Recent data from government agencies and civil society appear to indicate a considerable increase in homicides in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California. On March 25, Juan Manuel Hernández Niebla, president of the Citizen Public Security Council of Baja California (Consejo Ciudadano de Seguridad Pública de Baja California, CCSPBC) told El Heraldo de México that homicides in Mexicali rose 32% in January and February of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Official figures released by the state Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) three days earlier had shown an even larger jump, with reported homicides in the municipality increasing 43% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2020. According to the FGE, a significant portion of homicides in 2021 so far have been concentrated in the Mexicali Valley region, which lies east of Mexicali’s urban core and is composed of various rural communities situated near Baja California’s border with Sonora.
The steady growth in homicides in Mexicali in the early part of 2021 reveals a worrying trend that appears to have taken hold of the city within the past year. In December 2020, data from the National Citizen Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, ONC) showed that Mexicali had suffered a 36% increase in homicides during the first 10 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. If the growth in murders seen at the beginning of this year continues, the city may experience another year-on-year increase in homicides by the end of 2021.
Cross-Border Criminal Activity in San Luis Rio Colorado
The uptick in violence is not confined to Mexicali. Located across the state border in neighboring Sonora, the municipality of San Luis Rio Colorado has also seen a rise in violent crime during the same period in which Mexicali has faced higher murder rates. Local media outlets reported in July 2020 that figures from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) showed a 6% increase in homicides in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. That year, San Luis Rio Colorado had suffered a dramatic spike of nearly 250% in the number of homicides recorded in the city.
Due to the geographic proximity between the Mexicali Valley (where most of the homicides in Mexicali have been concentrated) and areas of San Luis Rio Colorado that have seen criminal activity, authorities have assessed that incidents of violence seen on both sides of the state border are likely interconnected.
Organized Crime Conflicts Driving the Surge in Violence
The upsurge in violence in both Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado appears to be driven by larger conflicts that have implications beyond the Baja California-Sonora border region. According to Zeta Tijuana, public security agencies in Baja California have determined that the sharp rise in homicides in Mexicali is due largely to two criminal groups, both with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. One group has been identified as Los Rusos, led by Jesús Alexander “El Ruso” Sánchez Félix and Felipe Eduardo “El Omega” Barajas Lozano. The other group is Los Salazar, a longstanding branch of the Sinaloa Cartel known for its strong criminal influence in Sonora.
Both Los Rusos and Los Salazar are themselves linked to the larger struggle within the Sinaloa Cartel between the sons of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, known collectively as Los Chapitos, and their father’s former associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. “El Ruso” and “El Omega” have been identified as members of the faction headed by El Mayo, while Los Salazar are widely reported to be associated with Los Chapitos. Media reports indicate that Los Salazar have been gradually entering Mexicali from San Luis Rio Colorado as part of Los Chapitos’ broader efforts to target Sinaloa Cartel operatives who have remained loyal to El Mayo. This has meant that Los Salazar have been locked in an ongoing clash with “El Omega” and “El Ruso” for control of Mexicali. For his part, “El Ruso” has at times been active in San Luis Rio Colorado as part of a continuous struggle with Los Chapitos. These cross-border incursions by both sides have turned the region between Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado into yet another theater of operations in the larger conflict between Los Chapitos and El Mayo.
There are recent indications that the fighting that has straddled the border between Baja California and Sonora may intensify further. In early March 2021, government intelligence officials determined that Los Salazar had formed an alliance with Los Garibay, a local criminal group active in the Mexicali Valley. Authorities reportedly expect that this partnership will enable Los Salazar to more effectively compete against the forces of “El Omega” and “El Ruso.” In particular, Los Garibay, with their familiarity of the local terrain in the Mexicali Valley, may provide assistance to Los Salazar in navigating the area’s numerous rural roads, thereby allowing Los Salazar to move between Sonora and Baja California more easily. With these recent developments, it is likely that high levels of violence will persist along the border between the two states.
04/06/21 (written by scortez) – In late March, four women were brutally killed across the state of Quintana Roo. The femicides span the last weekend of March 2021 and occurred in Tulum, Holbox, and Cancún. The murders have sparked outrage across the country and demonstrations have taken place in cities across the state.
