La Línea: Network, gang, and mercenary armyLa Línea, an enforcer gang, is influential in the contested and lucrative region adjacent to El Paso, Texas
By John P. Sullivan and Samual Logan
Mexico is embroiled in a complex, irregular conflict often described as a drug war, a criminal insurgency, and a narco-conflict. A protean mix of criminal enterprises (cartels and gangs) fight for control of illicit economic circuits, drug-trafficking plazas and corridors, and freedom from state interference.
The cartels and gangs fight each other (both against rival cartels and internally between competing factions) and against the state, attacking police and military forces that impede their quest for power and plunder. La Línea, an enforcer gang, operates in the Juárez Plaza area. This gang is influential in the contested and lucrative region adjacent to El Paso, Texas.
Enter La Línea
Amado Carrillo Fuentes became one of the most powerful men in Mexico before his (apparently) accidental death in 1997. Had he not died on the operating table, Amado might have lived a long life. Though he spent his last two years on the run, the head of the Juárez Cartel was well protected. His bodyguards, a group of co-opted police officers then known as the "Gatekeepers" or Los Arbolitos, were some of the better-trained and most violent gunmen in Mexico.
This same group of mercenaries seamlessly passed their loyalty to Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF), the apparent current leader of the Juárez Cartel (Cartel de Juárez). It appears That he hired more municipal and state police to expand the ranks of Los Arbolitos into "a line of defense" between the Juárez Cartel and its enemies in the late-1990s. The cadre eventually came to be known as La Línea, which true to its original charter, continues to protect the two most important components of the Juárez Cartel: the boss and the drugs.
As the influence of the Juárez Cartel has ebbed under the offensive of rival groups and the Mexican government, La Línea has made use of hired thugs — men with little training and even less to lose — to form the front line of defense between any would-be rivals, the government, and their principal. With a presence across Mexico, the Juárez Cartel has, in the last three years, been forced to close ranks around Ciudad Juárez and VCF.
This battle has left thousands dead; approximately 3,100 in 2010 alone. Meanwhile, the city of Juárez has sprouted hundreds of local retail drug sales points and spawned, by some accounts, as many as 500 separate street gangs. La Línea appears to stand at the top of enforcers hired to protect one man and his business interests.
Characterizing La Línea
La Línea clearly serves as a protective organ for VCF and as enforcers for his organization, variously known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization or Juárez Cartel. It has been described as the "straight line."
Comprised of drug dealers, sicarios (hit men), and corrupt police officials, it protects the cartel's business interests and trafficking operations. It may merely be wording designed to convey control or garner loyalty — a case of sophisticated branding. Alternatively, it might be a unifying concept to consolidate efforts to protect the market. Practically, it is both of these — a salient example of the adaptive organizational forms evolving within the narco-conflict.
La Línea is not necessarily a drug trafficking organization in its own right. La Línea likely would not exist without VCF and the Juárez Cartel. Neither could the Juárez Cartel exist without La Línea. Unlike Los Zetas, which began much like La Línea as an enforcement arm for the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo) before evolving into a powerful independent criminal organization, or La Familia, an emboldened vigilante group evolved into a broader criminal enterprise, La Línea remains tied to the jefe (boss) and to Juárez, appearing to still be loyal.
These loyalties, and La Línea's position as most powerful among the Juárez gangs, explains in part why members of this group have been labeled responsible for the long list of atrocities that have accompanied Juárez into the darkest days of the city's 352-year history. La Línea is a hybrid entity within the array of networked non-state actors in Mexico's narco-conflict. It serves as a protective detail, an enforcement operation, and collectors of street taxes. Its members are a cadre that may serve as liaison officers to other organizations. It is reported that,"La Línea has their networks in gangs like Los Aztecas who are hired killers (sicarios), and the municipal police that protect their precious cargo."
