Violence in Western Chihuahua Driven by Heightened Cartel Rivalry

02/22/21 (written by rramos) –A recent string of deadly attacks in various locations throughout western Chihuahua may indicate that organized crime groups linked to two of Mexico’s most prominent drug cartels﹘ the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel﹘ are intensifying their struggle for control of the region’s diverse range of illicit activities.

Photo: Milenio

Streak of Attacks in Chihuahua’s Mountain Towns

On February 1, five men were killed in a shootout in the municipality of Uruachi, located deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and which lies near Chihuahua’s western border with Sonora. Upon arriving at the scene of the attack, investigators from the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) found a burnt pick-up truck and numerous bullet casings assessed to have come from various types of firearms, including AK-47 rifles. According to La Jornada, FGE officials determined that several armed individuals ambushed the victims as they were traveling on a remote road linking the rural communities of Santísimo de Arriba and Santísimo de Abajo. 

That same day in the neighboring municipality of Urique, situated near Chihuahua’s rugged southwestern boundary with Sinaloa, armed aggressors broke into a house and opened fire against five men inside, killing two of them and injuring the other three. Similar to the Uruachi ambush that also took place on February 1, authorities assessed that high-powered firearms were also used in the attack in Urique.  

These lethal assaults come on the heels of other recent incidents of violence in western Chihuahua, such as the January 28 discovery of a body with gunshot wounds to the back and chest in the town of Arechuyvo, and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two brothers near the city of Cuauhtémoc on January 30. 

Region of Diverse Criminal Enterprises

Although authorities have not publicly disclosed possible motives behind the recent attacks, the location in which they occurred may point to the involvement of organized crime. Mountainous zones of western Chihuahua have been the site of repeated clashes between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel, which compete for control over the region’s broad array of lucrative criminal enterprises. The area has long been vitally important for drug trafficking, with much of it located within the so-called “Golden Triangle,” a vast territory straddling the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango that is known for its widespread cultivation of opium poppy.

Beyond illicit drugs, western Chihuahua is also a hub for illegal logging and timber trafficking. In a press conference last year, the state’s governor, Javier Corral, stated that illegal logging has become an important source of revenue for drug trafficking organizations looking to expand their criminal portfolios. Chihuahua Attorney General César Peniche added that the illicit timber trade is largely concentrated around western towns like Bocoyna, Guachochi, and Madera, where criminal groups have set up clandestine sawmills used to process wood that has been illegally harvested from the region’s abundant forests. 

Furthermore, organized crime groups have begun targeting the state’s large mining industry. Chihuahua is home to several gold, silver, and zinc mines, concentrated primarily in the southwest. According to Emilio García Ruíz, the state’s secretary of public security, groups tied to the Juárez and Sinaloa Cartels have repeatedly “engaged in robbery, theft, and extortion” of mining companies and their workers in places like Urique and Bocoyna. In response, García Ruíz told La Jornada that state and federal security forces have started to escort miners and guard facilities in order to deter against potential assaults from criminals.

Escalating Competition Pushing Up Violent Crime Rates

While competition between the Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartel over the various illicit economies in western Chihuahua is not new, authorities have identified signs that both sides may be ramping up their efforts to confront the other. According to El Heraldo de Chihuahua, intelligence divisions of the FGE have assessed that two high-ranking criminals linked to the Sinaloa Cartel have joined forces in a reinvigorated bid to oust Juárez Cartel affiliates from an extensive 300 square kilometer area ranging from Urique up toward Cuauhtémoc. In response, La Línea, an armed group associated with the Juárez Cartel, is reportedly maintaining an armed presence in territories under its control in the Bocoyna municipality in order to thwart possible Sinaloa Cartel incursions. 

Authorities have cited this escalating conflict as the reason behind a recent “wave” of homicides, kidnappings, and armed attacks in various locations throughout western Chihuahua, such as Uruachi, Basaseachi, Creel, and San Juanito. Reports from the FGE’s State Investigative Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, AEI) that were reviewed by El Heraldo de Chihuahua also indicated that government investigators were weighing the possibility that the February 1 massacre of five men in Uruachi and over 20 cases of kidnappings in Cuauhtémoc since January 1 may be tied to this latest flare-up in Sinaloa Cartel-Juárez Cartel conflict. 

These developments are just the newest indications of heightened tensions between the two cartels in the region. In September 2020, InSight Crime reported that violence in western Chihuahua was largely due to fighting over timber trafficking between the Juárez Cartel, based primarily around San Juanito, and the Sinaloa Cartel, which has a greater presence in areas south of Creel. Just two months prior, the FGE had warned that the Juárez Cartel had launched a “campaign” to wrest control of Guachochi from the Sinaloa Cartel.