The most high-profile of the femicides occurred on March 27 in Tulum when a Salvadoran woman, Victoria Esperanza Salazar, was allegedly killed by police while she was detained. Animal Político reports that she was held by police for disturbing the public. On social media, videos surfaced from bystanders present during the incident showing four police officers kneeling down on the back of Salazar’s neck until she became unresponsive. Since then, four police officers have been arrested on femicide charges for the murder of Salazar. In addition to their arrest, the Tulum Police Director, Nesguer Vicencio Méndez, was removed from his position. Their role in the killing of Salazar has also brought condemnation from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who said that her death brought on “shame, pain, and embarrassment.” He vowed to bring justice to those responsible for Salazar’s death. .
The day after Salazar’s death, the body of Karla was found on March 28, on the shores of the island of Holbox. Her body was found with signs of strangulation and with deep knife cuts. On that same day, the State Attorney’s Office (Fiscalía General de Quintana Roo) announced that a suspect only publicly identified as Roger C. had been arrested for his alleged role in her murder. Authorities believe that the homicide stemmed from a personal dispute between the suspect and the victim. Her murder may also be connected to the disappearances of two other women that went missing before Karla was found dead.
Finally, two more women were killed in Cancún on March 28. The victims have yet to be identified by authorities. According to Expansión Política, the two women were killed in separate events. The first victim was shot three times in her apartment; the other was burned alive.These deaths rocked the community in Quintana Roo and have resurfaced communal outrage towards the violence that targets women.
Demonstrators Protest the Deadly Weekend
For the past few years, demonstrators have continued to push the federal government to act swiftly to end the epidemic of femicides occurring across the country. Renewed protests kicked off following the reports of the first two femicides of Salazar and Karla in Tulum and Holbox, respectively. On March 28, feminist organizations demanding justice began protesting in Cancún, Tulum, and Mexico City. The protestors are demanding reforms to the police system that call for the excessive use of force and the maneuver used to kill Salazar. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the November 2020 Cancún protests that resulted in a violent dispersal by police. During that protest, there were reports that police used excessive force and sexually assaulted protestors. The recent femicides that occurred in the state is part of a larger uptick of gendered violence occurring across the country.
Femicide: A National Crisis
Despite the apprehension of those involved in these recent killings, the threat to women’s safety remains an ongoing issue. Approximately 10 women are killed each day due to gender-related violence in Mexico. According to a Justice In Mexico report in 2019, 945 femicides occurred across the country. In that same report, the SNSP highlighted that from 2015 to 2019, the number of femicides increased by 130%. The growing statistics matched with the rise in demonstrations over the past years make this one of Mexico’s most pressing issues that remain unsolved. Human Rights Watch writes that femicides occur because of long-existing social problems such as the tendency to romanticize partner violence and a lack of police investigations. On International Women’s Day, March 2020, protesters demanding justice and accountability for the high femicide rates caught the world’s attention with the massive demonstrations urging the government to act. It is uncertain if the AMLO administration will take on these recent calls for strengthening the protection of women and implement changes that target this issue.
04/01/21 (written by scortez) – On March 18, 13 police officers were gunned down by suspected drug gang members in the State of México (Estado de México, Edomex). The assault took place in a mountainous region of the state along a road where the convoy was attacked on both sides. According to Milenio, the victims include eight officers from the Secretary of Security for the State of México (Secretaría de Seguridad del Estado de México) and five investigative police from the State’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General del Estado, PGJE).
Three suspects have been charged and 25 other suspects have been detained for their involvement in the ambush. Those arrested have linked the organized crime group La Familia Michoacana to the attack. Authorities have since offered rewards for information on those responsible. Reuters reports that authorities have yet to release many details on the ambush, but an officer at the scene said it was likely an act of retaliation by a criminal group. Rodrigo Martínez-Celis, Security Secretary for the State of México, said, “This aggression is an affront to the Mexican state, and we will respond with total force and with the backing of the law,” (“Esta agresión es una afrenta contra el Estado mexicano, y responderemos con toda la fuerza y con el respaldo de la ley…”). Echoing the sentiments of local officials, President Andrés Manual López Obrador, known as AMLO, vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Mexican government also deployed the Marines, Army, and National Guard to the area for added security.
