Meet the meanest of the mean, the baddest of the bad. Having started life as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel and then gone solo, “Los Zetas” (the Z’s) are currently regarded as the deadliest of the organized crime gangs tearing up “Drug War”-era Mexico. Now formidable drug-traffickers in their own right (the DEA has linked them to Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mob) as well as making a hefty sum through kidnappings, extortion and other delitos, the Zetas are best-known for a startling string of atrocities that have elevated the Mexican cartel war to new levels of grisliness. The recent spate of senseless executions in Durango and Tamaulipas (where over 300 bodies were discovered in mass graves, some dating back four years), as well as the massacre of 27 in Guatemala, are widely attributed to the gang.
Los Zetas was founded by and originally consisted of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces who in the late ’90s accepted an offer to join Osiel Cardenas Guillen’s Gulf Cartel, taking their considerable military expertise and heavy-duty weapons with them. The Gulf Cartel’s main plaza (or territory) is the aforementioned Tamaulipas, which borders the US in northeast Mexico and is therefore home to lucrative trafficking routes. Los Zetas steadily climbed the ranks of the cartel, gaining increasing influence, until February 2010 when banners hung from bridges in the city of Matamoros announced a vicious split between former employer and hired muscle; in Drug War etiquette, a sure sign that all hell is about to break loose.
Referring to the reputation that Los Zetas have for brutality, the banner read: “The Gulf Cartel distances itself from [Los Zetas]. We do not want kidnappers, terrorists, rapists, child-killers and traitors in our ranks” (because obviously the carnage carried out by Cardenas Guillen and his gang over the years was of a more humane variety).
Since then, the states of Tamaulipas and neighboring Nuevo Leon have hosted a fierce turf war between the two sides and are currently seeing the worst violence in the country. Los Zetas’ main strongholds are the cities of Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, and Veracruz, the historic gateway to Mexico, while they are fighting to take key Gulf plazas like Matamoros, a port city that receives crucial shipments of cocaine and Central American arms. The Zetas’ turf stretches south along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts, while they are also known to control smuggling corridors through Central America, where 27 people were slaughtered and beheaded on a Guatemalan farm last month.
The elite Special Forces unit that spawned Los Zetas was created in the mid-’80s as Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales, or GAFE (motto: “Everything for Mexico”), and trained by both France and the US ? in the latter via the “School of the Americas”. The unit was deployed in Chiapas in 1994 to put down the left-wing Zapatista rebellion, employing the same counterinsurgency tactics now used against rival cartels and the very armed forces they once served. As a snapshot of how Los Zetas go about business, federal police recently seized a converted pick-up truck turned steel-plated assault vehicle belonging to the cartel, which had been fitted with gun turrets and christened “the Monster”.
But they can’t win. As an acknowledged rival of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization and purported favorite of the Felipe Calderon administration, Los Zetas have already suffered some pretty heavy losses at the hands of security forces, with eleven top members and regional bosses captured since the start of the year. Sinaloa boss “El Chapo” Guzman supports the Gulf Cartel against Los Zetas in the northeast, while the latter have assisted Guzman’s rivals elsewhere in the country. Zeta incursions into El Chapo’s “Golden Triangle” of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua have been largely unsuccessful so far, but the gang’s high-octane hardware and violent tactics mean that local communities have been paralyzed by the fighting. Like Tamaulipas, Durango has recently seen a shocking phenomenon of mass graves ? the victims are mainly economic migrants and illegal immigrants traveling cross-country, attacked on highways and either forcibly recruited or killed.
Until the mass graves started appearing, Los Zetas’ most notorious attack was the murder of one US Customs Agent and the wounding of another in the city of San Luis Potosi in February. Despite the fact that 30,000-plus lives had already been lost to “Drug War” violence, the incident drew international attention because the targets were US officials. It’s been suggested that the attack was not sanctioned by the Zetas’ leadership ? who would be loath to bring the wrath of the Obama administration upon their heads – but the result of a local cell acting independently. This throws up another notion, that the powerful capos, or bosses, of the cartels have only loose control over the mercenaries they hire, resulting in evermore gruesome acts of violence by lower-level gangs.
Looking Ahead: Can the PRI End the Mexican Drug War?
After five years of mayhem in Mexico, what follows will largely depend on the outcome of next summer’s presidential election, where former ruling party the PRI is expected to return to power. Famously described by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa as “the perfect dictatorship”, the once-radical, later-reactionary Institutional Party of the Revolution was thought to be dead in the water when their 70-year rule ended in free elections in 2000. It’s a testament to how badly Felipe Calderon’s PAN administration has managed things since ? particularly the “Drug War” ? that many Mexicans will now welcome the PRI back with open arms.
