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. 

Sources

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. 

Mayorga, Patricia. “Enfrentamientos entre los cárteles de Juárez y Sinaloa dejan 19 muertos en Chihuahua.” Proceso. April 4, 2020. 

Coria Rivas, Carlos. “Mueren 17 por choque entre cárteles en Sierra Tarahumara.” Excelsior. April 5, 2020. 

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

López, Daniel. “Tala ilegal es fuente de financiamiento para el crimen organizado.” El Sol de Parral. July 2, 2020. 

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. 

Nine Members of Local Mormon Family Killed in Cartel-Related Ambush in Mexico

One of the vehicles seen here, torched from the ambush. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

11/22/19 (written by T McGinnis) On November 4, 2019, nine members of a local Mormon family were killed in a cartel-related ambush in northeastern Sonora. Among the deceased, officials found and identified the bodies of three women and their six children, all belonging to the LeBarón family.

Ambushed en Route

According to El Universal and The Wall Street Journal, at 10:00am on the morning of November 4, the mothers and 14 of their children left their homes in the small village of La Mora in three separate vehicles. Two of the vehicles were traveling to the neighboring state of Chihuahua , while the third was headed to Phoenix, Arizona, all to visit family. Witness accounts from affected family members who survived say that around 10:20am, one of the SUVs was discovered engulfed in flames. Three armed men were seen fleeing the scene.

About 40 minutes later, closer to 11:00am, the other two SUVs were attacked ten miles further down the road. One of the vehicles contained Christina Marie Langford and her seven-month-old baby. The other was driven Dawna Ray Langford and her seven children. Dawna’s 13-year-old son, Devin, survived the ambush along with several of his other siblings. After fleeing the attack and hiding in bushes along the roadside, the surviving children then walked 14 miles back into La Mora to alert authorities.

Suspects Behind the Massacre

The attacks were the result of a clash between rival gangs in the surrounding area. General Homero Mendoza Ruiz, the Chief of Staff for Mexico’s National Defense, said that two criminal groups had previously engaged in a shootout along the U.S.-Mexico border in the town of Agua Prieta. They were identified as Los Salazar, based in the state of Sonora, and La Línea, based in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. The New York Times thenreported that in an effort to create barriers of entry for Los Salazar, La Línea had dispatched gunman to the region that straddles Sonora and Chihuahua, which is where the attacks took place.  

Motives Involved

The motive behind the massacre has been debated. One theory is that it was a case of mistaken identity. General Mendoza noted that the suburban model of the SUV driven by two of the three mothers is commonly used by criminal gangs, which could have led to confusion about who was inside the vehicles. Additionally, investigators cited that because the children in one of the vehicles were allegedly able to flee, this suggests that the attack was not specifically directed toward the families.

Family and friends mourn the death of their loved ones following the November 4 attack. Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal, The New York Times.

Another theory, however, speculated that the LeBarón family was somehow more intimately entangled and actively engaged in the rivalry. Even some family members themselves said that what transpired on November 4 was most likely a targeted, intentional operation by criminal groups. According to Milenio, Julián LeBarón, the cousin of a victim, stated that although the community remains bewildered by the guiding motivations of the involved groups, there is no doubt that “they [were] intentionally murdered.”

Still, accounts differ with regard to the relationship between the Mormon community and local cartels. Some investigators suggested that the motive behind the attack may be linked to the community’s “cordial” relationship with Los Salazar criminal group, which controls most of the activity in that region. Los Salazar are thought to be aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – a stringent enemy of La Línea. Some speculate that the ambush served as a message to the Sinaloa factions that La Línea, and more broadly the Juárez Cartel, control the road and therefore the drug trafficking routes that lead into the state of Chihuahua.

Mormon History in Northern Mexico

Although various news stories have portrayed the massacre as a violent attack against visiting U.S. citizens, the community of over 5,000 Mormons living in northern Mexico dates back to the early 20th century and consists of many dual nationals. According to El Universal, the LeBarón family initially made the move into Mexico to practice polygamy, a convention that since then, has largely faded out among members.

