This article was written by Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo and originally published on Grey Dynamics.

Starting life as the armed wing of the Cartel de Sinaloa, the CJNG formally separated from its parent organization and has exponentially evolved to be one of the major organized crime players in Mexico. Despite early success, the group is facing rival organizations, splinter groups, and the Mexican and U.S. government:

  • It is likely that the CJNG has deterred governmental efforts to tackle organized crime. A lack of governmental aid combined with humanitarian efforts by the CJNG has likely increased the social roots and legitimacy of the group amongst communities.
  • The targeting high-government officials will likely increase. The pandemic has limited the governmental capability to counter organized crime, and the CJNG has an opportunity to signal intentions and expand with a reduced risk of resistance.
  • Violent clashes between the CJNG and local organized crime groups will highly likely increase. A damaged criminal economy will push groups to compete for territory and sources of revenue which are controlled in their majority by the CJNG or the Sinaloa Cartel.

Why Is This Important?

The arrival in office of AMLO in December 2018 promised a crackdown on organized crime and the pandemic of violence that Mexico suffers from. In 2019 there were 34,582 murders, a 2.5 percent increase from 2018. Just in March 2020 alone, there were 2,585 homicides, the highest homicide rate since AMLO took the presidency.

In 2019, the DEA declared the CJNG as the largest crime organization in Mexico. In June 2020 the DEA and Mexican Intelligence announced the seizure of money-laundering companies belonging to the CJNG worth $600 million. On June 17th, the CJNG murdered a judge who was responsible for the extradition and arrest of the son of the head of CJNG, “El Mencho.” On the 22nd of June, the police chief in the capital Mexico City was also targeted; the attempt failed by there were three casualties. With homicide rates rising for the past two years, a recent increase in violence signals the capability of adaptation to the pandemic by the CJNG. COVID-19 has challenged criminal economies as well as governmental efforts to curb organized crime.

Tactics, Techniques & Procedures

Based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the group uses violent and rapid attacks to achieve its objectives. The CJNG attacks its targets with high-speed vehicles, making surprise and speed essential for its success. On the 22nd of June attack against the Mexico City police chief, three vehicles were used to assault the target’s convoy. Members of the CJNG were armed with assault rifles, Molotov cocktails, grenades, and a .50 caliber sniper rifle.

Another 26 people were murdered at a rehabilitation clinic in Guanajuato on July 1st. This last attack is allegedly due to the conflict with the Cartel Santa Rosa de Lima (CSRL) over the oil-theft industry in the region. On the 18th of July, the CJNG announced through social media its control over Guanajuato, threatening the CSRL and “El Marro” to abandon the territory. Attacks are common against rival organizations like the CSRL or the Familia Michoacana (FAM) to seize their territory.

Still, recent attacks against high-value targets also display the willingness of the group to maintain pressure on the government. In 2019, 12 policemen were killed in Michoacán with the signature of the CJNG left on the scene as a way to draw a boundary between government presence and illicit activities.

The CJNG acquires weapons in black markets or illegally through the United States with little difficulty. Recently, militants of the CJNG showed off new assault rifles in a video uploaded to Twitter. Additionally, a video uploaded to Twitter on the 17th of July shows over 75 soldiers armed with assault rifles and having specialized armored vehicles. This was likely a display of force as a way to threaten governmental presence in CJNG controlled areas.

China is the primary supplier of fentanyl and related chemical precursors, arriving in ports like Manzanillo or Lazaro Cardenas which are under the control of the CJNG. Smaller organizations are employed to transport the opioids to key cities like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez near the U.S. border. In these cities, the group has established alliances like in Tijuana with the Cartel de Tijuana Nuevas Generaciones (CTNG) to reduce the power and market share that the Sinaloa cartel holds over drug trafficking into the U.S. Heroin is often cut with fentanyl due to the cheaper production process of the latter, generating a similar income with a reduced cost of production and transportation.

Although the group does traffic pure fentanyl, its strength compared to heroin has led to a spike in overdoses across users in the United States, likely pushing the group to cut the synthetic opioid with other substances. At the beginning of June, Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) blocked almost 2,000 bank accounts related to legitimate businesses created to launder money from drug-trafficking. The structure created by the CJNG acts as a legal cover for illicit activities, suggesting the likely possibility that the group has further organizations and schemes to launder money.

The social dynamics of the CJNG revolve around the concept of extortion, pressure, and aid. An article in Grey Dynamics analyzed the training methods and recruitment capabilities of the group. These consist of luring in recruits to training camps. There they are conditioned to become soldiers and hitmen for the cartel and learn to adapt to physical and psychological stress, like removing the evidence of a murdered trainee who failed to operate a small firearm. The group offers a significant amount of money to recruits. Some are enrolled in the training camps against their will.

Extortion is a common tactic of the group, as farmers are often pressured to pay a significant fee in order to operate their business safely. Recent tactics observed during the COVID-19 quarantine show the group providing aid in Veracruz, Colima, and Jalisco to rural communities affected by the pandemic. The CJNG offers opportunities and services to the rural communities, expecting collaboration from citizens as a means to whitewash its image. This way the CJNG appears as an alternative to a government that has often ignored them. Thus, the criminal organization’s legitimacy is solidified.

Social Legitimacy

The fragmentation of Mexico’s organized crime landscape left groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG as the last remaining large hierarchical organizations. Government efforts of militarising a response against organized crime with the creation of the 90,000 strong National Guard will likely make the CJNG increasingly accepted in Mexican communities, particularly rural ones. The lack of action taken by AMLO in regard to coronavirus has led communities to be abandoned and with the lockdown measures in place, the cost of living sharply rises.

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Aid provided by the CJNG during the pandemic is seen amongst Mexican rural communities as a replacement for government rather than a message of extortion or social control. Military efforts taken by AMLO will likely be increasingly rejected by local communities which will likely accept the CJNG as informal governors rather than bandits and gang members. With its social roots strengthened, the group is likely to solidify its presence in communities where it holds strongholds like Jalisco, Colima, or Veracruz. This will force AMLO to take a social instead of a military approach against the CJNG.

Militarization and Signalling

The CJNG is facing its own splinter group called the Nueva Plaza Cartel. It also has to face the Sinaloa Cartel across the country and the Familia Michoacana in Tierra Caliente. This opposition is unlikely to challenge the growth of the CJNG. The pandemic has challenged criminal economies and halted imports of fentanyl, as well as increased the risk of cross-border trafficking into the United States. The Mexican government is also weakened by the pandemic, as the national guard and law enforcement are focused on quarantine measures rather than organized crime.

A recent spike in high-value target attacks highlights the increased likelihood that the CJNG will keep targeting government officials. After the seizure of assets worth $600 million belonging to the CJNG, the group murdered a judge and his wife in Colima and attempted to murder the Mexico City police chief. An anonymous official in Tierra Caliente says that the pandemic has reduced the capacity of the Mexican government to tackle organized crime in a significant manner.

The CJNG enjoys the advantage provided by its bigger structure which has not been as affected by the pandemic as other rival organizations or the Mexican government itself have. In turn, the CJNG has an opportunity to signal its presence and violently expand into new areas like Mexico City with reduced consequences.