Drug-cartel wars pushing migrants to U.S.-Mexico border

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Jalisco cartel moving into towns where highways branch northward toward the United States, analyst says

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— A drug cartel’s war for control of Mexican highways leading to the United States is having an impact on border communities.

More than 100 people ⁠— most of them young couples with small children ⁠— have spent more than a week waiting on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte port of entry to apply for asylum in the U.S. The families have drawn shocked looks from international commuters, as they have been sitting and sleeping on a Juarez side street that leads to the international bridge. They have also provoked the mobilization of Red Cross and church-based volunteers who were out in force this weekend, providing food, water and supplies such as diapers and blankets, and trying to persuade the families to go to shelters as the region experienced rainstorms.

Families from towns in Zacatecas and Michoacan camp on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte Bridge waiting for a chance to apply for U.S. asylum. The families were displaced from their towns by drug traffickers. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Families interviewed by Border Report said they left towns like Sombrerete, Rio Grande and Juan Aldama in the state of Zacatecas after receiving threats, extortion attempts or having friends and relatives assaulted or killed by drug traffickers. Others are coming from rural towns in Michoacan, Guerrero or Jalisco, sharing similar stories.

The abovementioned cities in Zacatecas are located along highways that either lead north to Juarez, west to the Mexican Pacific Coast and eventually border cities like Tijuana or Mexicali or to the northeast of Mexico, where border crossings like Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa or Matamoros are located.

“The geography of Zacatecas is a natural crossroads for stuff that’s been coming out toward the northern border for a long time, especially through Monterrey,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratford Global Intelligence, an Austin, Texas-based private security group that tracks drug-trafficking activity in Mexico.

According to Stratfor, one Mexican drug cartel has been especially active this year in fighting for control of West-Central Mexico (the states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Guerrero) and control of places like Zacatecas and Guanajuato, whose networks of highways facilitate the movement of drugs to the U.S. border.

The drug violence in Mexico has intensified this year to the point that the number of murders are rising to levels not seen since the drug cartel wars of 2006-2010, Stewart said.

And the analyst says he fears the violence is about to intensify.

What’s going on in West-Central Mexico?

The eyes of the world turn when drug massacres are reported in border cities like Juarez and Tijuana, because of their proximity to the U.S. border. However, an equally violent war has been raging in the Mexican countryside and mountains in the past year that hasn’t received as much press, according to analysts.

“Michoacan has been a site of conflict for quite a while between Cartel Jalisco New Generation and some of the splinter groups of Familia Michoacana and Knights Templar. The remnants of those groups are still moving about, as are smaller groups like Los Viagras,” Stewart said.

Earlier this summer, Border Report interviewed a school teacher from Michoacan who was kidnapped at a bus station near Guadalajara by the Cartel Jalisco New Generation in an attempt to pass him and others off as captured members of La Familia Michoacana, as part of a prisoner exchange.

In addition, the Cartel Jalisco New Generation is trying to avoid and internal split, which explains some of the recent brutal violence in Mexico, a country that, according to Stewart, is on pace to achieve levels of violence of the last major cartel war.

Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) has also been linked to the uptick in murders in Juarez, which stand at around 1,100 for the year. “We’ve had a pretty constant fight between forces loyal to Sinaloa, the Gente Nueva group, which is going up against La Linea — the remnant of the Carrillo Fuentes organization or old Juarez Cartel,” Stewart said.

The fact that there is no dominant drug cartel in Mexico right now — a situation described as the “Balkanization” of the country — has led to out-of-control regional fighting. “La Linea is still very strong in Chihuahua (state) with its local gang groups both in Juarez and in the mountains of Chihuahua, where there is a lot of fighting between La Linea forces and the Sinaloa forces like Gente Nueva,” Stewart said.

This summer, four police officers near the mountain town of Madera, Chihuahua were murdered. Last week, the state Attorney General announced a “swap” of police commanders in the area to ensure accountability.

A few migrants from Guerrero state have also been coming to Juarez recently, according to officials from the Migrant Assistance Center in Juarez. In Guerrero, “some of the same actors are involved, as well as others, in fighting for control of mountain areas where they grow opium poppies,” Stewart said. “There are dozens of groups in Guerrero fighting now, including the auto defensas, which from my perspective are very difficult to separate from other organized criminal groups.”

The auto defensas, or self-defense groups, captured the imagination of international news media a few years ago, as they started as groups of armed citizens coming together to defend their towns from drug traffickers. “La Familia Michoacana actually started as an auto defensa. But the line now is very blurry between criminal groups and what the auto defensas are,” said Stewart of Stratford Global Intelligence.

The drug war this year has expanded beyond the mountains and border cities to the countryside, particularly towns on major Mexican highways.

“Zacatecas has an extensive road network to the northeast of Mexico. For many years, the Zetas (cartel) have been certainly strong in those regions. Right now what we’re seeing is the (Cartel Jalisco New Generation) trying to assert control of those routes,” Stewart said.

Human smuggling and gasoline theft

U.S. officials have spent the better part of the summer stressing that drug cartels and other criminal organizations encouraged and profited from the Central American migrant surge that tied up resources from agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection and led to claims by advocates of overcrowding, neglect and mistreatment at American detention facilities.

The Mexican drug cartels are not only into human smuggling but into other low-risk, high-profit activities, such as gasoline theft or huachicoleo. “In places like Guanajuato, they’re not only trying to assert control of the drug routes, but also the gasoline theft. There, CJNG is an aggressor almost across the board,” Stewart said.

For a full picture of the drug cartel situation in Mexico, visit Worldview.Stratfor.com.

Drug gangs form new alliances

Because of this “Balkanization” or regional breakup of the drug trade in Mexico, criminal groups are now allying with rivals on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve seen them (the Jalisco cartel) allied with the remnants of the Arellano Felix organization in Tijuana against the Sinaloa cartel, which itself has moved into Tijuana with local partners,” he said.

The bottom line, according to Stewart, is that “this year we’re probably going to see another record year for murders in Mexico — and those are just the murders (authorities) are able to record. A lot of people just disappear and are never heard from again.”

Which is the fear expressed by several refugees from West-Central Mexico interviewed by Border Report this week on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte Bridge to El Paso.

“Families feel compelled to leave their homes. Quite frankly, if I was a family with kids in those areas, I would be scared,” Stewart said.

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