Earlier in 2014, Mexican government officials met with certain representatives of the autodefense movement, and they conditionally agreed upon May 11, 2014 as the date when autodefensas would disarm themselves and willingly become institutionalized, at least to an extent, as State Rural Police. That date has come and gone and there has been limited disarmament for several reasons. A condition of the disarmament was the defeat of the Knights Templar. The cartel is destabilized, but not defeated. For autodefense groups locked in violent struggle against enemy cartels and one another, to disarm would be suicidal. Many of those autodefense groups are in fact proxies organized, supported, and even constituted by cartels for the purpose of threatening their criminal rivals, as well as the Mexican government, should it interfere with the interests of the patron cartel. Their intended purpose is to kill and intimidate, not to disarm.
Authorities have diverted attention from the lack of disarmament by distributing Rural Police uniforms and announcements that Rural Police members will each have a small amount of ammunition (45 rounds) with which to fight the Knights Templar. In reality, most of the autodefensas’ military grade weapons have never been handed over to authorities and their ammunition supplies are unaffected by transitioning into the Rural Police. Nonetheless, differences in cartel affiliations between autodefense groups are becoming more evident to the public, based upon which ones have become Rural Police (apparently supported by the Knights Templar, H3, Viagras, and other Templar allies) and which have not (apparently supported by the Jalisco Cartel and other enemies of the Knights Templar).
The Autodefense movement: A compelling phenomenon with fleeting legitimacy
The autodefense moment’s publicly perceived legitimacy has not completely extinguished, but its days are numbered. Autodefense groups have, on occasion, engaged in violent clashes with government and state authorities they claim were acting on behalf of the Knights Templar. Nonetheless, those incidents have resulted in Mexican authorities’ prioritization of disarming the autodefensas over repressing the cartels they claim to oppose. Mexico’s government has wisely opted not to crush the autodefense movement violently. To do so would incur the wrath of Mexico’s public, which sympathizes with the cultural significance of communal autodefense, as well as those groups’ deceptively stated intentions of purifying Michoacan and other regions of the Knights Templar. Much of Mexico’s public remains unaware or unconvinced that several autodefense groups are proxies of rival cartels that desire the territory of the Knights Templar, including the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), La Familia Michoacana, and others. The Knights Templar also appears to wield a number of autodefense groups. Due in part to strategic communications accusing autodefensas of criminal activities, the perception of autodefensas as sincere community guardians is eroding. A shift in public relations will be necessary to renew public sympathy, or the autodefensas risk becoming perceived as a cause of Mexico’s problems, rather than merely a reaction to those problems.
The significance of how Mexico’s public perceives the Autodefense movement
Should the public turn against the autodefensas, Mexican authorities would have less disincentive against repressing them by force, violently if necessary. Autodefense groups have destabilized the Knights Templar within their home territory of Michoacan, and such repression would benefit that cartel considerably in its effort to re-assert its dominance within that region.
Distinguishing “Autodefensas” from “Rural Police” will distinguish the legitimacy of some groups above others.
Not all autodefense groups are aligned. Their interrelations have becoming increasingly violent. It is unlikely they all will enjoy the same degree of public support beyond the near future.
Those which become sworn as Rural Police will bide themselves time against federal repression, and time against the inevitable public realization that those groups have been operating at the behest of cartels for the interests of those organizations, and not the interests of Mexico’s public.
Distinctions in cartel affiliation will become more understandable to the public in terms of the personas of those autodefense groups’ most recognizable leaders
The increased recognition of certain autodefense group leaders public personas will facilitate the Mexican public’s understanding of differences between those groups in terms of their actual cartel patronage. Within Michoacan, the primary warring parties are the Knights Templar and the Jalisco Cartel. Accordingly, two primary networks of leaders have emerged based upon their accusations against one another with regard to respective cartel affiliation, geographic reference, and behavioral patterns toward authorities.
The autodefense groups accused by enemies of being associated with the Jalisco Cartel are based primarily in coastal regions of Michoacan. Their most recognized leadership figures include Dr. José Manuel Mireles, Gabriel Caballero Farias (aka “El Plátano”), and Hipolito Mora (imprisoned since March 2014). They have stated reluctance to disarm, and have accused authorities of protecting the Knights Templar. Their groups have clashed violently with authorities, and they have not yet affiliated with the Rural Police.