The constant criminal disputes in Chihuahua’s western municipalities have contributed to increased levels of violence in the state overall. Data compiled by Causa en Común, a non-governmental organization, showed that Chihuahua’s homicide rate in 2020 stood at roughly 70 homicides per 100,000 habitants, a 5% increase from 2019. Furthermore, Causa en Común also reported a 68% increase in kidnappings compared to 2019. As the illicit economies of western Chihuahua continue to fuel intense competition between rival criminal organizations, the upward trajectory of violence in the state seems unlikely to abate. 


Torres, Juan David. “Así es el Triángulo Dorado de las drogas en México.” El Espectador. January 10, 2016. 

Bonello, Deborah. “Illegal Logging in Chihuahua is Now Mexico Cartel Territory.” InSight Crime. January 10, 2019. 

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Dávila, Patricia. “La disputa por la madera.” Proceso. June 6, 2020. 

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Holguín Pérez, Ricardo. “Arrasan con bosques de Chihuahua 4 grupos criminales.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. July 3, 2020. 

Resendiz, Julian. “ Police escorting miners, shipments of materials following cartel robberies and abductions.”  Border Report. July 23, 2020. 

Villalpando, Rubén. “Blindan minería contra el hampa en Chihuahua.” La Jornada. August 9, 2020. 

Bonello, Deborah. “How Drug Cartels Moved into Illegal Logging in Mexico.” InSight Crime. September 18, 2020. 

Parra, Gisela. “Alerta en Chihuahua por aumento de delitos.” El Diario de Juárez. January 26, 2021. 

Alba, Maribel. “Asesinan a un varón en Arechuyvo, Uruachi.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. January 28, 2021. 

“Encuentran ejecutados a los hermanos privados de la libertad en Cuauhtémoc.” El Diario de Chihuahua. February 1, 2021. 

Ponce, Norma. “Balacera en Uruachi, Chihuahua, deja cinco personas muertas.” Milenio. February 1, 2021. 

Villalpando, Rubén. “Asesinan a cinco habitantes del Santísimo de Abajo, en Chihuahua.” La Jornada. February 1, 2021. 

“Identifican a los 5 acribillados en Urique; dos murieron.” Tiempo. February 3, 2021. 

“Alianza entre líderes criminales genera “ola” de homicidios en la zona occidente.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. February 7, 2021. 

The Rights to Water in La Boquilla

Local Farmers flooding La Boquilla dam to prevent the National Guard from opening the dam valves. Image: Mexico News Daily

10/21/20 (written by mlopez) The protests in La Boquilla, Chihuahua have turned violent within the past month as the exportation of water across the border is continuing. A 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty, which was in response to both parties’ mutual interests in both countries’ shared rivers,   has resulted in a large debt that Mexico owes the United States. Mexico has delayed the release of the water reparations and the fast-approaching October 24th deadline of this year is resulting in the accelerated extortion of water from the dams in La Boquilla. This has resulted in a large divide among the local farmers who rely on the water for their agricultural purposes and the guardia nacional (National Guard) who is entrusted with releasing this water into the Rio Grande river. 

The 1944 Treaty

The Treaty of February 3, 1944 between the United States and Mexico established a mutual agreement to share water between the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. The neighboring countries would allow an equal amount of water to pass through the borders as they both share the environment surrounding the border. While both parties were invested in these two vital rivers for the region, the use of the water became disproportionate. Population growth and the increase in industrialization ultimately affect  how much water is needed by the communities that surround the rivers. 

Currently, however, Mexico is facing a significant shortfall in the amount of water — 307,943 acre-feet, or 379.8 million cubic meters — due by Oct. 24, when the current five-year cycle ends. The deficit is about 88% of what Mexico is expected to supply per year to the United States. It is also worth noting that Mexico receives four times the amount of water it exports to the United States under this treaty. Nevertheless, the ramifications of the 1944 Treaty continue to impact everyday Mexicans over 75 years later. Mexico is not only behind on its payments, as noted, but the local farmers see this rapid exportation of water as impossible in conjunction with their own water uses. Farmers are not protesting the treaty itself, but rather how quickly and how much water will be revoked within a month. Whereas on the other hand President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered his National Guard’s to guard the Chihuahua dams in question and ensure that the water repayment mission is completed. AMLO is adamant on repaying the water debt as he fears the consequences of not complying could result in U.S. tariffs. As Sally Spener, a U.S. spokeswoman for the U.S. Water Commission, noted the treaty does not specify sanctions for noncompliance and assumes that both parties will make “good-faith efforts” to fulfill mutual obligations. This signifies that the treaty holds no mention of sanctions or further conflict as a punishment for non compliance. 

