Guadalajara: The Next Epicenter of Violence in Mexico?

If there is anything constant in Mexico’s drug war, it’s change. Cities that were thriving hubs of industry, education, and personal wealth are now laden with crime scenes and the frequent sound of gunfire. Other cities where citizens dared not venture outside after dark are rebounding and seeing more tourists than ever before. Such is the nature of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in Mexico, whose preferences for good places to serve as drug transshipment points sometimes change from year to year.

However, some large cities in Mexico have remained virtually untouched by TCO violence since the drug war began in earnest six years ago. Mexico City is the best example, and despite some TCO-related incidents on the far outskirts of town (parts of the capital’s metro area are over 200 miles out from the city center), local authorities have had to deal mostly with just typical big Latin American city crime. Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, has been in a similar situation for decades. However, there are some indicators that this is changing, and Guadalajara could very well lose its protected status among drug lords and become the next epicenter for drug-related violence.

In September 2011, the port city of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast officially became the latest narco “hot spot” in the TCO war over territory. This was turf traditionally controlled by Los Zetas, but it was starting to look like someone was challenging that hegemony when 35 bodies were unceremoniously dumped beneath a highway overpass in the city. The armed and masked men who pushed the bodies out of two trucks after stopping traffic also left a narcomanta, or drug banner, that claimed the victims had been killed for their allegiance to Los Zetas. The banner also claimed that, essentially, the new boss in town was the “G.N.,” which stands for Gente Nueva—an enforcer group with ties to the Sinaloa Federation.[1]

A few days later, a group calling itself the “Mata Zetas,” or Zeta Killers, posted a video on YouTube apologizing for the brutal display, saying their intent was not to offend the people of Veracruz, but to show that Los Zetas were a scourge on society and their intent was to show the group was no longer invincible.[2] It turned out that the Mata Zetas were actually created in June 2011 by the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), which is also affiliated with the Sinaloa Federation.[3] In early October 2011, Mexican authorities arrested several CJNG members, who led them to three homes containing 32 additional bodies.[4]

After this aggressive and public campaign against Los Zetas in their home turf, retaliation in CJNG and Federation territory was guaranteed. In late November 2011, Mexican authorities found the remains of 17 burned bodies in two trucks in Culiacán, Sinaloa state—better known as the “cradle of drug trafficking” in Mexico, and Federation kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s home base. The victims had all been shot before being burned, and reports didn’t say who the victims might have been, other than the state governor who said he believed the killings were “a message between rival drug gangs.”[5]

But the real coup de grâce happened the next day, when authorities in Guadalajara found 26 bodies that were bound and gagged in three abandoned vehicles in different parts of the city. Investigators from the Forensic Science Institute of Jalisco said all the bodies had the words “Milenio Zeta” written on them with oil. The narcomensaje, or cartel message, left at one of the scenes essentially said the Zetas’ fight was with El Chapo, not the town people, and that they were in Jalisco to stay. It mentioned the “peaceful” arrangement between the Federation and the CJNG in both Sinaloa and Jalisco states, and said the bodies were proof that they were “deep inside the kitchen.”[6]

These body dumps came as a huge surprise to many drug war observers. Like Mexico City, Guadalajara has traditionally been viewed as “off limits” by the older cartels, perhaps because of its historical status as the home of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo’s drug trafficking empire in the 1970s and 1980s. “The Godfather” of Mexican trafficking, as he was known, and co-founder Rafael Caro Quintero controlled virtually all trafficking activity in Mexico at the time. While they and members of their organization didn’t call or consider themselves a TCO, they’re historically referred to as the Guadalajara cartel.

Shortly after Félix Gallardo was implicated and Caro Quintero was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, Félix Gallardo began to see the writing on the wall. In 1987, the drug lord divided up his empire into several pieces—the Tijuana cartel to the Arellano Félix family, the Juárez cartel to the Carrillo Fuentes family, the Gulf cartel to Juan García Ábrego, the Sonora corridor to Miguel Caro Quintero, and the Pacific corridor—later to become the Sinaloa Federation—to Guzmán and partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia.

We may never know the exact reasons Los Zetas chose Guadalajara as the site for one of their retaliatory body dumps, given the risk to the organization from intruding so far into almost sacred ground for the Federation. But further investigation clearly demonstrates that Guadalajara is—or at least will be—a very strategic city for the drug trade; specifically, for the production and distribution of methamphetamine.

The Mexican TCO entry into the meth trade happened relatively recently. When precursor chemicals required for meth production were severely restricted in the United States in 2005, TCOs saw a huge market opening. In the following years, domestic meth production plummeted, and the trafficking of both precursor chemicals and ready-to-use meth into the United States skyrocketed. Not coincidentally, the homicide rate in some Pacific coast port cities like Acapulco have started to rise as TCOs and smaller criminal gangs fight for control of areas where precursor chemicals arrive from China and Southeast Asia.

Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico, and is ideally located only 300 kilometers from Mexico’s largest port in Manzanillo and 500 kilometers from the port in Lázaro Cárdenas. Some reports indicate that the two ports combined account for the source of 90 percent of precursor chemicals entering Mexico.[7] Recent seizures over the last few years include 22 tons in October 2009, 88 tons in May 2010, and 252 tons in December 2011.[8] The historic seizures continued inland in Guadalajara. In February 2012, Mexican authorities announced the largest seizure of pure methamphetamine in the country’s history—and possibly the world’s: a whopping 15 tons, along with a lab and chemicals capable of making all of it.[9]

This seems somewhat stunning, but Guadalajara has been on the US government’s radar as a huge meth source for several years. A leaked cable from the US Consulate in Guadalajara to then-US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that, according to DEA estimates in 2007, methamphetamine production was “especially high in and around the city of Guadalajara due to the confluence of geography, availability of materials, adequate infrastructure, and scientific expertise.” Furthermore, it said: “Ending Guadalajara's status as Mexico's drug chemical capital will require a sustained long-term effort.”[10]

Analysts at the private intelligence firm Stratfor believe the conversion of meth production from hobby level to industrial scale could represent a turning point in the drug war. Because geography and market forces prevent any TCO from truly controlling the cocaine, marijuana, or heroin trades, they’re increasingly turning to methamphetamine because they can control the market for a synthetic drug. Mexican TCOs also have an advantage over US producers because instead of pseudoephedrine, they use methylamine as a component chemical, which is harder to regulate and requires knowledgeable chemists to properly use—something homegrown labs in the United States lack.[11]

So why hasn’t Guadalajara exploded in drug-related violence like the similarly situated cities of Monterrey, Acapulco, and Veracruz? It could be as simple as the historic and solid control El Chapo has maintained over the city, and the Federation’s surrounding territory in general. Guzmán is also a shrewd businessman, partnering up with La Familia Michoacana (LFM) prior to the TCO’s January 2011 split to get more involved in the meth trade—an LFM specialty. After the split, LFM started to dissolve into narco history. Guzmán took advantage of LFM’s weakness to seize control of meth production and distribution in the region, and really started to expand into a well-organized industrial-scale operation.[12]

But the Federation isn’t the bulwark in Jalisco that it used to be. Cracks started appearing in the Federation shield over Guadalajara in 2008, when the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) split off from the Federation and allied itself with Los Zetas. The two organizations then started hammering away at Chapo’s territory along the Pacific coast. Longtime Guzmán partner and Federation no. 3 Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel Villarreal was killed by the Mexican military in July 2010, and his absence from the Guadalajara plaza he controlled left a huge power vacuum waiting to be filled by rival organizations.[13]

Currently, there are no less than half a dozen organizations either operating in or fighting for control of the Guadalajara plaza: El Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation, the Knights Templar (the other half of the La Familia split in 2011), the CJNG, Los Zetas, the remnants of the BLO, now being called the Cartel Pacifico del Sur under Hector Beltrán Leyva, the remnants of Coronel’s network, and the remnants of the Milenio cartel, part of which calls itself La Resistencia. Alliances and grudges between these groups—despite operating in a city of 4.4 million people—have all the makings of a powder keg.

The Federation is technically allied with the Knights Templar, and provides support to the CNJG and whatever is left of Coronel’s people. Los Zetas are allied with basically everyone else, and this is representative of the drug war as a whole. The Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas have emerged as the two enormous TCO powerhouses, and all the smaller organizations have had to make their bets on whom they think will be the winning horse. Unfortunately for El Chapo, he has infighting to deal with, as the Knights Templar and CJNG don’t exactly get along. In July 2012, the CJNG posted gory videos online of members of the Knights Templar being dismembered at their hands. The month before, the CJNG posted a video online taunting the Knights Templar by saying their slain leader, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno Gonzalez, was actually still alive.[14]

This sounds disturbing enough on paper, but the rising body count in Guadalajara in the last six months could be a sign of a pending dramatic escalation in violence as Los Zetas press more aggressively into Federation territory. In January 2012 alone, it seemed like El Blog del Narco, which reports violent incidents across Mexico on a daily basis, couldn’t keep up with the killing in Guadalajara.