La Línea is reputed to control co-opted judicial officials, a human intelligence network consisting of taxi drivers and other informants, and corrupted state police. It is reported to be linked to both the Barrio Azteca in Texas, and the Azteca's transnational outlet Los Aztecas in Juárez. Its rivals may include actors aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, including Sinaloa's enforcers the Gente Nueva, the Artistes Asesinas (Artistic Assassins gang), and dissident Azteca factions.
Essentially, La Línea is a networked gang, a specialized node in a transnational criminal enterprise. It appears to be operating as more than a turf-oriented street gang (a first-generation gang) or even a narco-trafficking gang (a second generation gang). It appears to act as a specialized variant of a third-generation gang essentially serving as mercenaries. It has transnational reach through its allies and inter-networked cross-border gangs and cartel partners. It demonstrates a higher degree of sophistication than many gangs, and it even fulfills para-political functions for its cartel employer. Its network configuration enables morphing form to exploit custom network links to carry out specific, specialized missions.
La Línea's Tactics
Masked gunmen, who "spray and pray" assault rifles (known as cuernos de chiva) into a crowded rehab center and a teenage birthday party, are alleged to have been affiliated with La Línea. The gunmen who shot and killed a U.S. consulate worker, her husband, and a third U.S. citizen (later reported to have been a case of mistaken identity) are also likely La Línea connected. The group has undertaken an overt war against police, and been linked to attacks on journalists (to include the killing of an El Diario photographer).
A remote-detonated improvised explosive device (IED) that killed four — a federal police officer, a rescue worker, and two others — in Juárez on July 15, 2010, is also attributed to La Línea. This attack reportedly included a body dressed as a police officer to lure police into the kill zone. La Línea allegedly threatened to do it again. Another similar bomb was discovered by police in September 2010. Based on the size and construction of the bomb, local reports claim that it could have caused significantly more damage than its predecessor, but it failed to detonate.
Assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, IEDs (including car bombs), kidnapping, extortion, coercion, and bribery all reportedly fall within the spectrum of tactical tools employed by La Línea to achieve its objectives. Supplementing its repertoire of abilities is the additional firepower of street gangs La Línea subcontracts to kill rivals, and kidnap, torture, and execute policemen who do not cooperate.
Though their training generally appears to be inferior to that of Los Zetas, members of La Línea attack with aggression not evident in other areas of Mexico. Street gang proxies and members of La Línea (reportedly including members of the Juárez municipal or Chihuahua state police) are able to collect considerable intelligence on their targets, maintain a presence across multiple sectors of society in Juárez, and corrupt nearly any organization they encounter. Currently, La Línea appears to be stable, possibly ascendant. It is a key element of the VCF Organization/Juárez Cartel's efforts to control its parallel state. It supports its master by collecting street taxes,intimidating government officials, attacking the police and military (both corrupted and legitimate elements), and battling rival gangsters.
La Línea's future
La Línea may be vulnerable. First, the capability and reliability of municipal and state police in Juárez and Chihuahua must remain at a low level to allow potential new recruits to fall victim to La Línea's advancements. With the recent appointment of Col. Julián Leyzaola, the military commander largely credited with cleaning up Tijuana (despite alleged human rights abuses) as the chief of police in Juárez, the city may experience a significant change in its municipal police force. Such an evolution could possibly weaken La Línea because it would push recruitment more heavily toward common thugs and Chihuahua state police.
Second, La Línea is only as strong as its host, the Juárez Cartel. At any moment, VCF may find himself in a corner, as did the kingpin Arturo Beltrán-Leyva in December 2009, when Mexican Marines gunned him down in Cuernavaca. The death of el jefe would leave La Línea without her sponsor in the violent anarchy beneath the surface of Ciudad Juarez. Without a commander or a reason to exist, La Línea might disintegrate into smaller rival groups, a process of atomization that Mexican analysts have already witnessed in Jalisco in the wake of the death of Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel, who ran the Sinaloa Federation's meth trade out of Guadalajara until his death in 2010.
