Mexican Cartels and the Pan American Games: A Threat Assessment

Stewart Scott
Sep 30, 2011
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The 2011 Pan American Games will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, from Oct. 14 through Oct. 30. The games will feature 36 different sports and will bring more than 6,000 athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to Mexico’s second-largest city. The Parapan American Games, for athletes with physical disabilities, will follow from Nov. 12 to Nov. 20.

Like the Olympics, the World Cup or any other large sporting event, planning for the Pan American Games in Guadalajara began when the city was selected to host them in 2006. Preparations have included the construction of new sports venues, an athletes’ village complex, hotels, highway and road infrastructure, and improvements to the city’s mass transit system. According to the coordinating committee, the construction and infrastructure improvements for the games have cost some $750 million.

The preparations included more than just addressing infrastructure concerns, however. Due to the crime environment in Mexico, security is also a very real concern for the athletes, sponsors and spectators who will visit Guadalajara during the games. The organizers of the games, the Mexican government and the governments of the 42 other participating countries also will be focused intensely on security in Guadalajara over the next two months.

In light of these security concerns, STRATFOR will publish an additional special report on the games. The report, of which this week’s Security Weekly is an abridged version, will provide our analysis of threats to the games.


Cartel Environment

Due to the violent and protracted conflicts between Mexico’s transnational criminal cartels and the incredible levels of brutality that they have spawned, most visitors’ foremost security concern will be Mexico’s criminal cartels. The Aug. 20 incident in Torreon, Coahuila state, in which a firefight occurred outside of a stadium during a nationally televised soccer match, will reinforce perceptions of this danger. The concern is understandable, especially considering Guadalajara’s history as a cartel haven and recent developments in the region. Even so, we believe the cartels are unlikely to attack the games intentionally.

Historically, smuggling has been a way of life for criminal groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, and moving illicit goods across the border, whether alcohol, guns, narcotics or illegal immigrants, has long proved quite profitable for these groups. This profitability increased dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s as the flow of South American cocaine through the Caribbean was sharply cut due to improvements in maritime and aerial surveillance and interdiction. This change in enforcement directed a far larger percentage of the flow of cocaine through Mexico, greatly enriching the Mexican smugglers involved in the cocaine trade. The group of smugglers who benefited most from cocaine trade included Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, who would go on to form a Guadalajara-based organization known as the Guadalajara cartel. That cartel became the most powerful narcotics smuggling organization in the country, and perhaps the world, controlling virtually all the narcotics smuggled into the United States from Mexico.

The Guadalajara cartel was dismantled during the U.S. and Mexican reaction to the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique Camarena by the group. Smaller organizations emerged from its remains that eventually would become the Arellano Felix Organization (aka the Tijuana cartel), the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (aka the Juarez cartel), the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa Federation. The sheer number of major cartel organizations that came out of the Guadalajara cartel demonstrates the immense power and geographic reach the group once wielded.

Even after the demise of the Guadalajara cartel, Guadalajara continued to be an important city for drug smuggling operations due to its location in relation to Mexico’s highway and railroad system and its proximity to Mexico’s largest port, Manzanillo. The port is not just important to cocaine smuggling; it also has become an important point of entry for precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. For many years, the Sinaloa Federation faction headed by Ignacio “El Nacho