US gangs and Mexico's organized crime groups are forging ever closer ties, according to US authorities, as the fragmenting cartels turn to the transnational criminal outsourcing model to protect their interests north of the border.
In 2012, US federal forces identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating in at least 22 cities and nearly all counties in California (see map below). They also found 18 street and prison gangs in the state had ties to these groups, the California Attorney General's Office (OAG) stated in a March report (pdf - see attached below). In Texas, all of the four gangs identified as "Tier 1" for their size and threat level, as well as many "Tier 2" gangs, maintain relationships with Mexican cartels, according to the 2014 Texas Gang Threat Assessment from the Department of Public Safety or DPS (pdf).
The California OAG reported gangs have now grown to take on roles as enforcers, drug sellers, arms smugglers and money launderers for the cartels. In turn, they get to buy their drugs in bulk from the major organizations, thus allowing them to bypass the middlemen and receive up to 50 percent discounts on wholesale drug purchases. Similarly, the Texas report found gangs were involved in drugs, weapons, cash and people smuggling for the cartels, as well as contract killings.
This relationship allows the Mexican organizations to conduct operations without entering US territory, thus reducing their risks, and to expand their distribution networks. US gang members offer the added benefits of being able to cross the border with less risk of detection and having an in-depth knowledge of the areas where they operate.
One example cited in the California report was a 2011 deal known as "The Project" between the Mexican Mafia, or "La M," and Mexico's Familia Michoacana. As part of the agreement, La M protected the Familia Michoacana's methamphetamine shipments and sales, collected drug debts, provided protection to jailed members of the Familia, and kept other criminals from trying to take a cut of profits. In return, La M got $500,000, a percentage of earnings, and a lower rate on methamphetamine purchases.
While Mexico's transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) prefer to partner with gangs of their own nationality, both reports make it clear that profit comes first for both the gangs and the cartels. The Texas report states: "Ultimately, gangs work with any group that will help further their criminal objectives."
In California, the Familia Michoacana has worked with La M and its rival gang, Nuestra Familia, but has also been documented as working with the primarily African-American gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, and the white supremacist prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood. Members of transnational street gangs the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 operating in California are also reportedly involved with the Mexican cartels, as well as partnering with California gangs, including La M, who have worked in association with the MS13 since at least the early 1990s.
Inter-gang rivalries do not stop opposing gangs from working with the same cartel. In fact, according to the Texas gang report, business relationships with Mexican cartels have led to increased cooperation across racial divides and between former rivals. The report mentions a drug ring run by the Aryan Brotherhood and the primarily Hispanic gang Houstone Tango Blast, in collaboration with a Mexican cartel. The California report, on the other hand, expresses concern over the potential violence the gang-cartel relationship may create when, for example, "Sureños" gangs (those operating in the southern part of the state) attempt to encroach on "Norteño" territory on behalf of cartels.
Both reports highlighted the potential for increased violent crime as these relationships deepen. Major cities such as San Jose, California, have already reported huge increases in gang related homicides, and throughout the state, around 30 percent of all murders between 2009 and 2012 were gang-related. Meanwhile, in some jurisdictions in Texas, gangs are reportedly responsible for up to 90 percent of all crime.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ties between Mexican cartels and US gangs are not new. Gangs operating near the southwestern border have long bought product from Mexican groups for US-based street sales. However, as these reports highlight, this relationship has been expanding geographically and evolving, particularly since 2006, the year that marked the start of former President Felipe Calderon's frontal assault on the cartels.
These kinds of alliances are, in part, the product of a changing criminal landscape in Mexico. As the major cartels have weakened and fragmented, new, smaller groups have emerged to challenge their hegemony. In turn, this has forced the cartels to seek out both alternative revenue streams and new alliances.
Cartels have been forced to realign themselves -- for example, Zetas rival the Sinaloa Cartel appears to have struck up a tenuous alliance with the Zetas' former bosses in the Gulf Cartel. New alliances have also been reported between the old cartels and the newer criminal groups, with agents from the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) allegedly meeting with Knights Templar contacts this past January.
Developing collaborative relationships with gangs on the US side of the border is the logical next step in this process, and the states bordering Mexico, which are key entry points for drugs shipped north, are a good place to start. According to a 2011 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report (pdf), the Sinaloa Cartel maintains business ties with gangs based in the border states of California, Arizona and Texas. California's major cities, in particular, have become important transit points for methamphetamine and heroin -- an estimated 70 percent of foreign-produced methamphetamines consumed in the US is first trafficked through San Diego. It is also a rising marijuana production center for Mexico's cartels and a money laundering hotspot, reported the OAG.
Both reports emphasize the fluidity of these relationships and the key role that mutual business interests play. However, there is also one case in Texas that shows just how deep these ties have the potential to go: Barrio Azteca. This gang was born in the Texas prison system, but later expanded across the border into Mexico and developed a relationship with the Juarez Cartel, providing manpower for the group's armed wing "La Linea" as the group fought the Sinaloa Cartel for control of Juarez. The gang has since grown to control local drug distribution in its own right.
While Barrio Azteca is the most extreme case, it is not the only gang that appears to show loyalty to a specific cartel. Another example is the Sureños, or Sureño 13, a gang confederation loosely affiliated to the Mexican Mafia that originated in California and whose expansion in Texas was partly facilitated by the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the DPS (see DPS map of Sureños presence in Texas below). This Mexican drug federation turned to the gang for support in El Paso after seizing control of the Juarez drug route, largely because the gang was "already a longstanding client and a trusted ally."
These relationships will likely continue to deepen, evolve and grow as Mexican TCOs expand operations further into the US and tap into new markets. In the latest National Drug Threat Assessment report (pdf), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) noted increased heroin and methamphetamine consumption in the US, thought to be driven by Mexican suppliers, and the presence of Mexican heroin in the eastern coast and Midwest markets (areas historically dominated by Colombian product). The Sinaloa Cartel, particularly, has established itself in the Chicago heroin market, which is an important transit point for drugs distributed to the rest of the United States.
It is not just Mexico's biggest transnational organizations that are following this model and it appears even the smaller, more territorially based Mexican groups are trying to cash in on the trade and seeking out the help of US gangs. The Texas report cites a June 2013 operation in which 37 members of Tango Blast and the Mexican Knights Templar criminal group were indicted on heroin, methamphetamine and money laundering charges.
The new cooperation paradigm in Mexico follows a similar trend to that seen with the fragmentation of Colombia's underworld: less powerful criminal organizations facing greater competition are seeking out new allies, and aligning themselves with criminals lower on the chain that can help carry out their dirty work and protect their drug interests.
After the paramilitary umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) officially disbanded, numerous elements from this and other drug trafficking groups formed what the Colombian government has labeled "BACRIM" (from bandas criminales – criminal bands). These third-generation drug traffickers no longer have the same reach or power over all links in the drug chain as their predecessors. Because of this, groups such as Colombia's current premier drug trafficking organization, the Urabeños, have relied on the assistance of so-called "oficinas de cobro" -- criminal debt collection offices -- and other smaller groups, including street gangs. These other groups also run their own independent operations, and the alliances are far from sacred: they constantly shift and evolve based on business interests.
As Mexico's major capos get picked off and the cartels are weakened by security force initiatives and infighting, its organized crime landscape is increasingly looking like Colombia's. The growing, fluid relationships with US-based gangs are just one sign of this and along with the diversification of cash sources and drug routes, likely represent the future of organized crime in the region.