AMLO’s Security Dilemma
The attack poses a dilemma for AMLO who promised during his presidential campaign to curb the nationwide violence, yet has chosen to avoid directly confronting the cartels. Meanwhile, homicides rates remain high and security forces continue to be killed. According to Justice in Mexico’s Memoria, 414 members of police institutions were killed in 2019. This is the deadliest assault since the 2019 killing of 14 police officers in the state of Michoacán. This event raises serious concerns that the government is not supporting local operations and has left many officers ill-equipped to respond to the elevated number of security threats in the state. A police officer indicated that the security situation in Edomex, the most populated state in the country, has been in decline for the past decade. In the first five months of 2020, there have been 1,059 reported homicides in the state, which can be attributed to the growing presence of different organized crime groups. Animal Políticoreports that as of 2020, there are 26 criminal groups conducting operations in the state. AMLO who has relied heavily on the military apparatus to handle cartel violence faces the difficulty of meeting the growing demand for support in the state that continues to face a surge of violence.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst based in Mexico City, said, “The feeling that’s left is that it’s possible to attack an agent of the state without consequences.” His comments dig into a deeper consequence of AMLO’s pacifist approach, which is the rise of impunity — an issue that has long plagued Mexico. Mexico is notorious for its rampant levels of impunity throughout the country and the so-called cifra negra — or crimes that are unreported and/or unresolved. So far this year, Causa En Común reports that 86 agents have been murdered across the country. In 2020, the organization reported that 524 police officers were killed. During that year, Edomex and Veracruz recorded the highest numbers at 39 each.
These numbers raise concerns on the capacity of the government to provide adequate resources for police officers to protect themselves and tackle the criminal groups in the area. It is clear that this ambush is a major setback for AMLO’s campaign promise to lower the temperature on cartel violence across Mexico. It is certain that the country will continue to wait for those campaign promises to become a reality.
03/23/21 (written by rramos) – On March 12, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a press release stating that 34-year-old Jessica Johanna Oseguera González, the daughter of Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG) leader Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, pled guilty to criminal violations of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, a U.S. federal law commonly known as the Kingpin Act. According to the DOJ statement, Oseguera González pled guilty to “willfully engaging in financial dealings with Mexican companies” that had been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for having “provided material support” to the CJNG’s drug trafficking activities. More specifically, court documents identified Oseguera González as an owner of two businesses that were formally identified by OFAC as “specially designated narcotics traffickers” for links to the CJNG, and as an “officer, director, or agent” of four other companies under OFAC sanctions. Two sushi restaurants, an advertising firm, and a tequila agency were among the six OFAC-designated entities with which Oseguera González “engaged in property transactions” and which were allegedly used to launder money for the CJNG. She is scheduled to be sentenced on June 11 and is facing up to 30 years in prison.
Jessica Johanna, a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen who also uses the criminal alias “La Negra,” was arrested by U.S. authorities in February 2020 at a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. She had been attempting to attend the trial of her brother, Rubén “El Menchito” Oseguera González, who had just been extradited from Mexico to face drug trafficking charges in the United States.
El Mencho’s Inner Circle Under Pressure
As illustrated by the case of Jessica Johanna, the governments of Mexico and the United States have increasingly focused their attention on members of “El Mencho” Oseguera’s inner circle as part of the broader effort to locate the elusive cartel leader.
As mentioned earlier, his son Rubén has been in U.S. custody since 2020 after losing a “long legal fight against extradition.” He is currently awaiting trial for charges of conspiring to distribute large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as using a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking-related activities. A 2018 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) press release had identified Rubén as the CJNG’s “second in command” until his capture by Mexican officials in June 2015.
Rosalinda González Valencia, widely reported to be the spouse of “El Mencho” and mother to both Rubén and Jessica Johanna, was arrested in May 2018 in Zapopan, Jalisco. Alfonso Navarrete Prida, Mexico’s then-interior minister, stated in a press conference following the arrest that González Valencia played a leading role in overseeing the CJNG’s financial operations. A month later, Rosalinda was formally accused in a Mexican court of “creating a network of 73 businesses” used to launder billions of pesos on behalf of the CJNG. In September 2018, however, she was released on bail after paying nearly 1.5 million pesos.
Rosalinda’s brother, Abigael González Valencia, is another prominent member of El Mencho’s family that has been targeted by authorities. Abigael, known also as “El Cuini,” is assessed to be the leader of Los Cuinis organization, described by the DOJ as the CJNG’s “primary financial support network” responsible for conducting extensive money laundering operations. Abigael was arrested in Mexico in 2015, but since then has waged a prolonged legal battle that has continuously hampered ongoing attempts to extradite him to the United States. He remains incarcerated at El Altiplano federal prison in the State of Mexico even as other González Valencia siblings alleged to be members of the CJNG’s Los Cuinis support network have already been extradited or are awaiting extradition to face drug charges in the U.S.
