MEXICO CITY — It has the drugs and distribution system of a traditional cartel — and it has the modern weapons and audacity of an army. After attacking federal forces, downing a military helicopter and shutting down streets in Mexico's second-largest city last week, the New Generation Jalisco cartel is now the main enemy in the country's fight with drug cartels.
In just a few years, New Generation has grown from being an offshoot of the powerful Sinaloa cartel to one of Mexico's strongest criminal groups in its own right, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a "black list" of drug trafficking organizations.
Its quick rise reflects a rapidly changing organized-crime landscape in Mexico as the government targets top leaders of established cartels. More than any other criminal group, New Generation has taken advantage of the government's top-capo strategy, strengthening and grabbing territory from other cartels as they are weakened.
"You're talking about a powerful, large organization with grand logistics, well-made structures, a strong group of assassins, and dedicated and qualified people with high-caliber weaponry," Guillermo Valdes, a security expert and former director of the Mexican intelligence agency, told The Associated Press. "It's a new cartel, a second generation born in a restructuring process."
The strategy of hitting top leadership began in 2006 under President Felipe Calderon and has continued under his successor, Enrique Pena Nieto. As a result, large organizations have been fragmented, leaving smaller, leaderless groups to fight among themselves over control of local organized crime activities and drug-smuggling routes to the north.
When Calderon was in office, there were five major cartels. Today, the Mexican attorney general lists nine major groups and 43 smaller factions.
New Generation has its origin in that fragmentation.
While it has operated for years, it surged in public notoriety last week after it waged brazen attacks in and around Guadalajara, a major technology and manufacturing hub and the capital of Jalisco state, which is a popular retirement spot for U.S. and Canadian expats. But the city, some 290 miles (460 kilometers) northwest of Mexico City, is also where Mexico's largest drug cartels were born.
Leaders of the original Guadalajara cartel were captured in the 1980s, provoking a surge in what Valdes calls the first generation of cartels, many of which still exist, including Sinaloa, Beltran Leyva, Gulf, Zetas and Juarez cartels. But hits on their leaders have left all but Sinaloa as just remnants of their former selves.
In little more than a year, the government has arrested Sinaloa's Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Beltran Leyva's Hector Beltran Leyva, Juarez's Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Knights Templar's Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, and the Zetas' Omar Trevino Morales. It killed Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno.
Such blows have allowed New Generation to grow. Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval told Mexican media Wednesday that he warned the federal government more than a year ago that its attacks on a rival cartel, the Knights Templar, would strengthen New Generation but the reaction by authorities was insufficient.
"The attorney general, overall, made three changes in his delegates but honestly with zero results," Sandoval told Universal television. "In this matter, from the attorney general there was nothing. Same with the federal police. Zero."
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, New Generation is mainly devoted to trafficking cocaine and methamphetamines. Working with an associated group known as Los Cuinis — a phonetic rendering of "The Queenies" — the cartel has a presence in at least eight of Mexico's 31 states and connections in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. A U.S. indictment in 2013 said New Generation leader Nemesio Oseguera and his brother-in-law, Cuinis leader Abigael Gonzalez Valencia, move multi-ton quantities of cocaine from South America to Mexico and facilitate its transport to the U.S., earning at least $10 million a year.
The indictment charged them with running a criminal enterprise and conspiracy to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine.
New Generation has its origin in the now-defunct Milenio cartel and it later operated as an affiliate of Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, the Sinaloa cartel leader who was responsible for the group's methamphetamine division.
When Coronel was killed in a July 2010 federal operation, the New Generation fragment started to grow. One reason, some speculate, is that Oseguera, alias "El Mencho," was very close to Coronel and may have inherited his contacts. He also maintained a good relationship with the Sinaloa cartel. Others say New Generation has been able to take advantage of suppliers and distributers who have worked in the area for decades, even predating Coronel.
Whatever its source, the strength of New Generation surprised many on May 1 when federal authorities mounted an operation, reportedly targeting Oseguera: The cartel responded almost immediately with roadblocks and arson attacks in Guadalajara and two dozen other cities. It used an RPG to force down a military helicopter carrying 16 military personnel and two federal police officers, killing eight people.
New Generation's expansion in just five years has not been replicated by any other of the cartel fragments. On the contrary, many areas are seeing the violent fallout of factional infighting. Sinaloa sub-groups battle each other in the northern states of Sonora and Baja California Sur. Knights Templar, La Familia and Beltran Leyva factions fight for control of the lucrative and growing opium paste business in the southern state of Guerrero. Gangs affiliated with the Gulf cartel are warring along the Tamaulipas border with Texas.
"Why do they need bosses when they're their own operators?" said a Tamaulipas state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. "(Gang) soldiers are deciding to be generals without the permission of anybody."
Antonio Mazzitelli, representative in Mexico for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said fragmentation generates more violence as small groups try to expand their territory, where they kidnap and collect extortions to make up for cash they once made running drugs.
In the long run, the better-structured and quieter cartels are the ones that survive, he said.
"The first principle for a drug trafficking organization is to minimize risk, to use violence in a very hidden way and operate through corruption," Mazzitelli said.
Unlike the old major cartels, New Generation is willing to wage war on the state and federal government. The younger drug lords like to show off their money and flaunt their power, even if it brings a direct assault from the government.
For that reason, the May 1 clash may be the beginning of the end of New Generation, said Valdes, the former intelligence agency director.
"The drug business is not going away while we have such a large demand in the United States, but that does not give immortality to any particular group," he said.
New Generation "just bought the ticket to being enemy No. 1."
Associated Press writers Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City and Alfredo Pena in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, contributed to this report.