While some press accounts have focused on this aspect—including conspiracy theories attempting to link the victims’ families to the human trafficking ring known as NXIVM—others have focused on the family’s activism in advocating for the rights of crime victims and local disputes over land tenure and water. A decade earlier, two members of the LeBarón family were kidnapped and murdered following their confrontation of the drug gangs that control the borderlands south of Arizona. That incident spurred family members to organize locally and nationally to pressure the government to act to improve citizen security and victim protections.

U.S.-Mexico Relations

Source: The New York Times.

Though authorities are still working to identify possible suspects and uncovering the real motivations for the massacre, the implications for the U.S.-Mexico relationship remain much more evident. Since the attack occurred approximately 70 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border and against dual U.S.-Mexico citizens, U.S. politicians have become increasingly vocal regarding the security policy of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. President Donald Trump offered help in combating cartel violence. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth…the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” he tweeted. Given the historical legacy of U.S. interventionism in Mexico and apprehensions about armed U.S. agents operating in Mexico, President López Obrador swiftly declined the offer.

Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the University of Guadalajara, stated that this incident will likely “raise the temperature among conservative sectors in the U.S. precisely during election season.” Other political actors, such as U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), have asserted that Mexico remains dangerously close to assuming the classification of a failed state, especially given the violence seen in Culiacán and Veracruz. “Mexico’s president hasn’t taken the threat seriously and innocent lives have been lost again.” He urged Mexico to heed President Trump’s advice and join U.S. military forces to launch a “full-scale offensive against these butchers.”

Trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Ironically, sources point out the underlying complicity of the U.S. in the recent violence targeting La Mora’s Mormon community. The New York Times reports that at a news conference two days after the attacks, Mexican government officials offered additional details regarding the incident. According to investigators, “the ammunition used in the attack were .223 caliber cartridges manufactured in the United States by Remington” and usually associated with AR-15 and M16 rifles. Each year, approximately 200,000 American guns illegally cross the border into Mexico, many of which land in the hands of the criminal organizations that fight to control the multibillion drug trade to the United States.

Since taking office, President Obrador has issued public statements signaling that his time in office would constitute the end of entrenched political corruption and Mexico’s “War on Drugs.” With Obrador’s strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” he discusses a prioritized focus on alleviating the poverty that drives individuals to join gangs and fall prey to cartel influence. However, record homicide rates in 2019 alone have caused many to call this strategy into question. To intensify an already escalated situation, the incident on November 4 happened only two weeks after the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán following the military’s arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán. For many, the subsequent release of Guzmán and retreat of military forces signaled a weak government security strategy. María Elena Morera, director of civil society organization Causa in Común, told The Wall Street Journal that, “Mr. López Obrador’s strategy is clearly not working. He can’t keep thinking that a government using legitimate force against criminals is what generates violence.”

Next Steps

Mexico’s Secretary of Security and Civilian Protection Alfonso Durazo initially reported that a suspect had been brought into custody, but information later gathered indicated he was not involved. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the alleged request of the Mexican government, later agreed to join the investigation into the massacre. With internal and external pressures equally intensifying, it remains to be seen whether President López Obrador’s security strategy will evolve in the face of increased scrutiny and international political pressure.

Sources:

Belmont, José Antonio. “Familia LeBarón cree que ataque a mujeres y niños fue directo.” Milenio. November 5, 2019.

Kaleem, Jaweed. “La masacre de ciudadanos estadounidenses apunta a la comunidad mormona con profundas raíces en México.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Linthicum, Kate. “For Mexico ambush victims, there was no safety in numbers.” Los Angeles Times. November 6, 2019.

Santiago, Patricia Vélez. “Autoridades presumen que ataque a familia LeBarón en México se debió a lucha territorial entre dos grupos delictivos.” Univisión. November 6, 2019.

Ahmed, Azam. “After Mormon Family’s Terror in Mexico, a Message Emerges: No One Is Safe.” The New York Times. November 7, 2019.

