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El Lazca and the Walking Dead

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City.

Mexico awoke Tuesday to the news that one of its leading drug lords had bit the dust. Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (aka El Lazca), presumed leader of Los Zetas and arguably the country’s third most wanted man, had been killed in a fire-fight with the Mexican Navy. El Lazca’s downfall was quickly hailed as a major victory in President Felipe Calderon’s much-hyped “war against organized crime”.

Then came the punch-line: no sooner had the Navy released pictures of the corpse to a salivating media than authorities admitted that the body had been stolen from a local funeral parlor – by a masked commando, no less.

Cue the wildest conspiracy theories since Joaquin El Chapo Guzman – Mexico’s most famous mafia don – wandered out of prison in 2001. Did Lazcano fake his own death? Did the government fake Lazcano’s death? Was Elvis involved?

Also, cue the birth of a new narco-legend, right up there with “Lord of the Skies” Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who died mysteriously during a plastic surgery procedure at a Mexico City hospital in 1997.

Lazcano, who took control of the Zetas sometime around 2004, was reportedly attending a baseball game in the state of Coahuila, northern Mexico, when he was gunned down by naval officers after a high-speed chase, although reports differ as to whether the Navy was tipped off or if they came across him by accident. Initial reports stated that only one other individual was with El Lazca at the time (one of the world’s most wanted men travels with only one bodyguard?) while a later version said that a third man fled the scene.

Although Lazcano was supposedly killed on Sunday, the Navy didn’t officially announce his death until late Monday evening after fingerprint and DNA evidence could be gleaned. Next came the photos of a corpse looking very much like El Lazca. By then, the Mexican media was already reporting that the corpse was no longer in possession of the authorities. First, it was said that an armed gang had retrieved the body; later, a “lone commando”.

As a nation mulled over the possibility of a conspiracy, everybody was suddenly reminded of the mysterious chapel that appeared in the crime lord’s native Pachuca, Hidalgo, last year. A plaque (subsequently removed) announced that the edifice was built thanks to a generous donation by one Heriberto Lazcano, while locals murmured that its benefactor intended to be buried in the mausoleum there.

“After the letter ‘z’, there’s nothing” 

Lazcano’s group the Zetas have become larger-than-life; their name alone (the letter “z” in Spanish) now a symbol of the “Drug War” carnage that Mexico has witnessed in the past six years. The massacre of no fewer than 72 Central American migrants, later dumped in a mass grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in August 2010, is widely attributed to them. At the other end of the socio-economic scale, they left 52 wealthy people dead when they firebombed the glitzy Casino Royale in Monterrey last year, allegedly over an unpaid debt.

Notorious for their ultra-violent tactics, the Zetas began life in the late ‘90s as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, providing the muscle for then-boss Osiel Cardenas Guillen. The majority were recruited from Mexico’s elite Special Forces unit the Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) and they quickly brought their counterinsurgency training to play in the country’s mafia wars  – a good deal of which they’d picked up at the School of the Americas, where Lazcano himself may well have trained.

In 2010, the group struck out alone, declaring war on their former employer. Routinely described as a “drug cartel”, these bad boys are believed to make less than 45% of their income from drug-trafficking. Unable to compete with the likes of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel (still the number one “narco” group) in the lucrative cocaine trade, they quickly diversified into immigrant-smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and even the capping of oil pipelines to bring home the bacon.

On August 27 this year, Mexico’s Attorney General Marisela Morales confirmed a long-held rumor that the Zetas had split; El Lazca’s number two Miguel Angel Treviño Morales (aka “Z-40”) was making a play for the leadership of the group, causing a spate of violent clashes around the country. Some believe that Lazcano had already dropped out of the picture.

If it really was El Lazca killed by the Navy last Sunday, one theory is that it was Treviño who tipped off the authorities as to his whereabouts. Make no mistake; this isn’t the end of the Zetas, much less an end to the “war”.

In short, while the Mexican government will milk this for everything it’s worth in pro-“Drug War” publicity, the impact of El Lazca’s death will likely be slight. Rival groups may well try to capitalize on a perceived moment of weakness for the Zetas but there’s every chance that Miguel Angel Treviño had been pulling the strings for some time.

Gimme Shelter

Mexico’s “Drug War” – or at least the high-octane version of it waged by President Felipe Calderon – is set to end December 1 when the man who’s surely become one of the country’s most controversial presidents finally leaves office. Incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party under whose 71-year reign (1929-2000) organized crime flourished, has already made moves to rebrand the offensive.

While drug cartel violence was a reality under Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, the latter’s term officially saw 9,000 killed in violence related to organized crime. 2006-12 has seen as many as 70,000 deaths. In fact, nobody’s even sure how many of them were “related to organized crime”. Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) says the overall number of homicides during this period was 90,000, but that includes murders of every description.

Part of the reason why the PRI won the election in July is because of a public perception that their legendary tolerance of the country’s drug lords was preferable to Calderon’s all-out “war”. But that only tells half the story. The National Action Party (PAN) administrations of Fox and Calderon have clearly had a pact with the Sinaloa Cartel, essentially giving it license to expand while the military took down its rivals, including the Zetas.

The relationship between Mexico’s billion dollar mafia organizations is a complicated one – you could write a telenovela – but the major feud comes down to a faction aligned with El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and an alliance spearheaded by the Zetas. The fighting takes place all over the country but especially along the US border and the Pacific and Gulf coasts. The Zetas are particularly powerful in the Gulf region, stretching from Guatemala to the northeast border with Texas.

How can an entire country – and its government – be held ransom by violent criminal organizations? The Mexican drug trade alone is estimated to be worth US$30-50 billion per year. Worldwide it’s in the region of $400 billion. This isn’t cholos playing for kicks but a multinational mega-industry. Several US and European banks – all Mexican banks are foreign-owned – have been found guilty of laundering billions of the profits, and paid shockingly low fines for their sins.

El Lazca’s “death” is the end of a chapter then, as was Amado Carrillo Fuentes’ mysterious demise in 1997. But the business of drug-trafficking, of organized crime in Mexico, and of the Zetas, goes on. And try as he might, Felipe Calderon still can’t shake those rumors that while El Chapo Guzman’s rivals fall like dominos, the big man himself remains the “protected one” of the federal government.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com 

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