Crime and Violence

The ‘Fantasia’ effect and the emergence of Mexico’s new cartels

"El Teo" captured by Mexican authorities. Photo credit: CNN México

02/09/12 – According to information published by news outlet Reforma, the loss of leadership within certain criminal organizations (cartels) has led to the emergence of smaller organizations operating in the local level and at different stages. The most emblematic cases of splits within cartels are the rupture between the Gulf Cartel and their former allies, the Zetas, and the one within the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), also known as Tijuana Cartel, that occasioned dramatic episodes of violence in cities such as Nuevo León, Tijuana, and Torreón. The Reforma newsletter points out six specific new cartels that rose from breaks in the structure of three bigger organizations: the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), the Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia Michoacana (LFM).

According to Reforma, the killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, “El Barbas,” in December of 2009 provoked a split within the BLO and the further creation of two rival fractions, one that maintained the line of command of the cartel with Arturo’s sibling, Hector Beltrán Leyva, “El H,” as the leader, and the other created by Edgar Valdés Villareal, “La Barbie.” In March 2010, Sergio Villareal Barragán, “El Grande,” a lieutenant for “El H,” broke with him and created the South Pacific Cartel (Cartel del Pacífico Sur, CPS). Then in August 2010, “La Barbie” was detained and his group further split and created two new rival organizations, the first being the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (Cartel Independiente de Acapulco, CIDA) in November 2010 led by Carlos Antonio Barragán Hernández, “El Melón,” and Moises Montero Álvarez, “El Coreano,” who was arrested on August 2011. The second organization created was La Barredora, led by Heder Jair Sosa Carvajal, “El Cremas,” and Christian Arturo Hernández Tarin, “El Chris,” who was arrested in October 2011. While the CPS seems to be in extinction –with its principal leaders arrested, “El Grande” in September 2010 and Julio Jesús Radilla Hernández, “El Negro Radilla” in May 2011–, and the CIDA weakened –with “El Coreano” arrested–, La Barredora was considered to be rising despite the arrest of “El Chris.” Very recently, however, on the morning of February 10, 2012, Jonathan Martínez Santos, thought to be the second in command and operative leader of La Barredora, was detained in Acapulco, which is considered to be a big blow to the organization. The CPS and La Barredora are currently fighting for the control of Acapulco, which, along with the whole state of Guerrero in general, experienced a dramatic spike in drug related violence during the 2011. The state saw more than 1,500 homicides last year, more than 50% above the state levels for 2010.

The Sinaloa Cartel, arguably the most powerful organization in Mexico, has also experienced some schisms. With the capture of important lieutenants –Oscar Orlando Nava Valencia, “El Lobo,” in October 2009 and Juan Carlos Nava Valencia, “El Tigre,” in May 2010– the group commanded by Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel started to have internal divisions. From the Sinaloa Cartel, the group known as The Resistance (La Resistencia) emerged from Nacho Coronel’s group in June 2010 and was led by Ramiro Pozos González, “Molca,” operating in the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. Later that year, in July 2010, Nacho Coronel was killed by the Army and that led to the emergence of a new group in August 2010 called the Jalisco Cartel “New Generation” (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). The Resistance has been weakened because of its dispute with CJNG and also for the arrest of one of its leaders in February of 2011, Victor Manuel Torres García, “Papirrín.” CJNG, on the other hand, appears to be growing in influence in Jalisco and has moved to Veracruz through an offshoot that calls itself “Mata Zetas” (Zeta Killers) where they maintain an open fight against the Zetas. They also have disputes with The Resistance and LFM. Like Guerrero, Veracruz experienced an increase in drug related violence by the middle of 2011, making the total number of killings nearly 350, whereas in 2010 it was closer to 50.

With the killing of the founder and leader of La Familia Michoacana, Nazario Moreno González, “El Chayo,” in December of 2010, the organization split into two different groups, one commanded by José de Jesus Méndez Vargas, “El Chango Méndez,” that kept the name and principles of LFM, and the other led by Servando Gómez Martínez, “La Tuta,” that call themselves the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios), which went public later in March 2011. With the capture of “El Chango Méndez” in June 2011, LFM was almost dismantled, while the Knights Templar continues to grow today in influence and control of Michoacán despite disputes with LFM and the Zetas. “La Tuta” now shares command of the Knights Templar with Enrique Plancarte Solís, “Quique Plancarte.” Michoacán also experienced an increase in violence last year, although not as dramatic as in Veracruz or Guerrero.

Yearly level of ejecuciones (drug-related killings) as collected by TBI from Grupo Reforma's running tally

Experts point out that the militarized strategy pursued by President Felipe Calderón that focuses on destroying leadership within cartels is not having a real effect in the fight against drug trafficking and violence. They argue that while the arrest of top cartel bosses disrupts their operations, it consequentially contributes to greater infighting between and within competing organized crime groups. This strategy of breaking cartels into smaller, more manageable pieces seems to be causing a “Fantasia” effect (Shirk, 2011), a name that is inspired by the animated Disney film where a wizard trying to control an animated broom destroys it, but every fragment of the broken broom thereby becomes its own uncontrollable tiny broom. The comparison is that breaking down organizations and cartels does not necessarily destroy them, but rather creates divisions that lead to the emergence of much smaller organizations that operate in lower, less manageable, and more violent levels.

The so called “war on drugs” that President Calderón took charge of in 2006, with the massive deployment of troops throughout the country and with their direct involvement in public security and organized crime, had led to the arrest or killing of 22 of the 37 most wanted alleged drug traffickers. Despite this, however, the ‘decapitation’ strategy does not seem to be decreasing the violence; in fact the trend of drug related violence has steadily grown since 2006 and the total number of deaths resulting from the “war on drugs” total 47,515. 2011 was the most violent year in Mexico with a total of 12,366 ejecuciones (cartel related killings) according to Reforma’s Ejecutometro, although the Mexican Government reported a higher number with 12,903 drug-related homicides. However, Alejandro Poiré, the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, Segob), states that the violence reached its peak by the middle of 2011 but started to decrease thereafter. The evident drop of drug related homicides in the second half of 2011 does not necessarily mean that violence in general will follow the same trend; but rather it can be an indicator of plateauing, and therefore in the long run it could be beneficial because at least there will not be dramatic spikes and the situation should remain steady for now. As the violence dynamic in Mexico is perhaps shifting, such a plateau could ultimately mean that violence will eventually start to decline.


Shirk, David. “Drug Violence and State Responses in Mexico.” Paper presented in Violence, Drugs and Governance: Mexican Security in Comparative Perspective at Stanford University. October 2011.

Aguilera, Elizabeth. “Violence in Mexico shifts, hope is for plateau.” San Diego Union Tribune. November 9, 2011.

AP/Provincia. “Fue 2011 clímax de asesinatos por narco: Poiré.” Provincia. February 8, 2012.

“El estatus de carteles fragmentados”. Gráfico animado. Reforma. February 8, 2012.

“Ejecutometro 2012.” Grupo Reforma. Accessed February 8, 2012.

Herrera, Rolando. “Cae mando operativo de ‘La Barredora’”. Reforma, February 10, 2012.

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