Diaz, Lizbeth. “The LeBarón Case: Drug Cartels & the Fight to Control Drug Trafficking Routes.” El Universal. November 7, 2019.

Semple, Kirk. “Mormon Massacre in Mexico May Be Tied to Gang War, Officials Say.” The New York Times. November 8, 2019.

Ahmed, Azman. “9 Members of Mormon Family in Mexico Are Killed in Ambush.” The New York Times. November 8 2019.

Allyn, Bobby. “FBI Joins Investigation Into Killing Of 9 Members Of Mormon Family In Mexico.” NPR. November 11, 2019.

Kryt, Jeremy. “A New Twist in the Horrific Massacre of American Moms and Kids in Mexico.” The Daily Beast. November 11, 2019.

“El Viceroy,” leader of the Juárez Cartel, arrested in Coahuila

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes El Viceroy Juarez Cartel

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, “El Viceroy.” Photo: Procoeso.

10/11/14 — Mexican officials detained another leader of a major Mexican drug trafficking organization with the arrest of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, “El Viceroy,” the leader of the Juárez Cartel, on October 9. Members of the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) arrested El Viceroy and two of his bodyguards during an operation in Torreón, Coahuila, conducted by the National Security Commision (Comisión Nacional de Seguridad, CNS). No shots were fired during the arrest, and authorities also seized two vehicles, one large and one small firearm, and communication equipment, which were passed to the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público Federal, MPF).

El Viceroy, who used a fake identification when police initially detained him, was a wanted man in both Mexico and the United States, with a reward for information leading to his arrest set at $30 million pesos ($2.23 million USD) and $5 million (USD), respectively. He was wanted for charges of homicide, money laundering, and drug trafficking. According to Univisión, El Viceroy had some control and power in almost one-third of Mexico’s 32 states and Federal District (Distrito Federal, DF), as well as maintained control of important drug trafficking routes connecting the United States and Mexico, routes used specifically to transport cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

As one of the heads of the Juárez Cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes led one of the most important cartels in Mexico. He played an important role with three of his brothers—Amado, Rodolfo, Alberto—in expanding the Juárez Cartel in the 1990s, trafficking drugs from South America to the United States, explains Excélsior. He then assumed his leadership role following the 1997 death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Señor de los Cielos,” El Viceroy’s brother and founder of the Juárez Cartel. Although he stepped down from his role at one point due to health reasons, El Viceroy nevertheless maintained a leading position in the Juárez Cartel, so much so that he recently represented the cartel at a meeting with leaders from three other prominent Mexican cartels—Los Zetas, Beltrán Leyva Organization, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). That meeting, held in June 2014, was viewed as the start of a possible alliance that may be growing among several of Mexico’s top organized crime groups (OCG), as they form a potential “cartel of cartels,” according to Reforma.

Although too early to tell, several media sources claim that the fall of El Viceroy marks the end of an era for the Juárez Cartel. Regardless, his arrest has been applauded by both U.S. and Mexican politicians, including the president of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, Silvano Aureoles Conejo, who recognized that El Viceroy’s fall “gives the population confidence” that the Mexican government is making strides in its effort to destabilize organized crime groups and disrupt illicit activity.

Sources:

“Leader of the New Juarez Cartel captured.” Justice in Mexico. September 3, 2013.

Barajas, Abel. “Detecta Gobierno cartel de cárteles.” Reforma. August 29, 2014.

“Reports indicate that four OCGs are forming a ‘cartel of cartels’ alliance.” Justice in Mexico. September 7, 2014.

“Detienen al capo Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias El Viceroy.” Univisión. October 9, 2014.

“’El Viceroy’ mostró identificación falsa al ser detenido.” El Informador. October 9, 2014.

Redacción. “Detención de El Viceroy termina por demantelar al cártel de Juárez.” Excélsior. October 9, 2014.

Jiménez, Horacio. “Aureoles aplaude detención de El Viceroy.” El Universal. October 10, 2014.