In the span of just the first two weeks of that month, the following incidents happened in or near the city: A body was found next to the Chapala-Cajititlan highway near Tlajomulco de Zúñiga. The victim had been shot in the head, and his wrists and ankles tied; an unknown individual killed a public accountant in the Mercado de Abastos area; three people were shot and killed by unidentified individuals with several AK-47s outside a liquor store in the Hermenegildo Galeana neighborhood of Zapopan; seven bodies were found in a home in the Arroyo Hondo neighborhood of Zapopan; A 45 year-old man, had been kidnapped by several masked and armed men two days prior outside his ranch in Chapala, was shot multiple times in Ixtlahuacán de Los Membrillos; the body of a 44 year-old man was found in the passenger seat of a car in the Colonia Tabachines area of the city; the dismembered parts of a victim were discovered in several trucks in the Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos neighborhood; the body of a man who had been executed was found abandoned in the Colonia Lomas del Tapatío neighborhood of Tlaquepaque; a car salesman was executed outside his home in the Colonia Mirador de San Isidro neighborhood of Zapopan.[15]

While these may seem like just random crimes—and they might be, as Guadalajara has a very high crime rate in general—there is no doubt that TCOs in the city still had business to take care of. In May 2012, police found 12 decapitated bodies in the small town of Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, 18 miles south of the city center. The victims were so badly mutilated that the officers could not determine their gender. A note left with the bodies was signed by Los Zetas.[16] On July 24, 2012, nine people were killed in 24 hours in the state of Jalisco, many of them in or near Guadalajara.[17] On August 25, 2012, several gun battles and narcoblockades broke out across the Guadalajara metropolitan area, to include Zapopan, Tonalá, and Tlajomulco de Zuñiga. Several vehicles were set on fire, and multiple injuries were reported.[18]

Of course, a long list of crimes alone isn’t enough to forecast any location in Mexico as the next trouble spot. However, there are several factors that, when combined, create a disturbing picture for Guadalajara’s future. Methamphetamine is poised to surpass other illegal drugs in Mexico in terms of volume smuggled into the United States, as well as profitability. Guadalajara’s location so close to major Pacific ports where precursor chemicals arrive from Asia makes the city an ideal staging point, as evidenced by the historical seizure of 15 tons of pure meth in early 2012. The city’s size allows for expansive TCO operations, and its highway infrastructure is ideal for overland distribution to other parts of Mexico.

But the real indicators are coming from the TCOs themselves, both from their presence and their violent activity in the area. The only other part of Mexico where so many criminal groups, large and small, are operating and competing right now is Acapulco—a once-peaceful and beautiful resort town that has turned into a killing field for half a dozen or more criminal groups fighting for control of the plaza. US and Mexican government reporting, along with drug seizures, indicate that Guadalajara is already a big hub for the meth trade, and as the conflict between the Federation and Los Zetas escalates, so does the value—and vulnerability—of the Guadalajara plaza. Sadly, Acapulco could serve as a blueprint for the disintegration of Guadalajara’s security situation if the signs are not recognized in time by the Mexican government.


[1] Geoffrey Ramsey, “35 Dead 'Zetas' Dumped on Busy Street in Veracruz, Mexico,” InSightCrime.org, September 21, 2011.

[2] “Se Disculpan ‘Los Matazetas’ por Ejecutados en Veracruz,” Terra.com (Noticias), September 26, 2011.

[3] “New Generation Jalisco Cartel Creates ‘Mata Zeta’ Unit,” BorderlandBeat.com, July 28, 2011.

[4] “Mexico: New Generation Drug Gang Kills 32 In Veracruz, Officials Say,” The Huffington Post, October 7, 2011.

[5] “Mexico police find 17 burned bodies in two vehicles,” BBC News, November 24, 2011.

[6] “26 Bodies Dumped in Mass Slaying in Guadalajara,” BorderlandBeat.com, November 24, 2011.

[7] Timothy Wilson, “Guadalajara at the cross-roads of huge methamphetamine market,” LaPoliticaEsLaPolitica.com, January 10, 2012.

[8] Patrick Radden Keefe, “Cocaine Incorporated,” The New York Times, June 15, 2012.

[9] Ben West, “Meth in Mexico: A Turning Point in the Drug War?” Security Weekly, Stratfor, February 16, 2012.

[10] “Chemical City: Guadalajara, Jalisco, and the Meth Trade,” electronic cable, US Consulate Guadalajara, US Department of State, December 23, 2008.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Geoffrey Ramsey, “Sinaloa Cartel Becomes King of Mexico Meth Production,” InSightCrime.org, August 29, 2011.

[13] Scott Stewart, “Mexican Cartels and the Pan American Games: A Threat Assessment,” Security Weekly, Stratfor, September 29, 2011.

[14] “The Mystery of Knights Templar,” BorderlandBeat.com, June 17, 2012.

[15] All these incidents were reported by El Blog del Narco between January 6-16, 2012.

[16] Lizbeth Diaz and Ioan Grillo, “Twelve decapitated near Guadalajara, drug gang suspected,” Reuters.com, May 9, 2012.

[17] “Asesinan a nueve personas en distintos puntos de Jalisco,” El Universal (via El-Mexicano.com), July 24, 2012.

[18] José Luís Sánchez Macias, “Reportan narcobloqueos y enfrentamientos en Jalisco,” Noticias MVS, August 25, 2012.

 

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