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.