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Feature 052812 Grayson

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mexico's July 1 Election, Los Zetas and the "Monterrey Massacre"

By George W. Grayson

What explains the May 13 slaughter of 43 men and six women whose bodies were sliced and diced beyond recognition near Cadereyta, an erstwhile refinery town 16 miles from Monterrey, Mexico? The appearance of graffiti marked the area as Los Zetas' territory, including "100% Zeta" painted on a stone arch welcoming visitors to the small town where the bodies were dumped, pointing to Los Zetas cartel as the black-hearted culprits.

Then Los Zetas unfurled narco-banners, blaming the treachery on the competing Gulf Cartel. After all, why would the criminal organization "heat up" its own turf?

A week later, under intense pressure to make an arrest, the Mexican Army snagged Jesús "El Loco" Elizondo Ramírez, who was reportedly linked to the catastrophe and operated as plaza boss in Cadereyta.  Brig. Gen. Édgar Luis Villegas reported that Los Zetas' top dogs, Heriberto "The Executioner" Lazcano and Miguel Ángel "El 40" Treviño Morales, ordered the hacked-up corpses dumped in Cadereyta, but that El Loco panicked and tossed them alongside Federal Highway 40 that leads to Reynosa.

Speculation also abounds that the mutilated victims belonged to the mighty Sinaloa Cartel, headed by the prominent capo, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, and inveterate Zeta foe. There's even a chance that the butchered adults were poor migrants striving to enter the United States.

While forensic experts undertake the herculean task of determining identities, the question remains why public displays of multiple homicides have replaced the unobtrusive disposal of bodies in clandestine graves? Also, what consequences will these ballyhooed executions have on Mexico's July 1 presidential race?

Whether or not responsible for the Monterrey massacre, Los Zetas pioneered beheadings, castrations, and the dismemberment of limbs as part of inflicting excruciating torture.

Composed largely of 31 deserters from Mexico's Special Forces, Los Zetas emerged in 1999 as the Praetorian Guard for Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the notoriously potent and erratic kingpin of the Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the border from Brownsville, Texas.

In a March 14, 2003 shootout, the Mexican Army captured Cárdenas, widely known as "The Friend Killer" because of his paranoid distrust of allies. He was imprisoned, extradited, convicted in closed proceedings in Houston federal court, and placed in an American federal prison. He has sung like a canary to authorities in hopes of cutting time from the remaining 16 years of his sentence.

Disarray within the Gulf Cartel's hierarchy after "The Friend Killer's" takedown impelled Los Zetas, led by Lazcano, to exhibit ever-greater independence and cruelty, completely breaking away from their former employers in early 2010.  For his part, Treviño Morales rose from a Gulf Cartel factotum to display diabolical acts that landed him in Los Zetas' number-two spot.

The extremely savage paramilitaries found that they could gain "cartel cred" by beheading and chopping off the hands and feet of their prey before hanging them from bridges or depositing them in public intersections. They indulge in such wickedness to weaken the clout of rivals such as the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, which have declared war on Los Zetas.

Never big players in the drug trade, Los Zetas actively took up extortion, kidnapping, gasoline theft, human trafficking, prostitution, contraband sales and a dozen other crimes.

For example, the realization that the soldiers-turned-sadists will vivisect an abducted child means that terrified parents turn heaven and earth to meet ransom demands -- usually without contacting the police, who often work hand-in-glove with the brigands.

Outgoing President Felipe Calderón has pursued a "kingpin strategy" with reasonable success -- including the devastation of the Arellano Félix Organization in Tijuana, where the Sinaloa Cartel now holds the whip hand. The problem is that the capture or death of a narco big shot ignites a battle among lieutenants for dominance of the enterprise, encourages competing criminal bands to invade his turf, and leads vicious gangs aligned with cartels to play a more assertive role.

The upshot is that drug-related murders have skyrocketed from 2,275 in 2007, Calderón's first full year in office, to 12,366 in 2011 -- with 4,145 deaths reported this year, according to the respected Reforma newspaper.

The Monterrey massacre probably hammered the final nail in the coffin of Josefina Vázquez Mota, the attractive candidate of Calderón's National Action Party (PAN) in the July 1 presidential election. As a result, the nominee of the once-hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), will likely score a thumping victory. The movie-star handsome nominee is neither the favorite of drug traffickers nor a source of specific ideas to combat the brigands. It's that amid mounting bloodshed, tepid economic growth and acutely uneven income distribution, voters want change.

As one retired Mexican diplomat told me: "The people have had it up to their eyeballs with the PAN."

Yet Vázquez Mota might pick up ground if the chief executive's regime managed to arrest shadowy former PRI officials.  On May 22 U.S. Attorneys filed civil suits against Tamaulipas' ex-governor Tomás Yarrington for the forfeiture of Texas holdings allegedly acquired with laundered drug money.  The former state leader, who has properties on South Padre Island, has yet to be located.

Vázquez Mota has also begin blasting EPN's coziness with dinosaurs who chug-a-lug from the budget trough and thwart development.  Carlos Romero Deschamps, the super-rich honcho of the venal Oil Workers Union, provides a flagrant example. His daughter Paulina's Facebook profile revealed that she owns a palatial home, hefts a Hermés purse, patronizes Louis Vuitton VIP salons, and cruises on a yacht with her three English bulldogs.  How does she luxuriate on a $1,895 monthly Pemex salary? 

EPN equivocated when queried about her princessly life style, saying her dad "is a leader who has worked and who enjoys the respect of his union."   

Such events aside, Peña Nieto has a full momentum powered by hostility toward a dozen years of PAN rule.  If elected, he must move rapidly to reduce the carnage. The public cares less about jailing über-gangsters than enjoying safe streets, workplaces, and schools.

Peña Nieto is expected to rely less on the Mexican Army and more on the Navy and Marines, specialized civilian agencies such as the Federal Police Special Operations Group (GOPES), informants, technological surveillance, phone taps and drones.

At the same time, he's got to crack down on money-laundering and governors who work hand-in-glove with the Mafiosi, or turn a blind eye to their skullduggery. If the mayhem continues unabated, the likely next chief executive's popularity will evaporate like water on a July day in the Sonoran desert.


George Grayson teaches at the College of William & Mary. He is coauthor with Sam Logan of "The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created," published earlier this month by Transaction Press.  Grayson can be reached via 757-810-0034 or 757-253-2400; An earlier version of this article, "Los Zetas Cartel and the Massacre in Monterrey," appeared in the UT-San Diego newspaper on May 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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