On September 24th2020 a video surfaced the internet. It had been recorded by a driver directly from behind the wheel. It showed how armed men blocking a road by crossing some SUVs kidnapped a truck driver, unhooked the trailer and attached it to another truck, leaving the scenes in less than two minutes. Less than 24 hours later another video surfaced the internet. In this case it showed 5 armed and masked men wearing tactical vests and heavy weapons. Two of them wore caps with CJNG in white letters. The leader of the group, seated in front of a table, gave a speech in which he accused Ismael El Mayo Zambada, leader of one of the Sinaloa cartel´s factions, of being behind the robbery of the truck that, it was revealed, was transporting a load of cigarettes. You can find the video here: https://n9.cl/h4a4z
This video went quite unnoticed for everyone and quickly disappeared in the midst of the never ending waterfall of narco-comunicados and pre-arranged executions that Mexican criminal groups produce and share through social media almost on a daily basis. But if true, it might reveal a quite unknown fact: big Mexican criminal groups such as the CJNG or the Sinaloa federation are in control, directly or indirectly, of the thriving transport theft criminal market.
Mexico, a country of roads and trucks:
By 2018 Mexico had a network of roads 397,312 kilometers long. Mexico´s road infrastructure is far from being fully developed (although it´s pretty modern in comparison with most of the rest of Latin American countries) According to the most recent statistics published by the Secretary of Communications and Transport, by 2020 Mexico´s road network was comprised only in a 44% by modern and resistant paved routes. The rest of the network consisted of 131,269 km of coated roads (made with cheap materials); 32,571 km of earth roads and an intricate system of brechas(tertiary roads made of dirt, used mainly for local communication purposes) totaling 58,348 km.
It´s through this road network that most of the transport of goods and people takes place for the whole country. The goods, either manufactured inside Mexico or imported for local consumption, are loaded in wholesale/logistics centers in fleets comprised by trucks of different sizes and are later transported to every Mexican corner precisely through these roads. Nowadays, most of Mexico´s goods are transported by four types of trucks: two and three-axle trucks and two and three-axle lorries (or tractocamiones in spanish) In 2019 alone 552,318 tons of goods were transported by these four types of trucks alone (specially through three-axle lorries, which carried 436,032 tons, a 78.94% of the total) According to the INEGI, the trucking sector employed at least 204,757 people directly (and as much as 1 millions individuals at the whole level) by 2019, and was valued at 247.04 billion pesos. A year ago the sector was composed in a 81,8% by one man-one truck businesses (147,966), followed by a 15.6% of small businesses (28,318), a 2% of medium companies (3,601) and by a meager 0.6% of big transportation firms (1,146) All together, the trucking sector moved 55.27% of all the products being commercialized inside Mexico in 2017, placing Mexico´s trucking sector as the sixth largest one among the OECD members.
Such a vast sector couldn´t go unnoticed for the criminal groups operating inside the country. As Borderland Beat (and a vast number of analysts and experts) has pointed out repeatedly, since the beginning of the so called Mexican war on drugs in 2006, the Mexican criminal panorama has evolved very much. What had originally been a small number of groups devoted to high-scale drug trafficking evolved (mainly because an erratic strategy of targeting kingpins and high-ranking members) into a multitude of smaller organizations deprived from the resources needed for producing, smuggling and selling drugs abroad. This provoked an evolution of such smaller criminal groups, most of whom got involved into a vast portfolio of criminal activities that although preexisting had previously been monopolized by disorganized groups of petty criminals or less relevant organizations. Thus, criminal markets such as the theft of gas (huachicoleo), the extortion of any viable business, the local distribution of drugs at the street level or the prostitution sector fell into the hands of a broad range of fiercely violent and constantly reshaping organized crime structures. And in this process the industry of merchandise theft was a market as good as any other for penetration…
Today, Latin America is the continent most affected by transport theft in the world. The region accounts for 54.48% of the global theft of merchandise. Brazil and Mexico are the countries most affected by this new criminal market. Brazil is currently the most hit (7,225 theft in 2015 alone) no doubt because of it´s enormous size and numerous population. Mexico is the second one, with an increasing tendency that reveals an alarming pattern. In fact, since a decade ago, the numbers of transport/truck theft have been increasing constantly reflecting an almost incomparable development of theft of merchandises directly from trucks that are later sold in the black market. Between 2010 and 2017 the levels of transport theft increased by 106%, which has costed the industry dearly. Nowadays it is estimated that security costs related to the robbery of cargoes oscillate between 15% and 20% of the total costs of the transport sector.
