Expansion, violence and possible breakdown – all normal in Mexico (January 5, 2012)

As 2011 comes to a close and the new year begins in earnest the themes of change and rebirth seem to be on lips of everyone from politicians to journalists. In Mexico, however, the party never stops. Here, in the southern deserts, mountains and jungles of North America, the war between narcotics suppliers and competing organizations continues unabated, with a death toll of well over 45,000 killed so far. Yet, despite the consistent character of Mexico’s narco-wars, change does come, albeit violently. Throughout the current conflict alliances have been forged, broken and reformed again. Powerful dynasties and deadly organizations have collapsed, with newer, more potent groups rising to prominence.  The Mexican underworld’s perennial constancy rests within the turnover and natural development of these organizations – change within the criminal hierarchy is normality.

No group represents this pattern better than Los Zetas – one of Mexico’s most powerful cartel entities – whose unparalleled rise may just be a precursor to fragmentation or destruction. Formed from a Mexican special forces unit that defected to the Gulf Cartel – the renowned Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Specials (GAFE) – Los Zetas rose from being simply an armed, enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel’s organization in 2000 to its own parallel structure by 2008. By February, 2010, due to the arrests or death of several top leaders within both the Gulf and Los Zetas organizations, Los Zetas broke violently away from its former master and began a reign of terror and intimidation that soon spread across eastern Mexico. Using the skills they acquired in the Mexican special forces, which included training with American military specialists at Fort Benning, Georgia, Los Zetas soon out-fought the Gulf Cartel, seizing territory from Tamaulipas in the north to the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula. In the south they quickly spread their tentacles into neighbouring Guatemala, corrupting members of the highly trained Guatemalan special forces unit, the Kaibiles. They also seized territory and now operate sophisticated smuggling networks throughout the Peten region of Guatemala as well as the rest of Central America. In the impoverished cities of the isthmus Los Zetas began to recruit and utilize extremely violent street gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13), to control various local criminal groups and intimidate local law enforcement. This practice has directly contributed to the major increase in violent crime rates throughout El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and, most recently, Costa Rica. The control Los Zetas now exerts on certain locales throughout this region has given them direct access to Colombian cocaine organizations, including the equally brutal Urabenos – guaranteeing the supply of drugs needed to finance their military and corruption efforts in Mexico.

While they developed their supply networks into South America, Los Zetas simultaneously launched numerous acts of aggressive expansion in central and western Mexico. Much like their blitzkrieg along the eastern coast of the country in 2010 shattered the relative calm of certain regions, their new campaigns have also initiated new conflicts and brought them new alliances. One of these new working relationships was with the now defunct Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), which separated from its onetime overlords, the Sinaloa Cartel – much like Los Zetas did with their former Gulf masters. By 2010 this alliance had become a full blown military partnership between the BLO, the Juarez Cartel and Los Zetas, who faced off against the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel and La Familia Michoacána. Yet, as is normal in Mexico, some of these groups and, therefore, their alliances did not survive very long. The BLO and La Familia Michoacána collapsed into disparate, less effective entities throughout 2010 – 2011, with the Gulf Cartel currently in the process of doing so as well. It seemed, in effect, that Los Zetas was winning its series of conflicts and holding off all attempts by its rivals to usurp its new found power. To sum it all up, as of the Fall, 2011, Los Zetas had developed a stable and relatively secret communications network, launched various campaigns against its enemies in western and south-western Mexico and had further consolidated its hold on the plazas of eastern Mexico. Due to its military-like precision and planning, the group had become one of the largest and most feared criminal entities in not only Mexico, but the World. Consequently, Los Zetas could be seen to be at the height of its power with nowhere to go but up. But again, as has become expected in Mexican underworld, a rapid rise is often a prelude to some form of fall.

