A field report by Southern Pulse describes how Acapulco represents the future of Mexico's drug conflict, in which super-powered street gangs, the descendants of the big cartels, are increasingly responsible for much of the violence. And the gangs currently fighting for control of their turf may only get smaller and more numerous.
In recent years, the Acapulco Metropolitan Zone (AMZ) has experienced some of the highest levels of criminal violence in Mexico. The AMZ presents an interesting case where two small criminal organizations have battled for territorial control of the city with the external support of much larger cartels operating at the national level. The AMZ also provides a snapshot of how the criminal environment evolves as organizations adapt, and ultimately present a public security challenge that neither the Mexican government nor many international businesses are prepared to confront.
Our investigative work has revealed that while there are multiple levels of criminal and gang activity operating throughout the AMZ, the tightest clusters of criminal activity are organized as described below:
• Tier-one: Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), i.e. the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas.
• Tier-two: Regional criminal groups we have labled “super empowered street gangs,” or "superpandillas," considered by some analysts to be cartels, i.e. the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA).
• Tier-three: Localized street gangs -- small time criminal opportunists, groups of less than four or five individuals.
Our investigation has found that tier-one cartels operate in an indirect capacity in the AMZ. There has only been sporadic direct, cartel action in the city, such as several homicides with narco-messages signed by the Sinaloa Cartel in early April 2012. While the AMZ is located within an area disputed by multiple groups, the close proximity of Sinaloa Cartel territory results in increased activity from this group. However, our investigation has revealed that the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel also operate in the city indirectly through the support of tier-two superpandillas.
Historically, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) operated in the city, but the group no longer holds any territory in the state of Guerrero. In fact the two most prominent groups operating in the AMZ, La Barredora and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA), are both tier-two organizations that splintered from BLO. Given the high level of activity from the superpandillas, and the relatively low strategic value of this plaza, when compared to Nuevo Laredo or Monterrey, we believe that it is unlikely that tier-one organizations will focus on the AMZ in the coming months. However, further presence of Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas indirect activity is possible, especially through their support of the regional tier-two groups La Barredora and CIDA.
The new gangs on the block
High-impact criminal activity in the AMZ is primarily carried out by two, second tier organizations: La Barredora (including its hitman squad, The Devil’s Command) and CIDA. This binary criminal ecosystem is relatively simple when compared to the complex environment of the Monterrey Metropolitan Area (see our March 2012 report on street gangs in Monterrey). La Barredora and CIDA, both splinter groups from the organization operated by La Barbie -- itself a splinter group from BLO -- operate exclusively in the state of Guerrero, and primarily in the AMZ. Both groups rose to confront the weakened South Pacific Cartel and the BLO, which had been fighting for control of Acapulco.
[See Southern Pulse's interactive map of where the streets gangs are based in Acapulco, and which areas of the city are in dispute].
However, since 2011 La Barredora and CIDA have effectively displaced all other groups operating in the area. The exception to this has been occasional activity from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which in early 2012 publicly announced its presence in the AMZ through "narcomantas" (drug gang banners) and YouTube videos.
The government response
In response to the increasing number of homicides that resulted from the struggle between the two groups, the Federal and State Government of Guerrero implemented in October 2011 a security operation, dubbed Guerrero Seguro, included the deployment of Federal Police agents and Mexican military operatives.
In its first few months, Guerrero Seguro was successful in reducing the level of homicides bynearly 50 percent. [...] Regardless, Guerrero Seguro has affected La Barredora and CIDA in several ways. The use of strategically located "filtros," road stops operated by the military and federal police, have led to a string of arrests driving down tier-two group activity. Also, greater intelligence has led to the capture of significant section of the leadership structure for both groups. Yet La Barredora and CIDA have proved to be resilient. Both groups continue to operate in the AMZ and test each other, despite numerous arrests and setbacks.
We should also note that the nature of criminal activity has changed since the operation began. For example, in the last several months the AMZ has seen a sharp increase in vehicle theft, close to 170 percent. While it is difficult to determine the responsible groups involved, there are indications that smaller street gangs, under contract with superpandillas, have driven much of that figure.
We expect the situation in the AMZ to continue relatively unchanged in the coming months. While some of the gains made by Guerrero Seguro may have only been temporary, such as the significant reduction in violent homicides, it is unlikely that the situation will devolve to the high number of homicides and shootings before the security operation began. As the spike in vehicle theft suggests, criminal activity in the AMZ has evolved in response to government pressure on the tier-two groups. However, the repeated resurfacing of La Barredora and CIDA cells also suggests that while the operation has curbed criminal activity, it has been unable to fully dismantle either group, and has likely not affected tier-three groups in any way.
In the case of the AMZ, tier-three groups are so small and numerous that TCOs and their smaller local allies are not able to keep track of all of them. However, their impact on the local criminal environment remains palpable. Our investigation has indicated that superpandillas (tier-two groups) often confront some of these groups, especially when they encroach on their "narcomendeo" operations by selling drugs on street corners without paying the required "derecho de piso," or tax. Much like in Monterrey, where there is vibrant tier-three criminal activity, the individuals who survive their time at this level often are hard, street smart, extremely violent, and ambitious.
As previously noted, the formation of tier-three groups presents no clear pattern or trend, apart from the consistency of their presence and activity on the fringe of the criminal environment and a general agreement amongst our investigators and sources that their aggregate number is growing. These gangs are hyper-localized, and often do not venture far from their area of influence, which is limited to a specific neighborhood, or "colonia" or "fraccionamineto," and rarely far beyond. However their sheer numbers and impact present a challenge to authorities, where the focus remains on TCOs at a national or state level, and as a knock-on effect, on tier-two organizations at the state or city level.
Aside from providing a never-ending talent pool of young criminals to tier-two organizations in the AMZ, our review suggests that these tier-three organizations have cautiously moved into the spaces left open by the initial success of operation Guerrero Seguro against La Barredora and CIDA.
Reprinted with permission from Southern Pulse. This is an excerpt from the full report, "Acapulco Criminal Environment: June 2012."