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Mexican Cartel Adaptation and Innovation

Adaptation and innovation is a core component of successful organization competition among states and their militaries, businesses and corporations—and as argued here, organized crime groups—especially transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).  In order to gain supremacy organizations often introduce new technologies to foster this innovation, yet not all innovation is technological.  Indeed, non-state actors are often incubators of novel practices and non-technological innovation to further their goals and often to survive.  This brief assessment looks at non-technological innovation potentials among Mexican TCOs (criminal cartels and gangs).

Technological and Non-Technological Innovation

Technology often provides a decisive edge in organizational competition.  This is especially true among non-state actors where ethical and legal constraints don’t limit the adaption of new lethal and destructive technologies. This was historically seen in when anarchists, and later terrorists, embraced explosives after Nobel invented dynamite.  Yet, not all innovation is technological.  Some successful innovation involves innovative use of existing technology (such as deploying explosives as car bombs) or embracing ‘open-sourcewarfare using off-the-shelf technologies such as 3-D guns, consumer drones, or commercial imagery products and Internet communications technology (ICT) for Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), mission planning, and tactical command and control as seen in the 26-11 Mumbai Attacks. Perhaps, the most powerful—and less easier to anticipate or detect—is the adoption of novel or innovative non-technological innovation(s).

Non-technological innovation is often organizational in nature.  It can involve, adoption of new alliances, new organizational practices (such as vertical integration, non-traditional tactics, new marketing practices), embracing new markets, and new organizational structures (such as fragmentation).

  • New alliances (with gangs, mafias, or other criminal cartels) can be local or global in nature and can involve a range of links with other criminal enterprises.
  • New organizational practices can involve new marketing practices.  Indeed the current configuration of Mexican cartels is largely the result of novel organizational and marketing practices such as the establishment of the ‘plaza’ system by Ángel Félix Gallardo (‘El Padrino’) of the Guadalajara Cartel, the forerunner of the current cartel system and accepting payment in cocaine from Colombian traffickers.

The adoption of payment in cocaine for Mexican assistance in smuggling Colombian product vastly reconfigured the balance of power, consolidated the Mexican narcotics trade, and solidified the primacy of Mexican cartels in the narcotrafficking sphere.   From that consolidation, Mexican cartels have become powerful poly-crime enterprises.

  • Novel tactics are exemplified by the use of airplanes as a tactical means of attacks as seen in al-Qaeda’s use of airplanes in the 9/11 Attacks.
  • Non-traditional tactics often involve new targeting preferences, such as the use of car bombs, and explosive-laden drones against specific target sets (such as targeting civilian, non-combatant targets, assassinating journalists, or attacking police, mayors and public officials).
  • Vertical integration could involve adopting links with and/or supplanting US gangs (especially street-prison gang complexes and prison gang recruitment.
  • New markets include entering new geographic spaces—plazas and lines of communication or smuggling routes, i.e., ‘flows’—such as expanding distribution in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as micro- or street-level drug trafficking (narcomenudeo) in local Mexican markets, or the introduction of new products (such as methamphetamines, fentanyl).
  • New organizational structures are also a source on non-technological innovation.  Indeed embracing networked organizations and alliances is a form of organizational evolution (similar to that seen in gang evolution, gangs can potentially evolve or transition through three phases of evolution: first generation turf gangs, second generation market gangs, and third generation mercenary/political gangs.  Gangs in the third generation pose challenges to states. The pathway through the various gang ‘generations’ is influenced by geographic reach (internationalization), scope of political activity (politicization), and degree of technological and organizational prowess (sophistication).
  • Fragmentation is also a powerful trigger for innovation and adaptation. Gangs and cartels splinter, merge, or reorganize (including interpenetration with other gangs and corrupt state officials) into hybrid networks. Fragmentation is a wild card in cartel innovation.  It often results from competition with the state and other cartels.  Indeed, this three-way (or multi-dimensional) competition is a core element of cartel emergence and reconfiguration.  It is often a reaction to state intervention—including targeting kingpins or high value targets that stimulate the rise of new power arrangements from the vacuum of power that can result from leadership decapitation of criminal cartels.

Violence is also a consequence of fragmentation as cartels and gangs (like states and terrorists) may employ violence as a tool to solidify internal cohesion and deter external competition. Embracing new markets may accompany this violent impulse as seen in the current rise of both extortion and other criminal enterprises as the Mexican state and PEMEX limited petroleum flow to pipelines in Guanajuato stem the illicit fuel theft activities of huachicolero gangs like the Cártel de Santa Rosa Lima (CSRL). The CSRL is embroiled in a bitter battle for criminal dominance of the state of Guanajuato with the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Mexican state (at the municipal, state, and federal level).  The CJNG penetration into Colombia and alliances with BACRIM (bandas criminales) and FARC remnants is a further example of organizational innovation.