As 2012 begins the outlook for Los Zetas is not as rosy as once thought. There are several reasons for this change in the fortune, all of which generally originate from the rapid and violent nature of Los Zetas’ expansion. While undoubtedly starting as a paramilitary organization, with many members being former soldiers and police officers, the pool of talent among the Cartel’s leadership as well as its rank and file membership has decreased. The reason for this shrinkage in talent is simple: arrest and deaths. As PanAmerican Crime has discussed in other issues, the collapse of the relationship between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas was not simply a static event. The original leader of Los Zetas under the Gulf Cartel, Arturo Guzman Decena, was murdered in 2002. And, after the arrest of Osiel Cardenas – the leader of the Gulf Cartel – in 2003, the successor to Decena, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizana, was arrested in 2004. The two factions subsequently grew apart to the point that they simply became parallel and rival organizations. This rivalry has only fuelled further turnover. Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, who became leader of the Zetas following Pizana, was murdered in June, 2011. Yet, besides the deaths and arrests of senior leadership, Los Zetas is also suffering from a lack of well-trained and proficient members who are capable of occupying middle management. As their expansion continued throughout 2011, members with valuable knowledge and skill-sets have been murdered by rival cartels or detained by Mexican and American authorities. Consequently, while Los Zetas enjoyed a period of unparalleled growth, they increasingly had fewer and fewer qualified members to occupy the new managerial positions that were opening up. One telling statistic is simply that, as of the start of 2012, very few of the founding members of Los Zetas are left in the organization.

The reason for this trail of bodies is not simply the ongoing conflicts between the rival cartels, it also has to do with what made Los Zetas so famous and effective. Los Zetas is not known as Mexico’s most violent criminal group for nothing. Such a label is not merely bestowed because of a propensity for murder – all of Mexico’s criminal groups have a well deserved reputation for being trigger-happy. Los Zetas is feared because it is not merely violent, it is brutal. The carnage wrought by the group has been experienced across Mexico, extending to Central America and the United States (US). Heads are cut off, bodies dismembered, family members abducted and murdered, and torture utilized whenever possible. People are regularly killed by Los Zetas if such an option is seen as simply being somewhat convenient. Hundreds of migrants seeking to enter the US illegally have been found in mass graves along the Tamaulipas – Texas border, victims of Los Zetas who presumably failed to make some form of payment or who had been discovered by Mexican authorities. These brutal tactics are not just applied to rival drug dealers or poor migrants, but have also been used against governments. Los Zetas has been responsible for the murder of dozens of Mexican municipal and state officials, including police and politicians. This attack on authority has even extended to the American government. In February, 2011, two US Customs and Immigration enforcement officers were shot in Monterrey, Mexico, with one of them – special agent Jaime Zapata – dying from his wounds. Even grenades have been thrown at US consular offices in north-eastern Mexico.

On one hand this brutality has been the calling card of Los Zetas and been the basis of their strength, on the other it has caused Los Zetas to become public enemy number one. Due to their excessive violence, American law enforcement agencies have announced their intention of cracking down on the operations of the Cartel, especially after the murder of Zapata. Indeed, if Los Zetas read their cartel history they would realize that such actions mirror the development and fall of the Guadalajara Cartel – which was responsible for the murder of American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in 1985. The death of Salazar brought unprecedented pressure from the US and Mexican governments, resulting in the arrest of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in 1987, who was then the leader of the Guadalajara Cartel. Gallardo’s arrest resulted in the formation of the current Mexican cartels and the gradual and violent process of decentralization among these groups that has caused so much bloodshed over the past decade. Due to its own actions, Los Zetas may well be on its way to a fate similar to that of the Guadalajara Cartel. Indeed, there is evidence of such developments already taking place. Over the past six months American law enforcement has dramatically stepped up its operations and seizures of money and drugs belonging to Los Zetas, and is now believed to be helping Mexican authorities focus in on the group. Recent arrests include founding member Raul Lucio Hernandez Lechuga, who was in charge of the Veracruz plaza and who was taken into custody in December, 2011; another regional lieutenant, Rigoberto Arispe Zamarripa, was arrested in Nuevo Leon in November, 2011. In a separate raid in Nuevo Leon at least eighteen other Zetas were arrested at a training ranch that same month. American authorities also announced that a Zetas drug distribution cell that was based in Chicago, Illinois, was dismantled in November, 2011. While not senior leaders, the arrests of these people is significant because they represented the crucial connection between the Zetas in the trenches of local plazas and the senior management of the group. Besides the arrests of key people in middle-management – which any business consultant will tell you is the life blood of any large organization – other serious setbacks have also recently been felt by the Zetas. According to Ijet, Los Zetas’ communications network has been dismantled by security forces. The technologically unsophisticated network depended on a high degree of organization and access to a large number of military-grade radio equipment. While not a knockout blow to Los Zetas’ communications ability, it does represent a significant achievement for Mexican authorities. This rapid succession of arrests, the communications breakdown, as well as significant seizures of cash and narcotics, demonstrates the new intense pressure that security officials are now applying to Los Zetas.

