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Strengths and Vulnerabilities of the Gulf Cartel

The Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo, or CDG) has certain factors in its favor. It is situated within Tamaulipas, a strategically important region in northeastern Mexico that borders the Gulf of Mexico (allowing for maritime commerce) as well as Texas (and by extension, the US). It is extremely aggressive in protecting and expanding its territory. It is extremely ruthless. Through its mastery of ultra-violence and other terror methods, the CDG is effective at intimidating its enemies, state authorities, and the Mexican populace. It is effective at corrupting authorities to preserve its impunity. For better or worse, the CDG has not been greatly deterred by the threat of repression by Mexican or US federal agencies. The CDG is ferocious even against more powerful enemies, such as the Zetas, a rival cartel and the CDG’s greatest threat within Tamaulipas. In fact, the CDG is responsible for the initial formation of the Zetas, and its culture remains more pioneering than some observers realize. In comparison with certain other cartels, the CDG has been known to value initiative more than caution. Considering the comparative strength of the Zetas, the CDG’s ability to sustain esprit de corps has been remarkable. The CDG also experimented with several psychological warfare strategies that were subsequently adopted by other Mexican cartels, including the Zetas. Strengths such as these have allowed the CDG to prove its merit as a survivor, with organizational precursors that can be traced back to cross-border smuggling networks that emerged during the era of alcohol prohibition in the US.

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The CDG also has vulnerabilities. A matter of pressing concern is the pattern of infighting that has recurred since 2010 between the Metros (a CDG faction based in the city of Matamoros) and the Rojos (a CDG faction based in the city of Reynosa). Certain lingering animosities complicate relations between these groups. Some in the Rojos have felt slighted for promotions that were given to others in the Metros power structure. This has been compounded by sentiments among the Rojos that they have done more than their fair share of fighting the Zetas, whose strongholds are closer to Reynosa than to Matamoros. For their part, the Metros have resented the development of a parallel power structure mentality among the Rojos and seek to discourage it rather than replicate a situation similar to the schism between the CDG and the Zetas, which was permitted to maintain a parallel power structure distinctive from the pre-existing CDG leadership. Some among the Metros suspect that social networks of the Zetas are more closely intertwined with networks of the Rojos than the Metros. This leads some Metros to view the Rojos with suspicion, a sentiment that Rojos find quite insulting.

Clashes between the Rojos and Metros have been extremely brutal, and have incorporated terror methods such as public displays of each other’s mutilated operatives. While these methods obviously express a high level of resolve to assert authority over the rival faction, they also have contributed to bitterness, distrust, and other negative feelings that have adversely affected their relations during peaceful periods. This pretense has contributed to the animosity that has characterized several violent clashes between the Metros and Rojos since 2010, most of which appear to have been triggered by disputes over CDG leadership succession.


Current CDG infighting again linked to disputed leadership succession

Homero Cardenas Guillen, leader of the CDG, was reported to have died from a heart attack during the weekend of March 29, 2014. A period of vicious infighting between the Metros and the Rojos ensued soon afterwards, with accusations of murder, betrayal, and insubordination exchanged between CDG factions. With public narcomessages and videoed statements circulating through social media, rival CDG factions have effectively notified all of Mexico that they cannot agree on who their leader should be. This will bring additional violence toward the CDG because such infighting is interpreted by other cartels as an indicator of vulnerability.


CDG infighting presents the Zetas with an Information Operations opportunity

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The Zetas cartel, the most immanent threat facing the CDG in Tamaulipas, has recently announced its intention to prosecute a “war to the death” against the CDG. If they choose, the Zetas currently have an opportunity to publically present CDG victims in a manner as if they were in fact slain by the opposing CDG faction, thereby intensifying CDG infighting at its own expense. While the strategy is simple to comprehend in principle, certain aspects of the situation will make it difficult for the Metros and Rojos to avoid being manipulated against one another in this fashion.


The process of sorting out who is responsible for slain CDG operatives will not be straightforward for the Metros or Rojos

Several factors are contributing to this obscurity. One is the tremendous pretense of distrust between the Metros and Rojos that has been discussed. Both are aware of the possibility that the other faction could lure them into cooperation (or even a false sense of security) through the exaggerated appearance of an external Zeta threat. Although the Metros and Rojos have cooperated effectively against the Zetas in the past, neither faction wishes to lose its stake in the leadership succession through prematurely re-focusing upon their common enemy.

Should the Zetas covertly attack CDG operatives and attempt to frame it as the work of a rival CDG faction, the CDG will have few options of recourse other than to cease the infighting, or continue and fight the Zetas concurrently but independently.


CDG vulnerability to deceptively framed homicides is temporary but recurrent until it sorts its internal order

This vulnerability will be an ongoing problem for all in the CDG until its factions effectively address whatever internal problems continue to plague its leadership successions. Compare the relatively smooth leadership transition that occurred in the Zetas following the capture of Miguel Trevino (Z40), after which his brother Omar Trevino (Z42) succeeded with relatively little internal violence. Following the recent arrest of El Chapo Guzman, the Sinaloa Cartel’s leadership succession appears to have been successful, with power consolidating around Mayo Zambada. The CDG will apply lessons from those cartels to adjust its own internal order more effectively, or all its factions should expect that they will continue to be manipulated and dominated by rival cartels with superior internal stability.