There´s not very much information about the origins and early structures of the initial Mexican transport theft market, although we know that it existed before authorities declared war against the cartels in 2006. The transport industry, specially the trucking sector, has traditionally been affected by criminal tendencies and groups ranging from the American Cosa Nostra in the US (which ran the teamsters´ union lobby) to the Irish Republican Army and Republican dissident groups in Northern Ireland (some of whom still are engaged in smuggling operations with cigarettes and other consumer goods, benefiting from the tax differences between the Republic of Ireland and the Six Occupied Counties)
In Mexico the trucking industry was traditionally involved in the smuggling of goods into the country when the nation was subjected to the protectionist economic policies of the PRI regime during the second half of the XXth century. More recently (with the liberalization waves of the 1990s) the trucking sector has profited extensively from the importation of cheap clothes and other second hand merchandise from the United States that are later re-sold in street markets all around Mexico (the so-called Fayuca, a subdivision of the wide Mexican black market that Borderland Beat has analyzed in other articles. ) Nevertheless, the transport theft market is different since in most of the cases the theft of goods and trucks has nothing to do with the transport companies owning the vehicles or the cargoes, nor with the truckers themselves (some of whom are even killed when the assaults take place)
How does the sector work?
Nowadays transport theft takes place mostly under the form of violent assaults against individual trucks. At least 96% of the reported thefts are violent. The so called larcenies (hurtosin Spanish) which aren´t violent are pretty scarce (only 4% of the total) and most of them take place in the form of small robberies committed by employees (a practice known as robo hormiga) In fact, most of transport theft actions are committed by well structured networks integrated by individuals very well armed. This groups could have been initially comprised by petty criminals joining forces to attack small trucks or vehicles, but currently what we can see is a wide range of structures formed by crews of professional criminals most of whom use a similar methodology to commit the theft. They do not attack trucks randomly. Instead, they conduct market studies, analyzing routes, weak points and potential victims. When a criminal group targets a certain truck they know what they are searching for. According to the most recent data, there´s a very clear pattern of the cargoes that are stolen from trucks. They are goods that aren´t easily recognizable and that can be easily sold anywhere, either through wholesale markets or retail businesses, without leaving a trace about their origin. The most wanted cargoes are food and beverages (33%), followed by industrial and construction goods (10%), alcohol (8%), fuels (7%) and car parts (7%)
The theft tactics are very similar for the whole country. After conducting a market study and selecting a truck with its cargo, the route of the freight is established. 93% of the times the attacks ususally take place in the middle of the roads during the early hours of the morning. The theft operations are very well coordinated by most of the groups. In fact there´s a pattern; the groups ten to be subdivided into several “task forces”. One of them is the surveillance team (composed by several individuals with mobile phones or walkie talkies, that alert their colleagues about where the truck is) Then it´s the turn for the assault team. They use normal cars or trocaswith which they stop and isolate the truck (sometimes shooting against the windshield). In order to prevent the driver from notifying about the assault, the groups tend to use signal jammers they purchase through the internet, which are also used to jam the signal of the automatized GPS tracking device that most trucks carry. Once the truck has been stopped the driver is pulled out from the cabin. Now there are three different scenarios. Sometimes the cargo is directly transferred to other trucks that leave immediately the scene. On other occasions, the truck is pulled out from the road and taken to a nearby prepared location where the cargo is looted. Finally, if the criminal group is sophisticated enough they may even have clandestine facilities where the cargo is safely transferred and where the vehicles are even scrapped, leaving no trace of the very existence of the truck.
For example, in the State of Puebla there´s evidence of home-made underground scrapping facilities, built attached directly to the Federal 150D Highway connecting the city of Puebla with the municipality of Orizaba. Here members of the prolific gangs allegedly affiliated to the criminal conglomerate known as Sangre Nueva Zeta bring the vehicles they steal at gun point at a daily basis.
The stolen cargo are then redirected to a storing facility where the merchandise is divided and sent to the places where it will be sold to the public. It is worth noting that most of the cargo is sold in the black market, but publicly. Normally, it´s distributed by street vendors in tianguisor mercados de pulgas where the people buying the merchandise know that it´s stolen, mainly because of the discount prices that the vendors offer. The goods are extraordinarily varied, from car parts such as tires or wiper blades to computer keyboards or shoes.
