A war between Mexico's most powerful cartels may be spreading

Numerous reports over the last few months have indicated that the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel have started to clash in Tijuana, a city in northern Baja California, just over the border from San Diego.

Now a report from Mexican newspaper El Universal, based on insight from experts and government officials, indicates that the clash may have spread throughout the peninsula.

Violence in Baja California Sur, a state considered to be solidly controlled by “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, has likely been caused by clashes between Guzmán’s cartel and the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

According to government statistics, there were 232 homicides in Baja California Sur between February 2014 and February 2016 — nearly double the 129 homicides recorded between 2011 and 2013.

According to sources El Universal spoke with, this spike in killing is linked to the drug trade, and has been driven in recent months by Guzmán’s capture and the perception of vulnerability it has created.

“A war broke out between cartels without the state, municipal, and federal governments being able to do anything about it,” Víctor Martínez de Escobar, a businessman and former local representative for the conservative National Action Party, told El Universal.

With Guzmán’s extradition, “there will come a very strong reshuffling and the entry of small cartels,” he added.

Mexico cartel mapUS DEA 2015 NDTABaja California and Baja California Sur have been considered Sinaloa cartel territory.

The Jalisco cartel, one of Mexico’s fastest-growing and most violent cartels, “is wanting to enter La Paz, Ensenada, and Tijuana,” a police official told El Universal, referring to three cities in Baja California and Baja California Sur.

“All this derives from after they arrested El Chapo. [Nemesio Oseguera] El Mencho is returning to attack the plazas,” the source continued, referencing both the Jalisco cartel’s well-known leader and drug-trafficking territories known as plazas.

According to El Universal, as Baja California Sur developed into a tourist area between 2002 and 2013, Guzmán had relative freedom of movement in the area. The Sinaloa kingpin was able to use a Cessna — likely part of a fleet of aircraft — to travel throughout the state, reportedly with the aid of civil aeronautics, police, and military personnel.

Violence in the state worsened after Guzmán’s 2014 arrest. And with his recapture in January this year (after his 2015 jailbreak) Baja California Sur turned into “a battlefield,” Martínez de Escobar told El Universal.

“Drugs, arms, and hit men arrived in ferries from the coasts of Sinaloa” state, he said.

Shifting alliances

A spike in violence in Baja California Sur related to cartel competition would mirror a reported trend in Tijuana, where it’s believed that the Jalisco cartel and local allies have made efforts to move in on Sinaloa cartel territory, with a number of deaths as a result.

The arrest of a suspected Jalisco cartel member with about 112 pounds of cocaine in Tijuana in May adds weight to rumours about that cartel’s expansion into the northwest corner of the country.

The dynamics of this possible cartel clash are complicated by the nature of organisations involved.

Sinaloa and Jalisco are believed to have cooperated to some extent in the past. Their clash in Baja California and Baja California Sur, however, may be part of a larger shift toward an antagonistic relationship, evidenced by conflicts in Colima, a state on Mexico’s southwest coast, and in Acapulco, a tourist haven riven by violence.

Moreover, Sinaloa’s opaque structure makes it harder to parse how it operates on the ground.

“El Chapo” Guzmán is the most visible Sinaloa leader, but the organisation is believed to be structured horizontally rather than vertically, with several allied factions cooperating and sharing trafficking routes, government contacts, and information.

“It’s kind of like a corporation that has hundreds of subsidiaries, and the subsidiaries are semiautonomous from the Sinaloa cartel even though they deal with the cartel,” Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, told Business Insider earlier this year. “So when Chapo Guzman goes to jail, these subsidiaries continue to function.”

But those allied factions don’t seem to be immune to conflict. As Vice reported late last year, factions of the Sinaloa cartel — one led by “El Mayo” Zambada, Guzmán’s equal in the cartel — were believed to be fighting in La Paz and throughout Baja California Sur.

A heavily factionalized cartel fight — Sinaloa against Jalisco and Sinaloa against itself — would not only be hard to track and examine. Shifting alliances between powerful-but-fragmented groups make it even harder for already weak law-enforcement agencies and judicial bodies to end the bloodshed.

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