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Out of balance: Intelligence report breaks down Mexico narco war

May 6, 2010 |  3:48 pm

Stratfor cartel map

Mexico's narco war is a "struggle for balance" among various large criminal organizations that control drug trafficking routes in certain regions of the country, and government efforts to decommission the cartels have made that balance "very elusive," says a recent private intelligence report on the security situation in Mexico.

The report, published online last month by the U.S.-based Stratfor intelligence firm, is open and free to the public, an unusual move in an industry where data are usually only available to clients. Stratfor analyst Scott Stewart describes in detail the make-up of the cartels' current geography and the rise of a new trafficking alliance he calls the New Federation.

"The laws of economics dictate that narcotics will continue to flow into the United States," the report says early on. Narco trafficking groups in Mexico have traditionally attempted to supply those narcotics as quietly as possible, like "businessmen." But when one organization is weakened, others attempt to wrest control of new territory, causing violence to erupt.

So who is fighting whom right now? And over which territories? It is a complicated trail to follow, but the report sheds light on the strategic conflict at play behind the daily headlines of carnage and bloodshed.

Many analysts trace the current narco warfare on efforts by the Sinaloa cartel early this decade to move into Juarez cartel territory, in Ciudad Juarez, and Arellano Felix cartel territory, in Tijuana.

The other strong trafficking group in Mexico, the Gulf cartel, has also battled the Sinaloa group for control of smuggling "plazas" along the U.S. border. Further complicating the picture, break-off groups like the Zetas (formerly under the Gulf cartel), and the Beltran Leyva organization and La Familia Michoacana (formed partly among former Sinaloa cartel agents) are seeking to secure their own smuggling territories.

Government strikes against major cartel figures result in temporary vacuums of power and can thus yield more violence.

"Indeed," the Stratfor report says, "the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels have joined forces with La Familia Michoacana to form a new super cartel called the New Federation and are now allies in the struggle against Los Zetas and the [Beltran Leyva Organization], which have teamed up with the Juarez cartel to fight against the New Federation."

In a short-term outlook, the report says, "perhaps the only hope for striking a balance and reducing the violence is that the New Federation is strong enough to kill off organizations like Los Zetas, the BLO and the Juarez cartel and assert calm through sheer force."

So where is the government and military in all of this? The Stratfor report discusses lingering suspicions that consecutive governments headed by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) have "helped" the Sinaloa cartel. The Times has also noted the allegations, which President Felipe Calderon vigorously denies.

"Of course, it is highly possible that the Sinaloa cartel is just a superior cartel and is better at using the authorities as a weapon against its adversaries. On the other hand, perhaps the increasingly desperate government has decided to use Sinaloa and the New Federation as a fulcrum to restore balance to the narcotics trade and reduce the violence across Mexico," the report says.

For anyone who has grown weary of constant reports of violence in Mexico and a soaring tally of victims, such assessments on the current narco war could hardly be reassuring. Still, many Mexicans would welcome an end to the violence -- no matter who makes it stop.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: General drug smuggling routes in Mexico. Credit: Stratfor.com

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