While most of Central America’s organized crime groups compete for a slice the US illegal drug market, Los Cuinis have used their low profile to carve out a niche market in Europe and Asia.
There are nine drug-trafficking cartels currently operating in Mexico. Of these, the Gulf Cartel predominates, with 12 criminal cells across the country, according to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office. Such criminal structures are known for being violent — some more than others — and maintaining a perpetual war against the government, and among themselves, over the control of distribution.
Nevertheless, Los Cuinis, despite barely spilling blood and remaining far from the gaze of the media and authorities, have climbed their way to the top.
The DEA report points to Abigael “El Cuini” González Valencia as their leader, who was arrested on February 28 in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. At the moment of his arrest, González was reportedly the financial operator and a senior lieutenant for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).
Despite the confusion over his true allegiance, González was more powerful than the authorities expected. During the raid that captured him, he offered soldiers a three-million-dollar bribe to keep his face from appearing on TV, an attempt that proved unsuccessful.
In fact, this was not the first time authorities captured El Cuini. In the 90s, he was arrested along with Nemesio “El Mencho” Osguera Cervantes, his brother-in-law and leader of the CJNG. At that point, the CJNG was a faction of the Milenio cartel devoted to methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking.
A Criminal Tradition
The partnership between the CJNG and Los Cuinis is now deemed one of the most dangerous criminal alliances. This, however, has been a process that took decades. González’s supremacy is not a consequence of luck, but the fruition of a long-term strategy that has been developed since the 1970s.
Beginning as as a aguacate plantation, the Michoacán-based Valencias decided to switch to a more profitable crop. They began to use their land to cultivate marijuana, but ambition led them farther.
Thus, in the 1980s the Valencias decided to establish their own drug-trafficking operation: the Milenio cartel, or the Cartel of the Valencias. They left behind the marijuana and opium poppy plantations and stated shipping cocaine throughout Mexico and to the United States.
At the beginning the group was able to hide their illicit activities from the authorities. They called themselves “The Aguacate Kings,” in a nod to their fruit production facade. The authorities eventually broke the cartel up, but González had been honing his skills within the cartel, and chose this moment to strike out on his own.
El Cuini had learned his lesson. He knew how to stay out of sight and shaped a genuine drug-trafficking empire. The first time he was arrested and charged with distribution of methamphetamine and cocaine in California, he was released on bail for $80,000. Years later, back in Mexico, he would set up Los Cuinis.
Strength in the Shadows
Even after his arrest, González was not acknowledged as a seriously dangerous drug trafficker by the DEA. The US agency believed that he was controlling CJNG funds, but his relationship with the Jalisco cartel was more of a partnership with his own nascent cartel.
Now, while Los Cuinis have gone unnoticed, they are “almost absolute masters of the European and Asian drug market,” according to a DEA source quoted by Mexican investigative journalism magazine Proceso.
“Cuini is an intelligent drug trafficker. He started forging alliances with drug traffickers and drug-funded guerrillas from Colombia and other South American countries to sell cocaine and other drugs in Europe, without looking at the United States. This made a difference for Valencia and his brother-in-law Mencho,” another DEA source told Proceso.
While both the DEA sources agreed that the Sinaloa Cartel continues to be the most powerful, they emphasized that Los Cuinis were now “the richest in Mexico,” capitalizing on their advantage of not competing for the US market.
“It’s hard to think that there is a parallel organization that has as much or more power than the Sinaloa cartel,” David Martínez-Amador, an expert on organized crime and associate analyst with Insight Crime told the PanAm Post.
“We haven’t seen the Cuinis with a high firepower or putting the state’s back against the ropes yet,” Martínez-Amador added.
Mexican authorities claim that the Cuinis and the CJNG are parallel organizations. In turn, the DEA says they are the same structure: united by a blood bond. Martínez-Amador believes the differing interpretations shared by the US and Mexican authorities is due to “one of many pieces of disinformation” spread by the cartel.
Close cooperation between cartels has previously taken place to devastating effect, the InSight Crime analyst noted, emphasizing how the Familia Michoacana counted on the funding and support of the Sinaloa Cartel to eradicate the presence of Los Zetas.
Se confirma la quema de 2 vehículos y 1 negocio (cremería), ubicados en Boulevard Francisco Medina y Francisco Villa en Puerto Vallarta.
— Fiscalía de Jalisco (@FiscaliaJal) May 2, 2015
“The burning of two vehicles and one business (ice cream parlor), located at Boulevard Francisco Medina and Francisco Villa in Puerto Vallarta is confirmed.”
The CJNG has carried out multiple attacks in Jalisco since Friday after a failed attempt to capture El Mencho. During the arrest attempt, the cartel deployed high-caliber assault weapons and a rocket launcher to shoot down an army helicopter.
Attacks continued over the weekend, and spread to the nearby states of Guanajuato and Colima. Six members of the security forces have been killed, and multiple businesses, vehicles, gas stations, and roads have been damaged.
Translated by Adam Dubove. Edited by Laurie Blair and Fergus Hodgson.