Beyond his family, authorities have also been vigorously pursuing some of El Mencho’s closest associates within the CJNG. In early March 2021, OFAC sanctioned Juan Manuel “El Árabe” Abouzaid under the Kingpin Act for “his high-level role in facilitating drug shipments and money laundering” for the CJNG, with U.S. officials asserting he “[maintained] a close relationship with senior leaders of CJNG.” According to Univision, the DEA had identified Abouzaid in June 2020 as a high-ranking figure in the CJNG with ties to “El Mencho.” On March 9, just days after his OFAC designation, Abouzaid was arrested by Mexican federal agents, with the U.S. now reportedly seeking his extradition.
As the U.S. and Mexico continue to exert pressure on “El Mencho” Oseguera’s closest relatives and partners, he remains one of the most sought-after criminals in both countries. Both governments are offering substantial monetary awards (10 million dollars in the U.S. and 30 million pesos in Mexico) for information leading to his capture. With this in mind, it is likely that the systematic targeting of those closest to “El Mencho” is intended to obtain information on his whereabouts as well as on the inner workings of the CJNG.
CJNG’s Continued Expansion
Nevertheless, the efforts of both the Mexican and U.S. governments to close in on “El Mencho” himself do not appear to be impeding the overall growth of the organization he leads. In its National Drug Threat Assessment released in March 2021, the DEA determined that the CJNG has seen a “rapid expansion” that has allowed the group to establish a “significant presence in 23 of the 32 Mexican states.” According to InSight Crime, the CJNG’s territorial advances within the past year have included “rapid gains in the states of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Veracruz, and Mexico City.” In many of these areas, the CJNG appears to have nimbly exploited the fracturing or weakening of rival groups. In Guanajuato, the CJNG managed to win control of additional territories while its main adversary in the state, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, was engulfed in internal disputes following the arrest of its leader José Antonio “El Marro” Yépez Ortiz in August 2020. Meanwhile in Veracruz, remnants of the once-powerful Zetas network have been unable to prevent the CJNG from “[asserting] control” over the port of Veracruz or operating in and around the port city of Coatzacoalcos.
Another key aspect of the CJNG’s continued growth has been its ability to leverage alliances with other criminal groups, often local-level organizations or fragments of weakened larger cartels, particularly in strategically-located areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities in the northern state of Chihuahua reportedly detected a meeting between members of the CJNG and La Línea, an armed wing of the Juárez Cartel, in which the two groups agreed to join forces to combat the Sinaloa Cartel for control of the Ciudad Juárez trafficking corridor. A similar dynamic is reportedly unfolding in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, with some media reports suggesting that the CJNG has maintained an alliance with Los Metros, an offshoot of the Gulf Cartel.
Given that the CJNG draws its strength from many factors, such as its strategic network of alliances, diversity in income sources, and advanced money laundering capabilities, it is far from guaranteed that its expansion will be halted even if “El Mencho” is captured in the future.
03/11/21 (written by rramos) – Recent developments in and around the major border city of Tijuana suggest that the remnants of the weakened Arellano-Félix Organization (AFO), once one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, could be regaining relevance in the strategically important Baja California trafficking corridor.
Within the past year, authorities in Tijuana have intensified their focus on criminal cells associated with the AFO. In October 2020, the Municipal Security and Citizen Protection Secretariat (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana Municipal, SSPCM) announced a joint operation with the Army and National Guard aimed at capturing the cartel operatives assessed to be most responsible for the estimated 2,000 homicides in the city throughout 2020. Of the 15 “priority” individuals targeted by the action, six were tied to the AFO. This was followed by a sweeping operation by federal forces in January 2021 that resulted in the arrest of dozens of AFO members after six separate search warrants were carried out in Tijuana. By March 2021, officials announced plans to send more than 100 National Guard troops to Tijuana in an effort to contain rising violence in recent months stemming from competition between criminal groups. In justifying the deployment, Isaías Bertín Sandoval, representative of the federal Security and Citizen Protection Secretariat (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana, SSPC) in Baja California, specifically cited the Arellano-Félix Organization as one of the groups responsible for the recent increases in violence, and added that the AFO was “regaining strength” (author’s own translation).
Elsewhere in the greater Tijuana metropolitan area, there are further indications that the AFO is resurfacing as a relevant criminal actor. The group appears to be particularly active in the neighboring municipality of Ensenada, where investigators from the Baja California Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) recently determined that AFO remnants are among the groups responsible for “exponential growth” in homicides in various parts of the city. This assessment is in line with numerous reports throughout 2020 indicating that the AFO was engaging in violent clashes over control of Ensenada’s port and retail-level drug sales.
