Monday, May 19, 2014
Cartel Violence Anew in Mexico and Los Zetas Push for a Comeback
By George W. Grayson
2014 takedown of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the notorious over-lord of the Sinaloa Cartel,
has had a rippling effect on the drug war in northern Mexico—to the point of sparking an attempted comeback by
the sadistic Zetas. Beginning in the last 1990s, these desperados, whose founders deserted from the elite
Airborne Special Forces Group in the late-1990s, served as the paramilitary arm of the Gulf Cartel based in Matamoros, across
the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.
Thanks to instruction from ex-Kaibiles,
the Guatemalan army’s heinous commandos, Los Zetas acquired training in butchering their prey—with an emphasis
on loping off heads, performing castrations, and skinning bodies of live victims.
Especially apt students of these macabre techniques were Zeta chieftains Heriberto “The Executioner”
Lozano and Miguel Ángel “El 40” Treviño Morales. These men thrived on aggression, manipulation,
and the infliction of unspeakable pain on others, including children.
Single decapitations inured the public and Fourth Estate to such ghastly deeds.
After years of these atrocities, a
single incident often made only local news. To attract broad print
these agents of Satan began slicing and dicing multiple
enemies and arrayed their corpses
in a pattern convenient for TV and newspaper photographers. In December 2008,
Los Zetas captured and executed eight Army officers and enlisted men in Guerrero, a violence-torn, impoverished
southern state that is home to Acapulco. Pictures of the
headless cadavers lying side-by-side flashed around the world on television and YouTube. In addition, Los Zetas adeptly employing Google, Facebook, Twitter,
and other social outlets to alert authorities and the populace to their ineffable viciousness.
They also mastered the preparation of a “guiso” or “stew.” The simple
recipe entailed plunging a tortured child or adult into a pig cooker or 55-gallon oil drum, dousing the body with gasoline,
and setting their quarry on fire.
In July 2009, they
assaulted the home of the police chief in the south-central state of Veracruz. Within five minutes, they
blasted their way into the house and murdered the law-enforcement official, his wife, their son, and a police officer.
They then torched the residence, incinerating the remaining three children, all girls.
No wonder the White House labeled them a “global menace,” comparable to the Camrorra secret society in
southern Italy, the Yakuza mob in Japan, and the Brothers’ Circle of Eastern Europe.
The Bottom Line
Like the dominant Sinaloa Cartel,
Mexico's traditional narco-traffickers emphasized the economic aspects of their trade. The Gulf Cartel
also stressed profitability over gratuitous carnage. The increasing tendency of Los Zetas to brutalize
their quarry was bad for business, and further strained Gulf-Zeta relations, which snapped in early 2010.
This blood-lust attracted a plethora of enemies: the armed forces, the Federal Police, U.S. security agencies, and
rival cartels. For instance, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels—once akin to two scorpions in a bottle—joined
forces against the villains. El Chapo’s Sinaloans sought access to Nuevo Laredo, the busiest portal with the United
States; the Gulf Cartels endeavored to maintain control of Matamoros, Reynosa, and other frontier crossings in Tamaulipas.
Top Leaders Fall
Mexican Marines, armed with intelligence from DEA wire-taps, eliminated the top leaders of the ghoulish Mafiosi.
After a withering gun-battle on October 7, 2012, Marines killed Zeta kingpin Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano
while he nonchalantly watched a baseball game in Progreso, Coahuila, a state infested with Zetas. Blows
continued to rain down on these evil-doers under Enrique Peña Nieto, the successor of President Felipe Calderón
(2006-12), who took office on December 1, 2012, seeking to concentrate on energy, educational, telecommunications, tourism,
and labor reforms rather than warring against DTOs.
2013, Marines captured “El 40” Treviño Morales on a dirt road near Nuevo Laredo, his hometown and a Zeta
bastion. He is the most sadistic drug capo in Mexico. As one analyst averred: “He
deserves to rot for eternity in the lowest rung of hell.”
These reverses thrust Omar Treviño Morales into the Zeta’s leadership. Lacking the
skills and legitimacy of his older brother Miguel Ángel, Omar, also known as “El 42,” has watched the dismantling
of his venal syndicate’s command and control apparatus. For example, a March 27, 2014 police and military operation
in the eastern state of Veracruz terminated in the death of ten Zetas who specialized in kidnapping.
Just when it seemed that
Los Zetas were doomed, El Chapo’s arrest sidelined the one strongman who could force cooperation on the badly divided
Gulf Cartel factions—the Cyclones (Matamoros) and Los Metros (Reynosa)—that were lunging at each other’s
throats, according to stellar crime reporter Ildefonso Ortiz of The Monitor (McAllen). Recently,
however, warfare has erupted within Los Metros, allowing Los Cyclones a chance to heal their wounds. One
of the fatalities in the intra-Metro brawl was Galindo “Z-9,” an original Zeta who remained with the Gulf Cartel
and held a prominent post in the Reynosa area.
reported 23 dead in recent fire fights in Reynosa, including two citizens, two federal policemen, one soldier, and 18 gunmen.
The figure was closer to 30 according to an anti-crime specialist who lamented the image-conscious Peña Nieto’s
low-balling of casualty numbers.
