The Juarez Cartel is responsible for smuggling tons of narcotics from Mexico into the U.S. throughout its long and turbulent history, and the group’s intense rivalry with the Sinaloa Cartel helped turn Juarez into one of the most violent places in the world. Despite recent news reports about its decline, the Juarez Cartel remains one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico and the region. Small cells carry out different types of operations ranging from transportation and distribution of drugs; street gangs, mostly in the north, act as the enforcement wing and are involved in human trafficking and kidnapping operations.
The cartel maintains a firm foothold in Ciudad Juarez and the Valle de Juarez, which remains the key corridor for transporting illegal drugs into the United States. It still has some measure of control over the local and state police, as well as some politicians. It has turned to local gangs to be its enforcers, changing the dynamic in the area and increasing violent confrontation with its rivals. To push back its main rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, it has turned to its former rivals in the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Zetas. It has also sought more direct contact with the drug sources in Colombia, namely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The Juarez Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico. Since its beginnings, the cartel has focused on drug trafficking, but has expanded into other criminal activities such as human trafficking, kidnapping, local drug distribution and extortion. Based in the city of Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, northern Mexico, the Juarez Cartel is also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (VCFO), after its leader.
The origins of the Juarez Cartel go back to the 1980s, when the Ciudad Juarez area was under Rafael Aguilar Guajardo’s control. Aguilar Guajardo worked closely with the Guadalajara Cartel, and after the arrest of the cartel’s leader, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, he was granted control of Juarez. Amidst mysterious circumstances, Aguilar Guajardo was killed in Cancun in 1993. His lieutenant, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” quickly assumed control.
The organization grew exponentially under Carrillo Fuentes. More prone to negotiate than fight, Carrillo Fuentes reconstructed Felix Gallardo’s old network and more. Eventually, he controlled at least half of all Mexican trafficking and even extended his operations to Central America and into South America, including Chile and Argentina. Carrillo’s alias, “Lord of the Skies,” aptly described his method: using commercial and parcel traffic, the Juarez Cartel moved thousands of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico by air, then into the U.S. by land. Carrillo Fuentes furthered his reach by establishing his own distribution networks in the U.S. He died, abruptly, in 1997, while getting plastic surgery, leaving behind a well structured cartel but a void at the top.
Amado’s brothers, Vicente and Rodolfo, took over but a power struggle quickly ensued. After some infighting, the two brothers, and their nephew Vicente Carrillo Leyva, established a firm command. In 2002, they allied with Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” a former member of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police; Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo;” the Beltran Leyva brothers; and Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo.” Authorities called them the “Federation,” but the partnership would not last. After Rodolfo killed two of Guzman’s associates for not paying him to use the Juarez corridor, Guzman gathered his allies and told them simply that Rodolfo, alias “El Niño de Oro,” had to die. Faced with a choice, Guzman’s partners chose him. Rodolfo was killed with his wife as they walked out of a movie theatre in September 2004. Guzman’s brother, Arturo, was killed just a few months later. The war was on, and Mexico still has not recovered.
The Juarez Cartel has a large and longstanding transportation, storage and security operation throughout the country. It counts on its ability to co-opt local and state law enforcement, especially the judicial or ministerial police (detectives) and the municipal forces. It has long collected a tax for letting groups use its “plaza,” or drug trafficking corridor, and relied on alliances to operate nationwide. But the new modus operandi in the country, that of using small, more sophisticated armies to control swaths of territory, has made it hard for this group to compete. While its two main gangs, La Linea and the Aztecas, are formidable, they have had difficulty keeping pace with their competitors that work for the Sinaloa Cartel. La Linea, which does the street-level enforcement, has been particularly hard hit. Ciudad Juarez saw a decline in murders in 2011, with homicides dropping to a two-year low in May, which some attribute to the diminishing power of La Linea. The enforcement arm, like other failing drug traffickers, may have made an alliance with the Zetas. However, some analysts have suggested that it is the Juarez Cartel which is in decline and La Linea which is ascendant.
The Juarez Cartel has also created the Linces, a group made up by approximately 80 deserters from the Army’s Special Forces, who are in charge of protecting cartel members and transporting drugs. Drug trafficking is carried out by establishing two main fronts on both sides of the frontier. La Linea and the Linces control transport to the U.S.-Mexican border and the other gang, the Aztecas, manages the U.S. side, with operations in El Paso, Dallas and Austin. In Mexico, the cartel operates in nearly 21 states and its main areas of influence include Sinaloa, Durango, Jalisco, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Colima, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Puebla, Morelos and Mexico City.