel’s operation extends into the United States, where the son of its co-leader, Vicente Zambada Niebla, and nearly three dozen others have been indicted.[ They are accused of conspiring to import tons of cocaine and large quantities of heroin to Chicago and other American cities between 2005 and 2008.

In documents filed this month in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, the son alleges that U.S. authorities allowed him and other cartel traffickers to operate their business in exchange for information on rival cartels. He said he was promised immunity from prosecution in the United States if he provided that intelligence to DEA agents.

Federal prosecutors deny those allegations and are pressing their case against the son and his alleged accomplices.

In Mexico, President Calderon’s Cabinet has made defeating the Sinaloa cartel a priority of the federal government.

Its leader, “Chapo” Guzmán, 51, remains at large after escaping from a prison in 2001.

This year, Forbes magazine listed his worth at $1 billion and called him the world’s most wanted criminal.

Omar.millan@sandiegored.com

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