The Affected Farmers

The farmers on the ground in Chihuahua have seen the escalation of issues with the 1944 treaty. They are stuck in between the area’s agricultural requirements for the land and the president’s sanctioning of the national guard in their backyard. The farmers began protesting at the start of July due to the National Guard’s presence at their dams. Protestors are upset that there will not be enough water to meet their agricultural needs, as they were recently hit by a drought. The water of these dams are seen as vital to the farmers’ livelihoods. Alejandro Aguilar, 57, a Chihuahua tomato and onion grower was among the protesters. “We will not end our fight, because this liquid is vital to our future, he said.” Protesters say they do not seek to renegotiate the 79-year-old binational water treaty. Rather, they say the Mexican government should seek alternative solutions, such as waiting for fall rains or diverting water from other border areas less affected by the drought than Chihuahua. Chihuahua’s climate is typically dry for the majority of the year with the rain season hitting from July through September. The lowest that the average temperature gets is about 50 ℉ and the highest is around 78℉, with the deserts hitting a high of 111℉. There are various terrains in the state of Chihuahua with the Sierra Madre mountains in the west, the Tarahumara Sierra mountains and Samalayuca deserts to the states north and south borders. These hot terrains in the north along with the lack of rainfall have lent to a dire situation where the sharing of their stored water seems like a threat to their farms in the north. In July 2020, protestors burned government vehicles, blocked railways, and set fire to government offices to protest the release of water to the United States. “For us, here, the question of water is fundamental,” said Salvador Alcántar, the head of Chihuahua’s association of irrigation. He continued, “It is the patrimony that we inherited from our grandparents, our parents. And now we have to leave it for our children.”

AMLO and the National Guards interference

President López Obrador expressed concern in press conferences that by not complying with the treaty the United States will place sanctions and have a reason to initiate conflict with Mexico. This is a presumed fear AMLO has as the treaty itself, as discussed by Sally Spener, has no punitive backing. He sees the National Guard protecting the transmission of water as a vital mission for Mexico’s national security and cooperative nature with the US. AMLO claims that Mexico receives four times the amount of water from the United States’s Colorado River than the United States does through the Rio Grande. Further, he estimates that the amount of stored water in Chihuahua’s northern dams is enough for both the farmers and the United States’s repayment. The president’s position on the repayment is also a product of his recent ties to President Donald Trump. López Obrador sees his next moves with the United States  as vital due to it being an election year and he does not want to encourage any further “mexico-bashing” from the United States. He also mentions that he thinks these outbreaks of protests are sponsored by the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN), his rival party, along with others who see themselves as the dueños del agua (owners of the water). President López Obrador does not want any trade conflicts with the United States, yet he also condones the current violent surge between farmer protesters and the National Guard. He did reassure that if the payment is not possible, he would appeal to Trump and explain the circumstances as to why there was a delay. If needed, AMLO did also clarify that he could appeal to members of the United Nations to assist in auditing the payments to its northern neighbor. The United Nations has not been made aware of the possibility that the president could call for experts to help audit the payments. Even the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission has not been made aware of any discussion from their southern partners that the United Nations would survey their water deliveries, yet the president has brought up this possible course of actions in multiple commentaries. AMLO has options when it comes to handling these protests; it is just a matter of meeting the deadline. 

Acceleration of the Violence

The protests themselves have been on and off since December of 2019, yet they really took root in Chihuahua in July 2020 with the drought. At the La Boquilla dam, on September 8 2020, the national guard tasked with opening the dam valves were encountered by protestors throwing rocks and sticks to stop the release of this water. The protestors eventually got control over the dam as the National Guard stepped back. This is where the narrative diverges, the national guard claims that armed citizens then fired at them, they retaliated, and one mother was killed in this exchange. On the other hand, the protestors and Chihuahua’s governor Javier Corral claim that the national guard was not attacked first. There is an ongoing investigation on the series of the events that claimed a woman’s life, harmed her husband, and have resulted in the escalation of violent protests in La Boquilla. These dams have become a site of mass unrest and these encounters will escalate as the deadline is a week away. 


Sánchez, Anabel. “1944 Water Treaty Between Mexico and the United States: Present Situation and Future Potential,” Frontera Norte. 17 February 2006. 

“Farmers clash with National Guard over diversion of dam’s water to US,” Mexico News Daily. 05 Febraury 2020. 