The groups accused by enemies of being associated with the Knights Templar or allied cartels are based further inland, in the Tierra Caliente region. Their most recognized leaders include Estanislao Beltrán (aka “Papa Pitufo”, or “Papa Smurf”), Alberto Gutiérrez (aka “Comandante 5”), and Luis Antonio Torres (aka “El Americano”). They appear to have a less antagonistic relationship with Mexican authorities, and are affiliating with the Rural Police. (Side note: Smurf is local slang for ‘police officer’)
The Information Operations advantage is shifting away from the Jalisco Cartel in favor of the Knights Templar
The Jalisco Cartel is known for its pioneering approaches to propaganda. It is the group responsible for the 2012 Matazeta campaign in Veracruz, where they dumped dozens of corpses (alleged Zetas) and disseminated videos portraying themselves as a vigilante organization. They have since honed this approach against the Knights Templar, but have become more effective at drawing upon locally recognized persons, as well as locally recognizable patterns of communal vigilance, in the eyes of Michoacan residents.
Autodefense groups that have struggled exclusively against the Knights Templar captured the public imagination also because of their interesting leadership figures. Most notable in this regard was Dr. Mireles, a well-spoken and highly educated man who looks like a hero out of the Mexican cinema. However, he has since made some poor decisions, including a propensity for confrontational speech toward Mexican authorities. More recently, a photograph disseminated in which he assisted propping up a corpse to be photographed. This unfortunate decision granted enemies an opportunity to portray him as a cartel operative, calling the image a “trophy photo” akin to the type of publicized victimization of enemies that Mexico has come to expect from any of its cartels. Mireles has since dismissed the accusation as being based upon a photo taken out of context, and that he was merely assisting the photographer, but the perception of him as a sincere public servant is steadily eroding.
Hipolito Mora, another high profile autodefense leader allied with Mireles, was arrested in March 2014 and is currently imprisoned for double homicide. This also considerably tarnished the image of the anti-Templar autodefense movement.
Papa Smurf, El Americano, and Comandante 5, have previously been denounced by Mireles and his supporters as criminals, but they have found a new (temporary) boost in public credibility by affiliating with the Rural Police. As Mireles’ supporters clash with them and the battles leave corpses in uniforms, public perception will continue to evolve against Mireles, Caballero Farias, and other leaders allied with them.
Dr. Mireles, Gabriel Caballero, and their allies will need to navigate the possibility of being sacrificed as martyrs or scapegoats to protect the CJNG’s ongoing offensive against the Knights Templar
Should public opinion turn against Mireles, Caballero Farias, and allied leaders, it would be easier for the CJNG to sacrifice these individuals and appoint new spokespersons rather than to re-constitute new autodefense groups to fight the Templars. The potential PR value of these spokespersons’ arrests or deaths could be calculated as outweighing their actual value to the autodefensas’ movement against the Knights Templar. The CJNG has observed how the arrest of Hipolito Mora has decreased public support for the autodefense movement, and will seek to avoid repeating similar public relations setbacks by acting to prevent the capture and conviction of Mireles, Caballero Farias, and remaining autodefense leaders fighting the Knights Templar. If the CJNG does decide to abandon its support of those figures, it would more likely come about through death, since coerced public statements against the autodefense movement or the CJNG could prove very problematic for their ability to retain public favor in the struggle against the Knights Templar, and a martyr figure could be fashioned out of the valorized persona of Dr. Mireles.
On April 27, 2014, these images were circulated through drug war social media. The narcomessage appearing with the body reads as follows:
ESTE ES EL MAL DE LA CIUDADANIA Y DEL
GOBIERNO Y ES UNA PRUEBA MAS QUE
EL CARTEL DEL GOLFO NO COMPARTE NI
PERMITE LAS EXTORSIONES, SECUESTROS,
MOLESTAR A LA CIUDADANIA NI PELEAR CON EL GOBERNO.
ESTA PERSONA ES EL LLAMADO
ERICK O EL MONO
EL QUE ESTABA CAUSANDO EL MAL.
EL CARTEL DEL GOLFO ESTA PARA
PROTEGER A LA POBLACION Y ACABAR CON
TODOS LOS SECUESTRO,EXTORSIONES,
ROBOS,ASESINATOS DE GENTES INOCENTES.
AQUI DENTRO DEL CARTEL
NO CABEN LOS PASADOS DE VERGAS.
AQUI DENTRO DEL CARTEL DEL GOLFO
GENTE DEL COMANDANTE METRO 3 Y METRO 4
ATTE.: LOS METROS
The following translation was offered by Borderlandbeat.com :
This is what was causing harm to the people and
the government and it is further proof that the CDG
doesn’t allow extortion, kidnappings, and harming the population
or fighting against the government.
This person’s name is Erick or El Mono. [note: “the monkey”]
He was the one causing trouble.