The AFO’s Evolving Role in the Tijuana Plaza
The AFO’s renewed ability to capture the attention of officials and the broader public demonstrates that the role played by the group in Tijuana’s organized crime landscape continues to evolve. Following a period of dominance in the 1990s, the AFO was severely weakened in the 2000s by the arrests of its main leaders, internal disputes, and a protracted conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel, which eventually “gained control” of most of the Tijuana plaza. After years of decline and a relatively low profile, the first significant resurfacing of the AFO came with the incursion of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG) into Baja California roughly around 2016. Most of the AFO’s remaining cells began to align with the CJNG in an effort to bolster their position vis-à-vis the Sinaloa Cartel. This alliance gave rise to a regional branch of the CJNG known as the Tijuana New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Tijuana Nueva Generación, CTNG) charged with seizing control of the Tijuana trafficking corridor away from the Sinaloa Cartel. However, media reports have consistently pointed to the existence of a group of AFO holdouts, led in part by Pablo “El Flaquito” Huerta Nuño, who have actively resisted any alliance with the CJNG and have remained committed to preserving the AFO as a separate, independent organization. This has resulted in a three-way conflict in Tijuana between the Sinaloa Cartel, CJNG-CTNG, and independent AFO remnants that is currently fueling elevated levels of violence in the city.
Although the AFO’s role in the three-sided struggle for control of Tijuana is often overshadowed by the rivalry between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG (a contest with nationwide implications), AFO remnants have added a further destabilizing dimension to Baja California’s already complex security situation. For example, the AFO has repeatedly provoked or exacerbated internal divisions within its larger rivals. In August 2020, the AFO secured the defection of a high-ranking CJNG operative in the nearby municipality of Tecate after authorities began to target CJNG activities in the city. The AFO was also quick to capitalize on disagreements between CJNG members over changes in leadership by recruiting disaffected hitmen and drug dealers in Tijuana and Ensenada and integrating them into the AFO network. Furthermore, the AFO has been able to hold its own in Tijuana’s widespread retail-level drug trade, which has become a significant driver of violence in numerous parts of the city. Police sources who spoke to Aristegui Noticias cited residual cells of the AFO, alongside the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, as the primary perpetrators of homicides linked to local-level drug distribution. Thus, although the AFO in its current state is not nearly as powerful as it was at the peak of its influence, the group has regained an ability to observably impact criminal dynamics in the greater Tijuana area.
Outlook for the AFO in Baja California’s Increasingly Complex Criminal Panorama
Looking forward, there are emergent issues that may provide indications as to the ways in which the AFO’s place in Baja California’s criminal panorama might change in the near future.
One possibility is that the AFO may play a role in the internal conflict within the Sinaloa Cartel between the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (known collectively as “Los Chapitos”) and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García that has been unfolding across various parts of Mexico. Forces affiliated with “Los Chapitos” have reportedly extended the dispute to Baja California by targeting associates of “El Mayo” in the state capital city of Mexicali. To expand their efforts to other parts of the state, “Los Chapitos” have allegedly forged alliances with Pablo “El Flaquito” Huerta Nuño, mentioned previously as a leader of the AFO “dissidents” who refused to ally with the CJNG, and David “El Lobo” López Jiménez, identified by authorities as one of the former CJNG operatives who was later recruited into the AFO. Another indication of AFO involvement in internal frictions within the Sinaloa Cartel can be found in reports that Alfonso “El Aquiles” and René “La Rana” Arzate García, two brothers who have long been assessed to be high-ranking figures within the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations in Baja California, sought an alliance with “El Flaquito” and the AFO after a falling out with “El Mayo.” These potential scenarios, while based on open source reporting, would constitute important steps towards renewed relevance for a group previously thought to have been effectively dismantled.
Still, there are questions as to whether the AFO will be able to fully re-establish itself as a significant player on the national and international stages. The group was recently excluded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from a list of Mexican criminal organizations with the greatest impact on the U.S. drug market that was featured in the latest National Drug Threat Assessment. Given that criminal cells linked to the AFO have been split between those that are closely aligned with the CJNG through the CTNG branch and those that operate independently, it is likely that the AFO’s impact will remain limited to Baja California, with analysts anticipating that the AFO will continue to play a supplemental role in the larger battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG for control of the critical Tijuana border region.