Tijuana cartels are shifting leadership and territory

The Mexican drug cartel universe is a world of violence and cruelty, shifting alliances and territories – and glamour.

What is now occurring in Tijuana provides a snapshot of the cartel battlefield. It’s not easy to keep track of all the players, especially as they are shifting due to several forces that are having an impact on them:  The U.S. government has sent money and equipment; the Mexican government has intensified its efforts aimed at the cartel; and the cartels are fighting each other to control as much turf as possible.

Tijuana has been long dominated by the  Arellano Félix Cartel (aka the Tijuana Cartel). Now some law enforcement officials are predicting the end of that vicious organization. Most of the 43 executions in one week in September were members of the Tijuana Cartel. Bodies with tongues cut out were left warning others of the same fate if they allied themselves with “The Engineer.” The reference is to El Ingenerio, Fernando Sánchez Arellano, the current head of the Tijuana Cartel.

"We are now seeing the tail end" of the Arellano Felix organization, said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego. "They’re losing what was left of their grip on Baja California."

But as the cartel weakens, drug trafficking does not go away. Instead, others move in to fill the vacuum.
It looks as if the rival Gulf cartel and its feared armed wing, the Zetas, is the leading contender. The well-armed, brutal group is headed by Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who pulls its strings from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The Zetas are suspected as the executioners who cut a swathe through the Tijuana Cartel organization last month.

Law enforcement officials caution that although the Arellano Cartel is weakened, it has far from disappeared. Mexican officials say that Sanchez Arellano has the support of corrupt police on the Tijuana police force. Some of its deadliest assassins still roam the region. Sanchez Arellano still maintains a large amount of weaponry.

"Old cartels don’t seem to go away; they just seem to morph into new variants over time," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "There’s strong continuity for these organizations, dating back multiple generations of smugglers."

And there will always be a pool of enthusiastic recruits yearning for “la fama,” the fame of the gangster life. The Tijuana Cartel’s strategy has been to recruit young, educated men of middle-and-upper-class families from San Diego and Tijuana and use them as their drug runners and hit men. These young men do it, not necessarily for the wealth involved, but for “la fama.”

So, no one is counting either of the feuding cartels out. For as soon as one leader is captured or executed, two or three jump up to take his (or her – some high-ranking members of the Arellano cartel are have been women) place. It will be interesting to watch the situation as it develops.