As a result of these developments the group has become increasingly reliant upon domestic criminal ventures rather than simply the importation and distribution of drugs. Besides smuggling illegal aliens, Los Zetas is now heavily involved in the extortion of local businesses, illegal and legal, throughout their territory. The Monterrey casino fire, which took place on August 26, 2011, killed at least 32 people and was an attempt by Los Zetas to extract payment from the business for “protection.” Yet it now appears that even such lucrative money-making operations are backfiring. As recently as November, 2011, banners allegedly posted by the group now claim that Los Zetas are the friends of the population of north-eastern Mexico and that the group “would never seek conflict with any government,” American or Mexican. According to STRATFOR, the banners also denied responsibility for the casino fire and other acts of brutality attributed to them. What these events symbolize is a change in the modus operandi of Los Zetas and possibly a more dramatic shift within the organization. The pressures exacted on Los Zetas by the American and Mexican governments have undoubtedly caused certain elements within the group to question and change their tactics somewhat, in an effort to reduce the focus they are receiving from the authorities. However, the repudiation of certain events may also infer that certain elements of the organization are either working separately from the central command structure or are becoming uncontrollable. Certainly the constant arrests and deaths of key figures within the group has undoubtedly hindered the connections and control that Los Zetas’ central command structure would be able to exert over their subordinates. With the communications network disabled to a certain degree for the immediate future and Los Zetas cells now operating across most of Mexico it is also likely that many regional factions are now forced to operate without direct control from Los Zetas’ central hierarchy. The continuing arrests of local bosses, who oversee the various plazas and money-making operations of the cartel, remove talented individuals with a connection to the senior leadership element. And, as mentioned earlier, due to the rapid turnover of members there is no guarantee that their replacements will be as effective as their predecessors; nor is their any confirmation that the new regional leaders will be as loyal. It may even be possible that, due to the arrest of head Zeta Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, certain elements of the organiztion may even be in conflict over who is actually in charge.

Such a decentralized setup is never conducive to success in the Mexican underworld. As has been seen with numerous Mexican cartels throughout the past 25 years, particularly the Guadalajara Cartel, increased pressure by law enforcement on a group that is spread thin in manpower over a large geographic area has always resulted in the break up of the group in question. What needs to be remembered is that while they are being picked apart by the government, Los Zetas is also simultaneously fighting the Sinaloa Cartel in the west, the Knights Templar in the southwest and the remaining factions of the Gulf Cartel along the eastern coast of Mexico. The continual arrests of Zetas and the seizure of their shipments further degrades the group’s ability to fight these numerous conflicts, which only adds to the isolation and dismemberment that the various regional chapter of Los Zetas’ membership are currently experiencing. Therefore, what is likely occurring now is the halting of the Los Zetas juggernaut. What remains to be seen is how cohesively the group responds to the new pressures. Los Zetas could simply retract its offensives and retrench their operations in an effort to stem the tide and ride out the pressures brought on by law enforcement and rival criminal entities. However, there may be no leader universally recognized throughout Los Zetas as the head of the organization that can make such a decision. If this has indeed occurred then further acts of extreme violence may soon occur. Regional factions would seek to wipe out other chapters of Los Zetas in an effort to streamline their business or take control of the organization. And these new conflicts would take place alongside other organizations’ attempts to seize or retake smuggling routes and plazas from the control of the disparate Zeta factions.

It should be remembered that Los Zetas is still considered by many to be the second largest cartel in Mexico and, in many respects, the most dangerous. It is an organization built on a military control structure, meaning that even with all of the challenges presented here, it cannot be stated with certainty that Los Zetas will either break apart or collapse. Its members have a reputation for being highly disciplined, and its numerous successes indicate that it still maintains a serious number talented, dangerous and motivated individuals within its membership. Therefore, despite its recent problems and the possibility of internal upheaval, it would be wrong to start writing the epitaph for the organization at this point. What is certain is that Los Zetas is currently attempting to deal with the greatest series of challenges it has ever had to face. Many local cells are leaderless and certain lost members may indeed be difficult to replace. Mexican and American law enforcement are attacking the group head-on while other cartels are also seeking to take advantage of their current predicament. Further complicating matters is the fact that Los Zetas may now be facing a leadership crisis at the highest level, with the results not being recognized by all members. With all of these issues coming to a head Los Zetas may well be on the verge of fracturing into smaller, competing cartels, an action that would undoubtedly release a new wave of violence across the cities and towns of eastern Mexico. While traumatic and significant, such an occurrence would not be new for the Mexican underworld, and could well be considered normal when compared to similar events in modern Mexican cartel history.

– Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime


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