As a result of mayhem enveloping Reynosa, on Saturday, May 10—Mexican Mother’s Day—irate residents
dispatched expletive-laden messages to Peña Nieto and Tamaulipas Governor Egidio Torre Cantú.
Amid these internecine clashes, Los Zetas are moving rapidly to regain lost territory in Reynosa, Matamoros, Río
Bravo in Tamaulipas, as well as Monterrey, Nuevo León.
top-tier drug traffickers, the band has diversified into such felonious ventures as extortion, murder-for-hire, child prostitution,
kidnapping, migrant smuggling, loan-sharking, contraband, money laundering, gun-running, and thefts from Petróleos
Mexicanos (PEMEX), the hugely corrupt, featherbedded state oil monopoly.
With respect to the last item, Los Zetas, from
their redoubts in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, have targeted PEMEX. The scoundrels have tapped into
oil and gas pipelines, undoubtedly with the aid of PEMEX personnel; hijacked gasoline tanker trucks; stolen TNT and other
explosives acquired for well blasting; and robbed such solvents as toluene and xylene. These chemicals
are acquired for hydraulic fracking, but they can also be used to process cocaine and methamphetamines. While
not involved in methamphetamine commerce, Los Zetas can sell their booty to producers of synthetic drugs, as well as to legal,
but complicit, pharmaceutical firms, dye-makers, and soap manufacturers eager to reduce input costs.
Penetrating Pemex pipelines has spiraled from 213 in 2006 to 1,449 in 2012, giving
rise to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. "The
illegal trafficking in large quantities of natural gas, gasoline, aviation fuel and diesel has surged as one of the principle
sources of financing for Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and other criminal cells,” Carlos Mendoza Mora, president of
a Mexico City security firm, told the Coahuila newspaper Vanguardia.
Energy Reform Will Afford More Opportunities
reform of the energy sector will spur imports of vital
materials from outside the country, thus magnifying prospects for theft, extortion, and other criminality. Will
foreign firms be willing to hire companies to protect their managers, workers, and resources? PEMEX Director
General Emilio Lozano Austin has expanded the role of the company’s security chief, Eduardo León Trauwitz; however,
the retired brigadier general has failed to stem losses since his 2012 appointment.
It’s important to remember too that Los Zetas’ presence in the Petén territory has severely constricted
Guatemala’s ability to entice investment in its hydrocarbon reservoirs.
Los Zetas are also underwriting their demonic deeds by taking possession of another natural resource—coal.
Humberto Moreira Valdés claimed that the brigands were extracting coal from five municipalities in the Sabinas
region Coahuila, a state that he once governed. The miscreants mine the coal and market it to intermediaries, who Moreira
insists turn around and resell it to the government-owned Federal Electricity Commission.
Incursions into Central America
have also made extensive inroads into Central America. The
United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime has called Los Zetas the “dominant” narco-traffickers in the region. In late April 2014, El Salvador’s Public Security and Justice Minister Ricardo
Perdomo denounced Los Zetas for selling high-powered rifles to the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and other gangs in Honduras and
Guatemala. They are also accused of training these heinous outfits. The Salvadoran official
said that in exchange for weapons, Los Zetas turn over small amounts of cocaine to the gangs for street-level sales known
Horizontal, Decentralized Structure
Dwight Dyer and Daniel Sachs pointed out in Foreign Affairs magazine: “Instead of developing
a strong vertical hierarchy, they have built a horizontal, decentralized one. The Zetas do not have identifiable
leaders, but its individual cells have always been empowered to exploit opportunities available to their respective locales.”
This means that parochial jefes, who may be young, inexperienced, and ill-trained in the use of AR-15s and
AK-47s can act without waiting for orders from a commander. At times advantageous, this flexibility may
trigger imprudent moves, which can result in the capture or killing of the aggressors, even as “zetanization”—mimicking
Los Zetas’ heinous antics—gains greater acceptance in Mexico’s ever-expanding underworld.
The tsunami of
killings and a barrage of social media complaints about insecurity led Gobernación Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio
Chong to jet to Reynosa on May 13 to unveil a security program for Tamaulipas. Among other items, he said
the state would be divided into four areas (border, coast, center, and south)—with federal prosecutors and special military
personnel assigned to each zone. He also promised the establishment of a new police academy.
These designees will have to be on constant guard. For instance, on May 5 desperados ambushed and
killed the state police intelligence chief, Col. Salvador Haro Muñoz. A week later, it was announced
that Governor Egidio Torre Cantú’s top bodyguard had been sacked for allegedly masterminding the assassination.
Confidence in federal and state authorities is zero to nil.
With the Marines, the DEA, and other law-enforcement agencies on his tail, Omar Treviño Morales should think
twice about purchasing green bananas. Still, dispersed bosses such as the leader of the “Sangre Zetas,”
or “Blood Zetas,” will continue to spew their venom on rival cartels, politicians, public officials, the police,
and average citizens.
© George W. Grayson 2014. Dr. George W. Grayson, Class of 1938 Professor of Government Emeritus at the College of William &
Mary, is a senior associate at CSIS and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His
book (co-authored with Samuel Logan), Los Zetas: The
Executioner’s Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created (Transaction Press, 2012),
focuses on the cartel.