The arrest of an alleged leader of the Gulf Cartel is being hailed by Mexican officials as a major victory in the drug war, but critics are not sure the strategy of targeting kingpins is an effective way to reduce violence.
Jorge Eduardo Costilla "El Coss" Sanchez, 41, a reported leader of the Gulf Cartel, was arrested in Tamaulipas state, a spokesman for Mexico’s elite navy commandos announced on Thursday. Nine dead bodies displaying signs of torture were found dangling from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo in the same state on Friday.
The US state department had been offering a bounty of $5m for information leading to his arrest and he was on the Mexican government’s list of the 37 most wanted drug lords.
More than 20 of the men on that list have been killed or captured since 2009, and the Mexican government says this proves they are making strides in the so-called war on drugs. Critics, however, believe the security situation has deteriorated despite high-profile arrests.
"Capturing a person who is easily replaceable won’t mean anything in terms of reducing the scale of violence,” Edgardo Buscaglia, president of the Institute of Citizen Action and a researcher at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera of the recent arrest.
Once a dominant player in the bloody ballet of gang-land rivalries, the Gulf Cartel, operating primarily on Mexico’s northeastern coast, has been on the decline in the past few years. A navy press release, however, called the Gulf Cartel "the second most powerful criminal organisation in the country".
A main reason for the relative decline of the Gulf Cartel has been the rise of the Zetas - Mexico's most violent gang formed by former special forces officers trained in the US. Known for massacring Central American migrants, extorting small business owners, torturing their opponents and using sadistic violence, the Zetas are feared throughout Mexico.
Arturo Guzmán Decena, known as Z-1, founded the Zetas gang which initially provided security to the Gulf Cartel, before becoming a cartel in its own right and attacking the former employers.
"The Zetas have been trying to get rid of the Gulf Cartel for a while," Sylvia Longmire, a drug war expert and former special agent with the the US Air Force, told Al Jazeera. "The violence [to control territory occupied by the Gulf Cartel] is going to continue and there is a good chance it will increase because of the unrest."
Mario "Fatso" Cardenas Guillen, the brother of former Gulf Cartel head Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was also arrested last week. The next leader of the Gulf Cartel could be a woman, possibly a sister of former boss Osiel Cardenas Guillen, unnamed security officials in Mexico City told La Jornada newspaper.
In addition to arrests at the top of the Gulf Cartel hierarchy, both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are now reportedly facing splits within their ranks. This could could further inflame the situation in Tamaulipas, one of Mexico’s most violent states - in a conflict which has claimed more than 55,000 lives since December 2006
"We don’t trust the achievements of this war," Marta, a resident of Tamaulipas who declined to give her real name for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview after the arrest. "In my opinion this war has been a huge failure and we have suffered the consequences."
A new plan?
The outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderon from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) made capturing cartel leaders and seizing drug shipments key components of Mexico's counter-narcotics strategy. It is unclear what tactics the incoming government led by Enrique Pena Nieto from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will employ, although, like most Mexicans, the president-elect has criticised Calderon’s policies.
"The strategy needs to be changed," Jorge Carrasco, a journalist specialising in security issues with the Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, told Al Jazeera. "Decapitating the heads of the drug cartels just leads to a new leadership. The phenomenon is not resolved."
When leaders of cartels are arrested, or one cartel is driven out of a particular area, others will fill the void, critics say, because someone will step in to fulfill the laws of supply and demand.
A cartel called La Famila, for example, once dominated Michoacan state, but they have "disappeared", Carrasco said.
"But the violence there is still high," he added, in a common critique of state strategy to fracture gangs, without effectively handling underlying causes of the trade - including US demand, Mexican poverty and institutional corruption.
Nieto has pledged to continue the war on drugs, but behind closed doors many analysts believe he will try and negotiate a deal with one or two large cartels - likely the Sinaloa Federation - to try and reduce the violence faced by average citizens.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Federation and Mexico's most wanted trafficker, is a "shrewd businessman with a rational mind", Longmire said. His group operates "like an old school mafia", she said, unlike the Zetas, who are "psychos running around the country killing people".
While Nieto will not be able to announce a strategy of eliminating the Zetas, allowing the Sinaloa Federation to assert more order to the drug trade, that does not mean he is incapable of making a deal, Longmire said.
"Governments, including in the US, have enacted secret strategies that the public has not been aware for various national security reasons in order to accomplish greater goals," said Longmire, who wrote the book Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars. "Putting the Sinaloa cartel in charge and going after the baddest guys [the Zetas] would be the best way for reducing violence at the local and national level."
The Gulf Cartel has reportedly aligned themselves with the Sinaloa Federation to battle the Zetas, in Tamaulipas and beyond.
Now that he is in custody, “El Coss” will likely be extradited to the US, since other major drug lords - including the Sinaloa Federation’s “El Chapo” Guzman - have escaped from Mexican jails.
Some experts speculate the former Gulf Cartel boss' court testimony could be damaging to powerful interests in Tamaulipas and elsewhere. Tomas Yarrington, the state’s governor between 1999 and 2005, is wanted in Mexico for aiding drug gangs. And other politicians and security officials are suspected of being on the cartels' payroll.
Despite concerns about official corruption in security forces south of the Rio Grande, US officials generally speak favorably of Mexican navy commandos who arrested “El Coss”.
"If the goal is reducing violence or trafficking, then getting rid of a kingpin makes no difference at all"
- Sylvia Longmire, security analyst
The navy squad is "is well-trained, well-equipped, and has shown itself capable of responding quickly to actionable intelligence", according to a 2010 WikiLeaks cable.
Unlike the initial members of the Zetas, who also had advanced training, there have not been published reports of navy commandos defecting to join the cartels, Longmire said.
But even with effective security forces who can make headlines with high-level arrests, "the drug activity doesn't change very much".
She continued: "It's just about who is collecting the dollars and controlling the territory. If the goal is reducing violence or trafficking, then getting rid of a kingpin makes no difference all."