Tracking Cartels Infographic Series

START is publishing an infographic series exploring findings from its Tracking Cartels project. Each week, for four weeks in June 2020, START will release a new infographic that depicts cartel operations in Mexico.

Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) and related actors pose significant threats to homeland security. Mexico and the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) serve as operational centers and conduits—by air, land, and sea—for TCOs’ illicit goods and activities reaching the United States. In recent years, TCOs have increasingly embraced new violent practices and advanced strategies to circumvent homeland security. Crimes include murder, trafficking and smuggling of drugs, weapons, humans, as well as corruption, financial crimes, and illicit procurement of materials and technology. The growth in criminal density and geographical expansion of TCOs across Mexico and the Northern Triangle produce great instability in the region along the United States’ southern border. As TCOs form more sophisticated networks and means of transnational operation, it is necessary to consider ways to better exploit data sources to assist forward-deployed border security operations. Enhancing data collection, integration, analysis, and information sharing capabilities is necessary to keep pace with the rapidly changing dynamics of TCOs’ activities.

Image of the Tracking Cartels Gazetteer ToolCurrently, the Geospatial Research Unit (GRU) at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) is leading a joint research project with partnering DHS Centers of Excellence, the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center (CINA) and the Center for Acceleration Operational Efficiency (CAOE), to develop a multi-pronged approach to triangulate open source information about TCOs, including major Cartels and gangs (e.g. MS-13), operating in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. The purpose is to use open-source information to build a holistic and accurate understanding of TCOs’ activities in Mexico and the Northern Triangle for analyses and operational decision-making.

To accomplish this, project teams are employing innovative collection and analysis strategies to develop a better understanding of the spaces of violence and instability in Mexico and Northern Triangle countries.

The effort includes exploitation of foreign government documents, automatic geocoded information extraction from news articles, scraping of social media to feed a linked gazetteer, and explainable deep learning techniques to identify and visualize subtle trends a human analyst could miss using traditional analytical methods. The overall goal of the project is to provide new open source tools to the U.S. Government that protect confidential sources and increase international and domestic information sharing in the tracking of TCOs.

#1. Major Cartel Operational Zones in Mexico

Key Discussion Points:

  • Major cartel fragmentation has led to increasingly adaptable, agile, and competitively violent criminal organizations.
  • The geographical expansion of cartels has led to greater territorial contestation over drug plazas, trafficking routes, and illicit markets.
  • Seeking greater profit, cartels are diversifying and increasing in criminal density through criminal activities like extortion, kidnapping, and money laundering.

View the infographic and research brief here.

Map of Cartel Operational Zones in Mexico

#2. The Violent Rise of Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)

Key Discussion Points:

  • Despite the fact that CJNG is one of the youngest cartels in Mexico it is considered to be one of, if not, the most powerful and violent cartel in Mexico today.

  • CJNG’s assets are thought to be worth over $20 billion.

  • The successful rapid and violent rise of CJNG challenges Mexico’s capacity to govern and normalizes violence and corruption as a way of organizing power and order.

View the infographic and research brief here.


#3. The Pits: Violence in Michoacán Over Control of Avocado Trade

  • A “green gold rush” is happening in central Mexico, as avocado production has become increasingly lucrative for cartels to exploit as part of their criminal diversification strategy.
  • CJNG is competing violently with the Nueva Familia Michoacana, Tepalcatepec Cartel, and Zicurián Cartel to dominate this growing criminal economy in Michoacán state, the world’s top avocado producing area.
  • CJNG exercises extortion schemes against avocado producers, and those who fail to make payments may be kidnapped or killed.

#4. Huachicoleros: Violence in Guanajuato Over Control of Illicit Petroleum

Key Discussion Points:

  • Fuel theft has become a primary concern for Mexico’s economic and political stability as the number of illicit taps and diverse ways to pilfer fuel continues to rise.
  • CJNG and CSRL battle for control of the illicit petroleum economy in the second Triángulo Rojo of huachicol (Salamanca, Iraputo, and Celaya).
  • Financial losses from fuel theft amount to around $1.1 billion annually.

Map of zones of illicit fuel trade in Mexico