Monday, May 7, 2012
Gunfights in Mexico may Signal a Shift in Turf Wars
The recent deaths of at least a dozen people in clashes
in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, as rival groups linked to the Zetas move into "Chapo Guzman's" home territory, may be evidence that the
concept of the "plaza" dominated by a single group is losing its force.
According to the Sinaloa newspaper Riodoce, the fighting started when an army patrol was ambushed. After receiving reports of
a gunfight in a rural community in the municipality of Choix, in the remote Chihuahua-Sinaloa border region, an army patrol,
supported by local police, went to investigate and was attacked. They called for backup, and a helicopter which arrived on
the scene also came under fire. The initial outburst of violence was followed by further fighting in an adjacent community,
resulting in the deaths of several more alleged criminals.
Initially, Excelsior and other media outlets, based on local officials' reports, put the figure at 30 dead, which would have
made the incident one of the most violent firefights in recent years. However, authorities later said that only seven died,
before correcting the figure to 13.
One Air Force sergeant and one
municipal police officer were among those killed in Choix, with the remainder of the dead coming from the armed group that
initiated the attack.
Firefights that leave dozens dead are relatively
uncommon in Mexico, but not unprecedented. Last May, 30 people were killed in a running battle between criminal gangs along a highway in the Pacific state
of Nayarit. In July 2010, a group of human traffickers battled against hitmen just south of the US border in Sonora, leaving 22 victims. In May 2007, gunfights
between state and federal authorities in Cananea, Sonora, left 22 dead, the majority of them suspected criminals.
Choix sits within the so-called Golden Triangle, the remote portion of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental where
the states of Durango, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua come together. The region is the traditional home of Mexico's marijuana
and opium production, dating back to the 19th century, and Sinaloa is the home state of many of the nation's most notorious
traffickers. While its remoteness gives the groups operating there a measure of protection against the federal forces, it
remains relatively too close to border crossings in Chihuahua and Sonora, which adds to its value for criminal organizations.
Initial reports said that the Choix attackers belonged to a cell linked to the Vicente Carrillo
Fuentes' clan, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), and the Zetas. Officials say that the mountainous region around Choix
is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the primary enemy of the three groups named above. However, the cell identified by
authorities has reportedly been operating in the region for several weeks, and has engaged in a series of skirmishes with
Sinaloa Cartel forces.
The fighting is a manifestation of the ongoing
turbulence in Sinaloa, which is ostensibly the home base of Guzman, widely considered the most powerful trafficker in Mexico.
Typically, airtight control by a single capo brings a measure of peace to a given region, but Sinaloa remains one of the bloodiest
states in Mexico. Indeed, in 2010, only Chihuahua had a higher murder rate or higher total number of murders than Sinaloa.
Last, just four states witnessed more killings, and Chihuahua was again the only state with a higher murder rate than Sinaloa's.
Much of this violence stems from Guzman's inability to definitively stamp out his rivals
in the BLO, which was part of his group until 2008. Guzman is widely perceived as the winner of the years-long battle with
the BLO, which has fractured into several different groups, but gunmen loyal to the Beltran Levyas, who are also from Sinaloa,
have continued to operate in the Pacific state. As reports demonstrate, they have paired up with Guzman's principal enemies,
increasing their significance.
This is not the first time this coalition
of Sinaloa enemies has managed to inflict damage on Guzman's forces. Written messages, known as "narcomantas," taunting Guzman have repeatedly appeared in recent months in the Sinaloa city of Guasave, crowing
over the murders of Guzman subordinates and claiming that the drug lord is colluding with the state government. Interestingly,
the Choix gunmen were said to be from Guasave. Reports emerged late last year that the Zetas, supported by the BLO and Carrillo Fuentes, had
also made their way into Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital. These incidents suggest the continued vulnerability of Guzman's
forces, even in his own backyard.
That doesn't mean, however, that
Guzman is passively losing ground; like his enemies, he has been busy trying to expand. The violence in Choix comes just weeks
after the appearance of a series of narcomantas in Nuevo Laredo, the northeastern border town that serves as one of the Zetas' most important
strongholds, heralding Guzman's arrival into the area. One of the messages, which bore Guzman's name and appeared
alongside 14 dead bodies, accused Zeta boss Miguel Angel Treviño of using Hector Beltran Leyva's forces to target
Guzman's people in Sinaloa.
Taken together, these incidents suggest
that the concept of the "plaza" -- the city or region controlled by a single drug trafficking organization, whose
dominion is respected by its rivals -- has grown more vulnerable. If they continue, such forays into the enemy's turf
are bound to provoke escalating acts of bloodshed.
Patrick Corcoran is a writer and international relations student who specializes in Mexican affairs.
He blogs at Gancho (http://www.ganchoblog.blogspot.com/).
This commentary, "Sinaloa
Gunbattles Could Signal Shift in Cartel Turf Wars," was first published in InSight Crime on May 1, 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.