LATIN AMERICA

A clan of natural born killers

As Mexico’s big capos fall, criminal organizations are splintering into small, ultra-violent groups

Crime scene where 22 alleged drug traffickers were killed in Mexico.
Crime scene where 22 alleged drug traffickers were killed in Mexico.B. R. / AFP

Just before dusk, a man in a white coat entered the intensive care unit where Crisóforo Rogelio Maldonado Jiménez was hospitalized. He took out a gun with a silencer and shot the patient in the chest and stomach. Then the stranger quietly left the hospital and vanished into the darkness of the night with a group of accomplices. This incident took place on December 14, 2012. Guerreros Unidos had just killed the leader of the rival cartel, Los Rojos. A few days before, Maldonado Jiménez had survived another assassination attempt where he had gotten badly injured.

That crime marked the beginning of a spiral of violence that has made Guerreros one of the Mexican authorities’ prime targets – targets before whom Mexican soldiers do not hesitate. They simply point and shoot, as they did on Monday morning in that dark cellar in Cuadrilla Nueva, where they killed 22 alleged members of the clan. The raid struck at the heart of the organization. It was the largest killing of drug-related criminals by the military. Guerreros is the prototype of the new cartel model in Mexico.

The fall of Mexico’s great capos (such as Chapo Guzmán and Z-40) and constant police assaults have splintered large organizations into smaller cells with strong territorial roots. The golden age of the large cartel – the kind that served as an umbrella for all local criminal activity – is over. The new model is a small group whose illicit business goes beyond drug trafficking. These new organizations also use extortion and kidnapping, federal intelligence officers say.

The new model is a small group whose illicit business goes beyond trafficking, and includes extortion and kidnapping

Guerreros Unidos was founded after Arturo “The Boss of Bosses” Beltrán Leyva was shot dead on December 16, 2009. His demise led to the growth of many small organizations that tried to take over what was left of his empire, which covered various franchises along the Pacific coast and in the interior of the country. The fight over the dead man’s booty unleashed a bloodbath. And a new leader emerged. Mario Casarrubias “Sapo Guapo” Salgado stood out because of his efficient use of brutality. Casarrubias Salgado, a former officer in Beltrán’s camp, decided to start his own organization. To that end, he hired the fearsome personal security guards of the late capo. Then, he began a war for control of Mexico state, the largest region of the country. More than 70 people died in that offensive. In 2013, his ambitions led him to Michoacan and Guerrero, where he entered a turf war with the Familia Michoacana cartel. Familia, which operates with its own sect-like norms, was under the command of the messianic figure, Nazario Moreno González. The legendary drug boss was later killed on March 9, 2014.

One of its income streams comes from drug trafficking by land, particularly through Chicago, where Casarrubias once lived. Still, drugs only account for a fraction of the business. Now that we are in the dark ages of “the great narco,” the new norm includes kidnapping, extortion and kickback payments. “This last factor has made people feel much more unsafe,” says Eduardo Guerrero, a former analyst in the federal intelligence bureau. “Kidnappings have increased by 35 percent and extortion cases by 30 percent,” he adds.

Federal authorities fear that violence might spread to the adjacent federal district of Mexico City

The crime rate has alarmed federal authorities, and they fear that the wave of violence might spread from Mexico state (where in 2013 four out of 10 residents had been victims of a crime), to the adjacent federal district of Mexico City. Despite its enormous rumbling open fronts in Tamaulipas and Michoacán, the government has launched a campaign to hunt down the members of Guerreros Unidos. On April 29, the 33-year-old Casarrubias was arrested in Toluca. The navy, army and attorney general’s office all participated in the operation. Crime czar Monte Alejandro Rubido later gave the news of the arrest.

Last Monday, a military convoy shot dead 22 alleged drug traffickers in Cuadrilla Nueva, a small town in the southern agricultural region of Mexico state. The operation freed three women who had reportedly been kidnapped. One soldier got injured. “Guerreros Unidos is now flailing because of their capo’s arrest and the death of 22 of its hitmen,” notes Eduardo Guerrero. “There weren’t many of them, although they were very violent.”

Authorities have not released any information on the identities of the deceased. The operation was led by the military, an impenetrable institution that operates autonomously despite accusations of extrajudicial executions.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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