Where does transport theft take place?
Today there are five States that concentrate the biggest numbers of transport theft events: Estado de Mexico (Edomex), Veracruz, Puebla, Guanajuato and Jalisco. Nevertheless, we should consider the fact that in much cases theft events aren´t notified to the authorities, so there could be other dangerous and almost unknown scenarios (such as Michoacán, for example)The fact that all of them are locations with a high density of organized crime groups that do tend to monopolize every criminal activity adds a new argument to the already prevailing statement: in Mexico it´s the big and developed criminal groups the ones directing and profiting from the theft of truck cargoes.
There are 10 routes labeled as the most dangerous for freight cargoes. It´s in these roads that most of the events are reported. In fact, by 2018 they concentrated 73% of the assaults. The worst of them is the Carreteral Federal (Federal Highway) 150D, connecting Mexico City with the port of Veracruz. This road alone involves 18% of the transport theft activities in Mexico, mainly because it goes through the State of Puebla, running directly through the middle of the so-called Red Trianglearea. Then comes the Carretera Federal 57D with 11% of the attacks. This road connects Mexico DF with the town of Saltillo in Coahuila, running through the States of Mexico (Edomex), southern Hidalgo, Querétaro, northeastern Guanajuato, San Luís Potosí, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. As we all know, these areas are currently in the middle of a violent turf war involving powerful predatory groups such as remnants of Los Zetas, factions of the Gulf cartel, the CJNG, structures affiliated to the Sinaloa federation or the Familia Michoacana.
The third worst road (10% of the events)is the Carretera Federal 15D, also known as Maxipista,which connects Mexico DF with Hermosillo (Sonora) running parallel to the Pacific coast through the States of Mexico, northern Michoacán, Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa before entering in Sonora from the south. In this case the route goes through several criminal groups´ strongholds such as Guadalajara, Mazatlán or Los Mochis.
The case of the Mexico DF is very particular. It´s one of the areas concentrating some of the highest rates of transport theft in the whole country, mainly because it´s humongous size. In this case, the attacks take place in the so-called Circuito Exterior Mexiquense (9%) which covers the surrondings of Mexico City from the northeast to the southeast and in the Arco Norte (composed by Carretera Federal 40D) with 2% of the attacks. Who are the ones predating the transport theft market in the areas of Mexico DF? The answer is several groups. The Mexican capital has experienced the appearance of a thriving underworld which in less than a decade has extended like a cancer through the whole megalopolis, monopolizing illegal practices such as extortion, kidnapping, drug distribution at the retail level and, of course, theft in its various modalities (from burglary to transport theft) Thus, groups such as the Unión de Tepito or the Tláhuac cartel are the ones lootingg the trucks, whose loads are then resold in places such as the Barrio bravo de Tepito, where the Unión controls the street markets.
On the fifth place with 6% of the events we have Carretera Federal 136, which connects the cities of Los Reyes de Acaquilpan (at the east of Mexico DF) with Oriental (in Puebla) This road runs parallel to Mexico´s worst route, Carretera Federal 150D. In both cases the roads are tightly controlled by criminal groups initially involved with Los Zetas´original local chapter. Neverthless they are now independent, and run several criminal activities (mainly huachicoleo, but also kidnapping, extortion and drug distribution)
On the sixth and seventh places we have the Carreteras Federales 37D and 14D connecting Uruapan with the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas and Copándaro with Uruapan respectively. The first one concentrates 6% of the total robberies and the second a considerable 5%. These routes comprise most of the State of Michoacan, and although they don´t go through the most violent zones where the CJNG is currently battling the Cárteles Unidos factions, they do go through areas deeply controlled by criminal groups, mainly for logistical purposes.
The eighth worst route is the Carretera Federal 45D (4% of the robberies), connecting Querétaro in central Mexico with Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua. It runs through the hottest zones of Guanajuato (including Apaseo el Grande, Celaya, Salamanca, Irapuato and southern Leon), Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Durango and Chihuahua. In fact, it was in a branch of the Carreteral Federal 45D (at the Carretera Federal 49) where a cell affiliated to the Sinaloa cartel apparently stole a load of cigarettes from a truck in a commando-style attack on September 23rd2020.