The future of La Línea is tied to that of the Juárez Cartel. As long as there is a cartel boss willing and able to spend sufficient money to hire police to work on his behalf, mercenary organizations Such as La Línea will continue to exist. It is an organization born from the necessity for protection and profit, but it could not exist without the complicity of components of the state, which is, at its very core, the reason why groups such as Los Zetas, La Familia, and La Línea exist at all. They are born of corruption, and as long as corruption exists, so will the mercenary groups that form out of the concept that corruptible police would rather kill for good money than be killed for nothing at all.
La Línea illustrates the organizational entrepreneurship that emerges during protracted conflict. In this case, an Apparently amorphous, yet powerful precision node exists within the transnational/binational Juárez Cartel (perhaps more accurately described as the El Paso-Juárez Cartel).
The La Línea node is a hybrid entity, essentially a thirdgeneration gang composed partially of corrupted law enforcement officers and serving as a bridge between street gangs and organized crime. Its structure consists of interlocking membership within allied organizations of nodes (much like elites who serve on multiple corporate boards).
Here we see something similar to a feudal knight serving both his local liege (i.e., home gang) and a higher authority (i.e., the cartel). This neo-feudal organization of the parallel governance space, combined with its unbridled brutality/lethality and organizational flexibility, makes it a significant threat to public safety and an important case study in transitional criminal forms. In this case, it appears that La Línea is a violent nonstate actor operating as a private army.
About the authors
Mr. Sullivan is a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST) and a member of the Advisory Board of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence. He serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
Mr. Logan is author of This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Hyperion, 2009). He is also the regional manager for the Americas with iJET International. He is the founder and managing director of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, and has reported on security issues in Latin America since 1999.
1 Estimates for the number of persons killed in Ciudad Juárez range from 3,075–3,156 depending upon source.is number includes 30 municipal police. See John P. Sullivan and Carlos Rosales, "Ciudad Juárez and Mexico's 'Narco-Culture' Threat," Mexidata at http://mexidata.info/id2952.html, 28 February 2011 for a discussion of the texture of conflict in Cd. Juárez in 2010.
2 Cd. Juárez was established in 1659 as El Paso del Norte. It has been known as Juárez since 1888. In May 2011 it was formally renamed Heroica Ciudad Juárez. Local residents informally refer to this city of 1.5 million as "Juaritos."
3"La Línea," Borderland Beat, 14 October 2009 found at http://www.Borderlandbeat.com/2009/10/la-linea.html.
4 Ibid and Daniel Borunda and Erica Molina Johnson, "Gang leader linked to drug cartel, El Paso Times, 11 December 2008.
5 See John P. Sullivan, "Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America," Air & Space Power Journal — Spanish Edition, Second Trimester 2008 found at http://www.Airpower.maxwell.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2008/2tri08/sullivaneng.htm.
6 See "Cae líder del cartel de Juárez; el grupo responde con ataque a la PF," La Jornada, 26 July 2010, "La Línea declares war on State Police," Borderland Beat, 20 March 2011; ""La Línea Claims Responsibility for El Diario Killing, Borderland Beat, 18 September 2010; "Video in which Members of La Línea Beat and Dismember Joaquin Gallegos," Borderland Beat, 17 May 2011; and John P. Sullivan and Carlos Rosales, "Ciudad Juárez and Mexico's 'Narco-Culture' Threat."
7 See John P. Sullivan, "Explosive escalation: Reflections on the Car Bombing in Ciudad Juárez," Small Wars Journal, 21 July 2010 at http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docstemp/474-sullivan.pdf.
8 See "Mexican drug gangs assuming government roles," Arizona Daily Star, 5 May 2011 and Elyssa Pachico, "Gunmen Take Over Mexico Town," InSight, 15 May 2011 at http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/guatemala/sinaloacartel/item/923-gunmen-takeover-mexico-town.
9 Adriana Gómez Licón, "Former Tijuana police chief Julián Leyzaola appointed new Juárez head of police," El Paso Times, 10 March 2010 at http://www.elpasotimes.com/newupdated/ci_17582292.