It’s believed that the PRI was considerably more adept at “negotiating” with the drug-trafficking organizations and keeping inter-cartel violence to a minimum. Organized crime reportedly contributes $25-35 billion per year to the Mexican economy, making it almost impossible to dismantle the financial networks propping up the cartels ? not to mention the huge international demand that feeds the drug trade. Whether you call it corruption or just plain common sense, successive PRI governments parceled out territory between the cartels, for the most part keeping the peace, while ensuring that Washington was kept happy with comprehensive neoliberal reforms (the US went from breaking off relations after the PRI nationalized the oil industry in the 1930s to giving President Miguel Aleman a Washington parade in 1947 when Mexico jumped on board as a Cold War ally).
The likeliest candidate for the PRI next year and probable next president, dapper Mexico State Governor Enrique Pena Nieto (complete with telenovela-actress-wife), has already quietly visited Washington, courted European investors via the Financial Times, and generally sold the idea that “Drug War”-era Mexico is still open for business. Interestingly, however, the recent US embassy cables released by Wikileaks suggest concern about the PRI retaking office. Although increasingly pro-US and “free trade” in their final years, the party was always less pliable than the PAN, and their rumored plan to bring the drug cartels to the negotiating table could punch holes in the US strategy for increased military co-operation between the countries.
The US essentially wants to turn Mexico into Colombia, with military bases and a shared bi-national security strategy. The former is extremely unlikely under any party because of national sentiment towards US intervention going back to the Mexican-American War. The latter is already in place, however, via the Merida Initiative, whereby military aid to Mexico (and Central America) effectively be used to carry out US foreign policy aims, which have everything to do with suppressing popular opposition and keeping countries like Mexico as client states. The PRI will certainly not turn against its northern neighbor wholesale, but it may well have its own ideas to end the inter-cartel rivalry.
“We’ve Had It Up to Here”
Given the intense violence engulfing the country, it was only a matter of time before popular movements emerged protesting the actions of both the cartels and the government. The biggest anti-war statement, which I reported for this site, so far took place on Sunday, May 8, when some 200,000 Mexicans from a wide range of backgrounds marched from Cuernavaca, Morelos, to the National Palace in Mexico City’s Zocalo Square. The figurehead of the movement is poet-turned-activist Javier Sicilia who lost his son to drug violence in March. Sicilia is a middle-class, media-friendly voice of dissent who has harshly criticised government policy and sparked more debate in two months than thousands of “ordinary” (lower class) victims of the Drug War before him.
Sicilia has since organized a “Peace Caravan” that will journey through twelve Mexican states and arrive June 10 in Ciudad Juarez, the city most affected by violence, with 3000 killings in 2010 alone. He and his supporters will collect signatures for a “National Pact for Peace” which demands an end to the policy of militarization and urges the government to tackle the public health and socio-economic issues behind drug-trafficking (an estimated 450,000 Mexicans are employed by organized crime, while rates of drug use have shot up as the cartels seek to open domestic markets). While there is substantial popular support for the anti-war movement, it’s highly unlikely that Felipe Calderon will change tack before he leaves office next summer. The protest in Ciudad Juarez, like the one in Mexico City, is likely to be symbolic of the sea-change in Mexican public opinion and little more.
Strikingly, the movement has focused its protest against Calderon and not the US despite the Obama administration’s full backing of the Drug War and its plans to increase military aid to Mexico. Indeed, it’s almost inconceivable that Calderon would have embarked on the policy without US support. Obama is still relatively popular south of the border where many Mexicans bought the same hype as liberal America and were of course awed by the historical significance of his election. Some observers have suggested that, however well-intentioned, Mexico’s anti-war movement is doomed to fail precisely because it fails to address the broader political forces at work in the “War on Drugs”.
Ultimately, the irony of the Merida Initiative security agreement that Washington signed with Mexico (and Central America) in 2008 is that it was intended to protect US interests and put down the kind of popular resistance that could undermine both governments and the incredibly lucrative (for a handful of CEOs) NAFTA/CAFTA free trade agreements. Ironic then that the very “security” policies Washington is pushing on the region are leading to the kind of unrest it sought to suppress. Mexicans, traditionally more politically aware than their northern neighbors, have little doubt about who really pulls the strings in regional policy-making, and if the burgeoning resistance movement finds its feet, it could begin to force the next government’s hand in forging an alternative path to tackle the country’s problems.
Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ?