Monday 14 May 2012

From Jalisco to Tamaulipas, Los Zetas’ days are numbered

The drug war that has raged in Mexico for five and half years, and that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, has been in the news of late: 23 bodies found hanging from a bridge or decapitated and dumped near city hall in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (May 6); 18 bodies found outside the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco (May 9); and 49 bodies dumped on the side of a highway between Monterrey and the U.S. border,  in the state of Nuevo Leon (May 13).

The rationale for this extreme violence is, in a very broad sense, easy to understand: the Mexican government has militarized the conflict, and the cartels have responded by fighting for their lives.

There is an important twist, and that is the Los Zetas cartel, which has been targeted by Mexican authorities, and which has emerged as a hard-core killing machine that refuses to slow down.

But as the military retreats from areas where it has had “successes”, such as Tijuana , Ciudad Juárez, and even Veracruz, the Sinaloa Cartel has emerged as the de facto heir. This is of course not a cut and dry situation – remnants of the Gulf, Juárez and Tijuana Cartels are still active.

However, we are now down to a conflict in which Sinaloa, along with its sometime allies the Gulf Cartel , are in a massive and brutal “final conflict” with Los Zetas, who are counting on support from the weakened Juárez and Tijuana Cartels.

The unspoken strategy on the part of the government seems clear: open the plaza for the Sinaloa Cartel, and remove the competition, particularly Los Zetas.

There is a good reason for this approach. The Sinaloa Cartel is, and always has been, primarily a drug trafficking organization. By comparison, Los Zetas – who began as government-trained paramilitaries before joining the Gulf Cartel and then, ultimately, going solo – are more active in other highly disruptive and violent criminal activities such as kidnapping and extortion.

Without access to profitable drug routes, Los Zetas emerged as an aggressive crime organization that focussed on a corridor down the Gulf coast – from the U.S. border to Guatemala. They leaned heavily into human trafficking and tried to elbow into new drug transit opportunities in Central America.

And they very foolishly decided to roll over the top of Mexico. They challenged the Sinaloa cartel’s client gang Nueva Generacion in Jalisco, and even went up the Pacific coast into the state of Sinaloa itself.

Los Zetas: public enemy number one

Proof that Los Zetas are in the government’s cross hairs, and that Sinaloa is getting an easier ride due to its “peaceful” approach to drug trafficking, can be seen in recent arrest activity and in accusations of Los Zetas’ involvement in massacres.

Four Los Zetas members were recently arrested for the Jalisco killings. The gangsters were detained in Tala, and were allegedly acting on the orders of Juan Carlos Antonio Mercado, alias “El Chato,” a suspected Los Zetas boss.

On May 11 Mexican authorities announced the arrest of the Los Zetas alleged chief enforcer in the Gulf state of Veracruz. Marcos Jesus Hernandez Rodriguez is accused of masterminding the brutal murders of four navy personnel and a civilian in April.

As well, a message was left with Los Zetas claiming responsibility for the killings near Monterrey, which included at least 43 men and half a dozen women. They were found in plastic garbage bags near the town of Cadereyta Jimenez, in Nuevo Leon.  The victims had been decapitated, with their hands and feet chopped off.

Many of the bodies had tattoos, and state prosecutor Adrian de la Garza said some of them may have been immigrants or hailed from other parts of the country. Los Zetas are known to intercept migrants and to force them into crime, sometimes slaughtering them for refusing to cooperate.

However, Los Zetas have since claimed that the Cadreyta Jimenez massacre was not their doing. This is an odd turn of events, as the gang has rarely found a mass murder that it wasn't proud of.

Although media reports have said that the U.S. government considers Los Zetas to be “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico,” it would seem that Los Zetas’ strategy of ultra-violence is desperate, and has set them against the government, the Sinaloa Cartel, and Mexican society itself.

In the meantime, the Sinaloa Cartel sticks to its knitting, which is the highly lucrative trafficking market. And it does this via a very effective policy of old-school bribery and corruption. This is a modus operandi that is built for the long haul, and that will thrive no matter who is elected in Mexico’s presidential election July 1.

And Los Zetas? Like any organization that is built on violence, and that has a weak revenue stream and shallow government influence due to its limited financial resources, it will become a victim of its own violent desperation, with deaths and arrests making it impossible to build organizational continuity.

No one knows when the expiration date is, but one thing is certain: Los Zetas cannot “heat up the plaza” forever. Sooner or later, they’ll simply burn out.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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