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. 

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