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The Drug War in Mexico


Mexico City

How quickly a large Mexican city can go from relative tranquillity to a powder keg fought over by drug gangs was recently illustrated clearly in the Gulf resort of Veracruz. Until two months ago, the historic port – which witnessed the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 and the US naval invasions of 1847 and 1914 – was an oil center and largely domestic tourist hub famed for its tropical hedonism and yearly “Carnaval”. Now it looks set to become one of the Drug War’s bloodiest “plazas”.

Following a spate of shootings and grenade attacks in late August, 35 semi-naked and mutilated bodies – allegedly belonging to the Zetas gang – were dumped on a freeway in broad daylight, right in front of the city’s glitziest shopping mall. The group that claimed responsibility for the massacre, “Gente Nueva” (the “New People”) is known to be a paramilitary wing of the Sinaloa Cartel, confirming rumors that Mexico’s biggest, most powerful gang had moved in to take the Zetas down.

Yet the manner in which events have unfolded in Veracruz threatens to turn the city into one of the most violent battlegrounds since the cartel war began. In July, a group of masked, heavily-armed “sicarios” (the name given to cartel hitmen) posted a video online dubbing themselves the “Mata-Zetas” (“Zeta-Killers”), a band of self-proclaimed “warriors” dedicated to “protecting” the population of Veracruz from the Zetas. Far from being vigilantes, as was initially reported, they have also been linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, whose nationwide conflict with the Zetas is now the principal drug gang rivalry.

The Zetas are the paramilitary outfit that formerly worked for the Gulf Cartel and is now a criminal organization in its own right, using Veracruz’s port for cocaine and weapons shipments and feuding with its ex-employer in northeast Mexico. The state of Veracruz became a Zetas stronghold in 2010 during the governorship of Fidel Herrera Beltran, a one-time PRI presidential aspirant who was repeatedly linked to organized crime. “I believe that Veracruz was left in the hands of the Zetas,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon stated last week, after dispatching additional troops to the region. “I don’t know if it was involuntary… Probably, I hope so.”  

On September  19, a day before the massacre described above, three prison breaks took place simultaneously across the state, whereby thirty-two inmates escaped – usually a tactic by drug gangs to bolster their numbers by freeing former associates or forcibly recruiting members of a rival cartel. In this case, however, a number of those released wound up among the dead dumped in the state capital twenty-four hours later, apparently the first and horrifying statement of the “Mata-Zetas’” intent: to “out-zeta” the Zetas in terms of sheer gore.

Two weeks later, Marines carried out arrests which led them to a further 32 dismembered bodies dumped in three houses across the city. Handwritten messages left at the scene of the carnage – a common back-and-forth between rival gangs – suggested another strike by the “Mata-Zetas” or an aligned group. In a matter of weeks, formerly peaceful, colonial Veracruz had stolen the headlines from the bloody border towns.

The major cartels in Mexico have been utilizing armed wings since their personal rivalries turned ugly in the early 2000s. The Zetas formerly did the dirty work of the Gulf Cartel until they turned on their bosses and went independent. The Juarez Cartel in the violence-wracked border town of the same name uses a band of thugs it calls “La Linea” (“The Line”), which also rumoredly operates independently since its employer was weakened. The Sinaloa Cartel has numerous paramilitary-style operatives, of which the “Mata-Zetas” are apparently just the latest.

The “Drug War” is now dominated by two rival organizations. The Zetas are at war with the Sinaloa-Gulf Cartel alliance in the northeast state of Tamaulipas, and trying to move in on Sinaloa territory everywhere else. In July, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) admitted that the Mexican government’s anti-narcotics strategy now focuses on combating the Zetas, even if ironically, their income from drug-trafficking is believed to be a fraction of the Sinaloa Cartel’s.

If President Calderon’s “Drug War” were actually about fighting drugs, then the Sinaloa Cartel would be Public Enemy Number One. It is likely the biggest drug-trafficking organization in the world with access to markets far beyond the US and Canada, and a huge bribery network within Mexico. Unable to compete with Sinaloa in the cocaine trade, the Zetas supplement their narcotics operations with more heinous crimes from kidnapping and extortion to people-trafficking.

The official line on both sides of the border is that the Zetas are the most dangerous of Mexico’s criminal factions and a threat to both countries’ national security (see the recent attempt by US authorities to tie them to the Iranian “terror plot” in Washington). But while their military origins and tactics certainly make them a threat to the Mexican public, the recent bloodshed in Veracruz shows that the Sinaloa Cartel – mistakenly portrayed as an “old-school”, even “honorable” Mafia – is no less versed in brutality.

The Mexican military has been known to actively support the Sinaloa Cartel against its rivals in cities like Tijuana and Juarez – theoretically using one “trustworthy” cartel to eliminate another. But there has always been the suspicion among critics of Calderon’s “war” that this strategy enables the government to carry out the kind of atrocities that the military legally cannot, effectively employing paramilitary-style hitmen to eradicate its enemies in what Counterpunch contributor Kristin Bricker calls the “Colombianization” of Mexico.

The government has officially condemned armed groups that “take justice into their own hands”, trying to paint the “Mata-Zetas” as a vigilante outfit unrelated to any federal strategy. But time is running out for the Felipe Calderon administration. Its primary aim now is to simply take down the Zetas – never mind fight the drug trade, a $15-50 billion per year industry in Mexico alone.

US officials in Mexico recently claimed that the timing of the Sinaloa Cartel’s arrival in Veracruz may have been a pre-emptive strike to delay a Zetas incursion into Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city where loyalties have become split since the killing of “plaza” boss and Sinaloa member Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel in the summer of 2010.

The Calderon administration claims that the ongoing violence has been due to the large cartels being dismantled and broken into smaller – thus less powerful – factions, essentially a way of claiming success for its policy. But these “smaller” factions still largely pledge allegiance to one of the two heavy-hitters, which simply spreads the violence to further corners of the country.

Cartel war history has begun repeating itself. The city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which borders Laredo, Texas, was one of the first Mexican cities to explode with violence when the Sinaloa Cartel fought the Gulf Cartel (now an ally) in 2003. The Zetas (who then worked for the Gulf outfit) helped repel the incursion. Now the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartel are working together to defend it from the Zetas, and the city has erupted again.

These are the ever-decreasing circles in a “war” that the Mexican government claims it is winning. Felipe Calderon has just over a year left in office to sell this sordid soap-opera to an increasingly horrified electorate. The official figure of 34,500 deaths remains unadjusted since last December, with independent media currently quoting 41,000-plus killed since 2007.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at


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