Stevenson, Mark. “Mexico struggles with US water debt, suggests UN audit,” Washington Post. 03 September 2020

“Farmers, troops skirmish over water in Northern Mexico,” Washington Post. 09 September 2020. 

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McDonnell, Patrick.”Mexican water wars: Dam seized, troops deployed, at least one killed in protests about sharing with U.S,” LA Times. 11 September 2020.

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Rafael Romo, Krupskaia Alís. “El conflicto del agua en Chihuahua pasa de protesta de agricultores a pleito político,” CNN Espanol. 26 September, 2020.

Hoover Institution report analyzes successful security strategies in Mexico

Cover image for "Security Strategies" report

Source: Hoover Institution.

10/05/16 (written by kheinle) — A report released in late August by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University provides an in depth look at security strategies in Mexico, an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about a country embroiled in crime and violence for years. In “Security Strategies: Experiences Of The Mexican States Of Chihuahua And Nuevo León,” co-authors Arturo Ramírez Verdugo and Reyes Ruiz González found that the state and local policies implemented in Mexico to combat insecurity related to drug trafficking organizations (DTO) have been more effective than efforts taken at the national level.

The report focuses on case studies in Chihuahua and Nuevo León, two states on the U.S.-Mexico border that have been hotspots for drug trafficking, crime, and violence. Chihuahua and Nuevo León have had some of the highest levels of ejecuciones, homicides related to organized crime, since 2007 when former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) launched the nationwide campaign against drug trafficking and related violence. The Hoover Institute report examines both states’ administrative policies implemented to reduce levels of violence, which resulted in clear decreases in Chihuahua’s and Nuevo León’s homicide rates, kidnapping rates, and the number of vehicle thefts from their peak in 2010-2011.

Overall, the public’s perception of state insecurity, and the absolute number of victims and crimes in both states declined between 2010 and 2014. Specifically in Chihuahua, for example, homicide rates per 100,000 inhabitants declined from 111 to 30 between 2010 to 2014, and from 7 to 0 inhabitants per 100,000 for kidnapping rates between 2009 and 2014. Similarly, Nuevo León saw homicide rates peak at 42 per 100,000 in 2011 and decline quickly to 10 per 100,000 in 2014, though the state’s kidnapping rates did not begin declining until 2012, decreasing from 1.25 to 0.80 by 2014. Extortion rates also declined in Chihuahua, although they increased steadily in Nuevo León from 1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008 to 8 per 100,000 in 2014. That said, the cifra negra (black number, or the number of unreported or uninvestigated crimes) decreased in Nuevo León during this time period, but increased in Chihuahua, an interesting finding considering that state’s otherwise positive strides in other areas.

2015 Drug Violence in Mexico-PortadaThe authors drew from Justice in Mexico’s research as a primary source of information, specifically from “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2014” released in April 2015. That publication is part of a series Justice in Mexico releases annually that compiles and analyzes the latest available data on crime and violence in Mexico as it relates to organized crime. The Drug Violence in Mexico series seek to inform a U.S. and English language audience, as international news media coverage of Mexico tends to be fleeting and gravitates toward sporadic sensationalistic incidents rather than the analysis of broader issues and longer-term trends. Justice in Mexico’s latest such report can be found here.

The Hoover Institute also relied on data from Mexico’s Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP), the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI), the National Population Council (Consejo Nacional de Población, CONAPO), and the National Survey of Victimization and Perception about Public Security (Encuesa Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública, ENVIPE), among others.

In the end, Ramírez Verdugo and Ruiz González found that strategies were most effective when several factors are incorporated into security strategies. First, “the state’s actions have a multiplicative effect when the civil society is involved.” Second, local law enforcement institutions must be strengthened, while, third, new procedural common law must be reformed. Next, convicted criminals must be better reinserted into society so to address recidivism and repeat offenders. Lastly, “strategies require a true commitment to fiscal discipline from [Mexican] states to make [them] viable and sustainable.” As Ramírez Verdugo and Ruiz González argue, Chihuahua and Nuevo León demonstrate that the rule of law can be improved when following strategies that prioritize and incorporate these factors.


Heinle, Kimberly et al. “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2014.” Justice in Mexico. April 2015.

Hoover Institution. “Security Strategies: Experiences Of The Mexican States Of Chihuahua And Nuevo León.” Stanford University. August 24, 2016.

Ramírez Verdugo, Arturo and Reyes Ruiz González. “Security Strategies: Experiences Of The Mexican States Of Chihuahua And Nuevo León.” Hoover Institution. August 2016.