The Gulf Cartel is here to protect the population and finish off
all the kidnappings, extortion, robberies, and
killing of innocent people.
P.O.S like these have no place in this cartel.
People of Comanadante Metro 3 and Metro 4
Atte: Los Metros
Contextualizing the message
Factors relevant to interpreting the propaganda value of this message include, but are not limited to:
The territorial dispute between the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo, henceforth “CDG”) and Los Zetas,
the recurrent pattern of infighting within the CDG,
its historical associations with kidnapping and extortion,
and organizational challenges facing CDG leadership.
Throughout April, 2014, rival factions within the CDG have been fighting against one another over a leadership succession dispute.
Such infighting draws upon various methods, ranging from direct violence to intelligence on rivals provided to police, military, or other enemies. Authorities have used such information to locate and rescue at least 179 individuals who appear to have been kidnapped and held for purposes of extortion (i.e., ransom collection) by members of the Gulf Cartel.
Notably, this message was signed by one particular faction of the CDG – Los Metros. This raises the question of whether they were purifying their own ranks of an extortionist, purifying a rival faction, or killing someone from a rival faction and deceptively framing it as punishment for extortion. In any case, framing the death as punishment for kidnapping and extortion is obviously intended to gain popularity with Mexico’s public, which is disgusted with the CDG for its historical association with those crimes within Mexico.
Popular association of the CDG with kidnapping and extortion
Kidnapping and extortion has become recognized as a low risk venture, particularly when the kidnapped party is not returned alive. That tragic conclusion is the norm rather than the exception in Mexico. Kidnappers and extortionists are now among the most detested of criminal types in the eyes of Mexico’s populace. Many of Mexico’s cartels (perhaps all of them) are, or have been, involved with kidnapping and extortion due to its potential for easily and rapidly generating large amounts of money. Not all cartels are equally recognized in the public’s eyes as being associated with those crimes. The CDG, however, is infamous for its history of kidnapping and extorting illegal Central American migrants and Mexican citizens across the economic spectrum. Public outrage toward the CDG has recurrently prompted authorities to focus repressive efforts against that organization. The recent discovery of those kidnapped victims (many of whom were migrants) precipitated Mexican authorities announcing a list of cartel leaders (from the CDG and its rival, Los Zetas) prioritized for capture. All factions of the CDG are now endangered by this repression, and have an interest in satiating the public’s outrage to make it go away.
The CDG correctly recognizes it is endangered by public perception of being associated with kidnapping and extortion, and is wise to attempt to alter that image. While this narcomessage strikes several of the right notes required for that strategy, it will be quite difficult to break its association with those crimes…. Even if that were genuinely desired by CDG leadership.
Organizational Constraints that would make it difficult for CDG leadership to prevent kidnapping and extortion by its own operatives
The sheer size and fluid nature of cartel organizational structure makes it practically impossible for upper CDG leadership to continually monitor all subordinates for possible extortion activities. The compartmentalization of sub-groups around specific purposes and multiple layers of authority do isolate leaders from certain dangerous aspects of their business, but also would make it difficult for them to enforce a moratorium on those crimes.
Additionally, public perception of who is “in” the CDG isn’t always straightforward. This is partly because the CDG (like other cartels) contracts some work to common street thugs and other independent criminals who – unbeknownst to the cartel – may be kidnapping and extorting on their own initiative in addition to acting on the cartel’s behalf.
Territorial dispute with Los Zetas
Most CDG territory (in Northeastern Mexico) is disputed with Los Zetas, which also has been known to kidnap and extort. This can make it more challenging for CDG leadership to determine who is responsible for a kidnapping within their own territory.
The CDG will remain imperiled by its association with kidnapping and extortion for the foreseeable future
The CDG has a real problem in its publically perceived connection with kidnapping and extortion. The above images and narcomessage, in which the CDG claims to protect Mexico’s public by punishing an extortionist within its own ranks, is strategically sound in principle. However, a great deal of sustained effort to actually prevent its operatives from committing those crimes must be achieved – and sustained for a prolonged period of time – before messages such as this will be credible in the eyes of Mexico’s public. Without actual changes in the organization’s relationship to kidnapping and extortion, and unless recognition of such changes become widespread among the public, propaganda like this will simply erode what credibility the CDG retains beyond its ability to terrorize its enemies and the public. Certain facts of cartel organization, its reliance on external operatives, and the territorial dispute with Los Zetas will make it unlikely kidnappings and extortions in will stop in the foreseeable future within CDG territory, and should it attempt to do so, very difficult for the CDG to break its perceived connection with those stigmatized crimes.
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.
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
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.