Mexican marines captured a top leader in the Gulf cartel in northeast Mexico on Feb. 19, 2018, just a few weeks after a high-level member of the rival Zetas cartel was captured in Mexico City.
Jose Alfredo Cardenas, nicknamed "The Nephew" and "The Accountant," was arrested in Matamoros early on Feb. 19, 2018. Officials said no shots were fired in the raid, which also seized two military-grade weapons, ammunition, and some cocaine and marijuana. A group of armed men reportedly fled the scene.
Mexican authorities tracked down Cardenas using wire intercepts, Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider. Cardenas was captured along with two other men while entering a house, said Vigil, who said additional weapons and documents were seized.
Cardenas, 37, is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the Gulf cartel boss who was arrested in 2003, extradited to the US in 2007, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2010. The younger Cardenas became a cartel leader after Guillen's capture, and according to the DEA's 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, he is one of two main leaders in a cartel that has seen "rapid turnover in leadership."
Mexican federal officials said that Cardenas — one of the country's most wanted criminals— moved among Matamoros, Mexico; the nearby city of Brownsville, Texas; and Mexico state in central Mexico.
The Gulf cartel has fragmented, with several factions now vying for influence in Tamaulipas, its traditional stronghold. The state is an important smuggling route for narcotics, migrants, and other illicit goods, and criminal groups there have expanded into kidnapping, extortion, resource theft, and other activities. Homicides in the state have risen each of the past three years, hitting 1,053 in 2017.
"What has happened in Tamaulipas is we have had two big groups of organized crime that have fragmented, and now we have more than 20," Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University who wrote the book "Los Zetas Inc.," told Business Insider late January 2018.
"It's difficult to identify the number of cells that survive right now in the state and are still occupying or controlling different criminal activities," Correa-Cabrera said, adding that there are "different factions of the Gulf cartel and some factions of the Zetas" in other cities around the state.
The Gulf cartel leader Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, aka "El Coss," in Mexico City after his capture in September 2012. (Photo from Mexican Government)
Cardenas is said to have taken control of a Gulf cartel faction in the area after the April 2017 killing of Juan Manuel Loisa Salinas, known as "Comandante Toro," in Reynosa, a border city west of Matamoros. Mexican government sources also identified him as the Gulf cartel boss in Matamoros.
A statement issued by Mexico's navy after Cardenas' arrested said that "presumably he was the leader of a criminal organization in the region."
He was reportedly competing for control of the cartel with a rival group in the nearby Mexican city of Rio Bravo.
By the morning of Feb. 20, 2018 — less than 24 hours after Cardenas' capture — Matamoros residents were using social media to report gun battles in several areas of the city. "Matamoros under shootouts" and "precaution" were messages circulating with video recordings of the gunfire that appeared on social media.
Some said cars were left stranded after spikes on the roads punctured their tires.
Correa-Cabrera said that while it was too early to say definitively what provoked the clashes, they appeared related to Cardenas' arrest.
After the mayorship was transferred from the conservative National Action Party to the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party in late 2016, the situation in Matamoros appeared more coherent, and the Gulf cartel leader's capture may have disrupted some kind of agreed-upon pact, Correa-Cabrera told Business Insider.
"I am not sure why they arrested Cardenas," she added. "It is interesting. We need to wait and see."
Violence also broke out in Reynosa in the hours after the killing of Salinas. Gunmen shut down parts of the city with road blockades, and the federal attorney general's office there came under fire several times. The months afterward also saw sustained, elevated violence.
However, Correa-Cabrera stressed that the criminal dynamics in Reynosa and Tamaulipas were distinct, making it hard to predict the fallout.
"We are not dealing here with a pure 'kingpin strategy effect,' understood in the most traditional sense" as a fight between malefactors for control of the territory, Correa-Cabrera told Business Insider.
Rather, a variety of actors with overlapping and sometimes shared interests are in Reynosa, she said, including federal forces, state authorities, and factions of different criminal groups. Paramilitary groups, made up of criminal and government forces acting in concert, may also be present. (There are at least 18 regional cartel leaders operating in northeast Mexico, according to El Universal.)
Criminal elements and members of the local, municipal, and state governments in Tamaulipas have often developed symbiotic relationships. Changes in political power and shifts in cartel leadership have in some instances disrupted those ties, leading to more violence.
"The situation in Reynosa is much more complex," Correa-Cabrera said. "The whole state is very complex."