Last but not least, we have the Carretera Federal 95D connecting Mexico DF and Acapulco with 2% of the events. The road runs through the middle of Morelos and Guerrero.
Why do we know that big criminal groups regulateMexico´s transport theft industry?
A characteristic shared by the routes most affected by transport theft in Mexico is their importance as vital logistical connectors. The Carreteras Federales do connect some of Mexico´s most important cities, being the routes through which most of the goods and people are moved. And this leads us to a vital point: it´s through these roads that most of the drugs and illegal goods (including chemical precursors, counterfeit or smuggled goods, stolen gas, weapons or illegal migrants) are transported, most of the times concealed inside trucks and cars. Thus, the security of the Carreteras Federales affects directly groups such as the Sinaloa federation, the CJNG, the Familia Michoacana or Guerreros Unidos, mainly because they transport their products (marihuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin or fentanyl) through these roads. Any group loading a haul of drugs in a trailer and using any of the aforementioned routes faces the risk of loosing the whole load because the truck has been assaulted. Thus, it´s vital for these drug producing/distributing organizations to control the main transport routes through which their products reach their final destination. This applies to virtually every mentioned road. Federal Highway 150D, for example, connects Mexico DF with the port of Veracruz, one of the entry points for weapons and counterfeit goods from Asia, as well as a departure point for meth and cocaine being sent to Europe and the US by ship. Federal Highways 37D and 95D connect the ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Acapulco with Mexico City. Both Lázaro Cárdenas and Acapulco are known as entry points for chemical precursors coming from Asia through the Pacific and for huge loads of cocaine coming from the shores of Colombia and Ecuador by semi-submersibles and speed boats. Federal Highways 15D, 45 D and 57D connects the central west area of Mexico (where the drugs arriving to and produced in the south are stashed) with the border States of Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila respectively. It´s obvious that an important percentage of the drugs produced or imported by Mexican transnational trafficking groups reach the US border through these routes, and the safety of the loads is of vital interest for their owners.
Therefore, we must agree that the control of these logistical routes is a prerequisite for any group willing to distribute drugs at national or international level. The Mexican criminal underworld might be constantly reshaping, but there´s evidence that criminal groups do establish truces, alliances and collaborate for achieving results that benefit multiple individuals. The CJNG has absorbed a lot of the remnants of the Zetas devoted to extortion and oil theft in Veracruz. The Sinaloa cartel has supposedly partnered with Michoacan´s Cárteles Unidos to fight CJNG. Members of the once almighty Juárez Cartel have established an alliance with the CJNG, and so have done remnants of the Arellano Félix organization in Tijuana. The evidence of criminal collaboration in Mexico is overwhelming, and if they partner for protecting their areas of influence, why shouldn´t they partner or control the minor groups devoted to transport theft if by doing so they can guarantee the safety of one of their most lucrative businesses?
This might contradict the fact it´s in the epicenter of these criminal strongholds (places such as Jalisco, Michoacán or Veracruz) that most of the transport theft occurs. This might have a double explanation. Firstly; these areas are fiercely contested, and because of the generalized levels of violence and State vacuum a natural tendency of criminality appears, preying on the powerlessness created by the infighting of powerful organizations. Secondly, the strategy of these drug-producing criminal groups has evolved greatly. They´re not organizations devoted solely to the production and importation of drugs anymore. In fact, they have diversified their portfolios getting involved in virtually any criminal activity. This facthas been caused because such big groups don´t operate as vertical entities. Instead, they tend to concentrate their hard-core leadership in certain locations (such as the Golden Triangle for Sinaloa´s bosses and Jalisco/Nayarit/Colima for the CJNG heavy-hitters) while using affiliated local groups or franchises to launch their proxy wars all over the Mexican territory. It´s these groups the ones committing most of the violent and high-profile criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion or transport theft. Such franchises do not engage in these riffraff criminal activities directly, but co-opt even lower criminal groups (street gangs, petty criminal associations, etc) to commit such operations. The output of such activities is then re-directed upwards to the franchises, that fund their constant armed offensives with the profits. It´s these low-level groups the ones committing transport theft, and in doing so they are instructed by their leaders about what trucks to assault.
In conclussion, there´s evidence that in Mexico transnational criminal groups have began to rely in petty crimes to fund their national operations. Their structures, level of functionability and coertion cappabilities have made possible the use of an industrial logic to prey on the transport sector, the backbone of Mexican economy.
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