Adaptation and Resilience

Cartel adaptation and evolution is intimately related to organizational survival and the quest for power and profit.  It is also an interactive process where cartels and gangs become more sophisticated through successful competition and interactions with other more sophisticated cartels and mafias.  Fragmentation triggered the violent reign of the Zetas when they split from the Gulf Cartel (Cártel del Golfo or CDG).  That legacy continues as the Zetas are fragmenting into splinter groups (grupúsculos) such as the Grupo Bravo, Zetas Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas) and their rivals the Cártel del Noroeste (CDN).  This violent competition is particularly acute in Tamaulipas (bordering Texas).

Ambushing police, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) as seen in the July 2018 deployment of an armed drone against the residence Baja California’s Public Safety Secretary, the October 2017 seizure of a weaponized drone in Guanajuato, and car bombs (VBIEDs) are potential outcomes of increased violence.  The cartels have also embraced the fabrication and use narco-armor-—that is of improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs)—known as narco-tanks (narcotanques), monstruos blindados (armored monster trucks) to intimidate rivals and achieve maneuver in running battles for control of key terrain.

Attacking non-combatants as seen in the November 2019 attack on the LeBarón family and their Mormon enclave in Sonora or the Sinaloa attack on Mexican security forces on 17 October in Culiacán that led to the release of El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzmán have challenged the confidence of the Mexican public.  This situation becomes where communities are under siege, crime wars rage, and criminal insurgents challenge the state.

A classic case of adaptation resulted in the implementation of the plaza system —where one cartel control and taxes the criminal trade in key cities and criminal enclaves—for cross-border trafficking.  This became attractive when US maritime enforcement operations in the Caribbean and South Florida inhibited the smuggling routes; the traffickers shifted their operations to cross-border land routes.  Thus the plazas become dominant, empowering the cartels that controlled the various plazas and their cross-border gang allies. Thus the drug trade shifted from a littoral locus to the land frontier.  As border security is enhanced, the rise of a littoral focus using pangas (small boats) and semi-submersible vessels (narco-subs) can be expected.  This development may also demonstrate the interaction and use of technology as unmanned surface and semi-submersible vessels potentially enter the trafficker’s repertoire once again placing a premium on maritime interdiction capabilities.

Prisons are a core element in the transmission of cartel sophistication and tradecraft.  The case of ‘El Mencho’ (Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes), the leader of the CJNG is instructive.  He spent time in California and Texas prisons before being deported to Jalisco where he joined the Jalisco State Police before joining the Milenio Cartel, which was once aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel. The skills and organizational ethos found in each step along his journey in criminal prowess influence his cartel’s current capabilities (and likely those of its ultimate successor),

Conclusion: Future Potentials

In a broad sense, the future of cartel evolution involves networked criminal enterprises with corrupt state linkages that potential yield stratified state-criminal structures. To do so, they use both technological—and importantly, but often overlooked—non-technological innovation.  Technology confers many advantages, but these can be mitigated by eluding your opponent’s technology by, for example, going off the grid and avoiding digital and electronic communications and/or deception as a counter-ISR method to elude identity intelligence (I2) or detection. Recall, Lester Grau’s seminal paper “Bashing The Laser Range Finder With a Rock,” technology can be turned on its head and asymmetric means used to blunt its combat effectiveness.

Cartels will also embrace and ‘weaponize’ corruption to facilitate their aims.  Police, customs and border patrol agents and municipal officials are at risk of being exploited in this way.  Future cartel innovation potentials include (with potential indicators) include:

  • Vertical integration of US markets and integration with US gangs – look for recruiting of TCOs (especially the CJNG) in prisons, especially in Texas;
  • Increased use of car bombs and UAVs (weaponized drones) by TCOs – look at VBIEDs and proliferation of FARC bomb-making skills as seen in Guanajuato, MX and gangs in El Salvador;
  • A return to littoral smuggling routeslook at pangas and the potential use of narco-subs and unmanned vessels.

Resilience is a core capacity of successful TCOs.  They absorb and withstand disruption and morph and evolve to remain relevant.  Criminal cartels adapt by necessity.  They operate in dynamic, environments, competing with the state and other criminal enterprises. Finally, they link with global illicit flows to expand their reach and profit-making potential (as potentially seen in the rise of new networked ‘diaspora’ gangs like the Primeiro Comando da Massachusetts (PCM) comprised on Brazilian émigrés.

Confrontation in complex terrain, such as urban warfare involving unconventional or guerrilla warfare is one means of achieving asymmetry—one exemplified by the cartel’s unconventional crime wars.  The criminal cartels will chose the potentials that are easiest to implement (operational simplicity) and yield the highest returns (operational effectiveness).  The cartels’ evolving crime wars will continue to stimulate organizational innovation and adaptation demanding adaptive red-teaming and comprehensive strategic, tactical and operational assessments of cartel trends and potentials.




John P. Sullivan

John P. Sullivan

Dr. John P. Sullivan served as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department; specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism and intelligence. He is an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy - University of Southern California, Senior El Centro Fellow at Small Wars Journal, and Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks. His doctoral dissertation at the Open University of Catalonia examined the impact of transnational crime on sovereignty. His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs and organized crime, conflict disaster, intelligence studies, post-conflict policing, sovereignty and urban operations.