A report by Parker Asmann for Insight Crime.
The brazen slaying of a trusted Sinaloa Cartel operative may look like just another symptom of rising violence along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, but a closer look suggests a potential power play by the Jalisco Cartel to secure total control of this prized region.
On July 4, two hitmen stormed into a convenience store and killed Sinaloa Cartel operative Juan Ulises Galván Carmona, alias “El Buda,” in Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Noticias Chetumal reported.
El Buda had reportedly been in Chetumal for the past four months working to open a business to launder the group’s criminal proceeds.
Prior to linking up with former Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” El Buda worked for the Beltrán Leyva Organization. The Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva cartels worked together until they split apart in 2008 and started a bloody war against each other.
El Buda oversaw the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking activities and managed cocaine shipments trafficked from Central and South America in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Jalisco, some of which would then be distributed in Guadalajara, according to Noticias Chetumal.
Following El Chapo’s arrest, extradition and eventual conviction on drug trafficking and other charges in the United States, Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo” — the last member of the group’s old guard — has been at the top of the cartel’s leadership along with El Chapo’s sons, known collectively as “Los Chapitos.”
And the homicide rate in Quintana Roo increased by 107 percent between 2017 and 2018, jumping from 21.5 per 100,000 citizens to 44.6 last year, well above the national average of 25.8. In 2017, one watchdog study estimated that 91 percent of the state’s homicides were related to organized crime.
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The recent murder of El Buda appears to be yet another consequence of the ongoing battle between Mexico’s two most adept crime groups: The Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
“The CJNG has long had its eye set on Chetumal in its expansion to the Caribbean. It’s likely they ordered [El Buda’s] murder,” Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) former Chief of International Operations, told InSight Crime.
The state of Quintana Roo and its capital Chetumal are extremely important for logistical reasons. Chetumal is home to one of the Caribbean coast’s major sea ports, which organized crime groups have long exploited to traffic drugs, weapons and other contraband.
The city is also nestled right next to Belize, a “major transit country” with weak controls and porous borders that criminal groups rely on to move drugs into Mexico and eventually on to the United States, according to the US State Department’s 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
It’s likely that El Buda was in Chetumal not to launder the Sinaloa Cartel’s proceeds, but to increase efforts to control the seaport and related drug trafficking activities, according to Vigil. El Buda’s forte for both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltrán Leyva Organization was coordinating the logistics for moving drug loads, not laundering money.
In 2012, for example, the Mexican Army arrested El Buda alongside Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant Sergio Armando Barrera Salcedo, alias “El Checo,” in Tapachula in southeast Chiapas state. At that time, El Checo was under the orders of El Mayo and in charge of the cartel’s cocaine trafficking operations and acquiring precursor chemicals, according to government officials.
Due to El Buda’s expertise in international drug trafficking and the trusted role he had in the Sinaloa Cartel, Vigil says that his murder serves as a big blow to the group’s operations along Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.
“Trust and confidence in a band of criminals is highly coveted,” Vigil told InSight Crime. “El Buda had tremendous experience and logistical capabilities in handling drug loads from South America. Unlike a sicario [hitman], El Buda’s experience and trust is not easily replaced.”
Winning control of Chetumal would be a significant achievement for the CJNG. After expanding rapidly in recent years across at least 20 Mexican states, the group’s evolution has slowed due to a number of arrests of important members, infighting within the group, an ongoing war with the Sinaloa Cartel — as well as other smaller groups like the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel — and authorities’ focus on capturing their leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.”
Not only would control of Quintana Roo benefit the CJNG’s money laundering operations — the state has for years been a haven for such criminal activity — but it would also help them acquire the precursor chemicals needed to continue producing synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and the deadly opioid fentanyl as demand increasingly shifts away from heroin.
As InSight Crime detailed in a 2019 investigation into Mexico’s role in the deadly rise of fentanyl, the CJNG is one of the “most important Mexican purveyors of the drug and its precursors” along with the Sinaloa Cartel.
El Buda’s murder, however, may have just given the CJNG a leg up on the Sinaloa Cartel in one of Mexico’s most important drug trafficking corridors.