by John Murray
Following the Rio Grande southeast out of the Valley of Juarez, past the Big Bend region and across the vast emptiness of the Chihuahuan desert, one eventually comes to the states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, historic base of the Gulf Cartel and home to the newest outbreak of everyday violence in the Mexican drug war. In February, the Gulf Cartel announced the formation of “La Nueva Federacion”, an alliance with their former enemies, the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoachan, and publicly declared war on its own former enforcement wing, a group of ex-Mexican special forces soldiers known as the Zetas. The two sides went to battle almost immediately, turning the border city of Reynosa into a war zone overnight. Main streets were barricaded with trucks and SUVs as gangs of heavily armed men went at each other with assault rifles and fragmentation grenades. Within days the U.S. shut down the consulates in Reynosa and Matamoros, while the local government, as well as both the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, warned residents to stay in their homes.
So how did it happen? The Gulf Cartel has been entrenched in this territory for over 30 years, and like the other cartels in Mexico, moved from humbler beginnings in the marijuana and opium trades to become a multi-billion dollar empire when the major routes for cocaine trafficking moved out of the heavily patrolled Caribbean and into Mexico in the late 1980’s. The three major border crossings making up their turf-Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros-proved extremely lucrative and tactically beneficial, being easily fed by the gigantic industrial metropolis of Monterrey to the south and providing quick access to Houston across the border.
One of the hallmark facts about the growth of the Mexican cartels and the corresponding growth of violence in Mexico over the past decades is that where there is more money to earn, there is more money to lose. As their revenues and influence grew, it lead to the cartels becoming both more covetous of turf and more zealous about defending it. The Zetas were born out of this fact. In the late 90s, Osiel Cardenas, then the head of the Gulf cartel, began to recruit members of an elite Mexican army special forces team to become enforcers for his cartel. They were very well trained (some say in the U.S.) and one of their main goals was to combat drug trafficking. In the beginning, about 35 soldiers defected to become the Zetas-and suddenly the Gulf Cartel had its own paramilitary force.
They brought professional knowledge of advanced weaponry and battle tactics, and came with a pre-ordained chain of command. Their creation sparked a huge upward trend in violent enforcement in an already violent industry. Soon after the Zetas hit the scene, the Sinaloa cartel followed suit, organizing Los Negros and Los Pelones, similar groups of ex-soldiers, to act as wings of the business devoted to nothing but violence and murder.
The cartels were growing in size and scope.
In 2003, Osiel Cardenas was arrested, and suddenly the Gulf Cartel was weak. Taking full advantage, the Sinaloa cartel sent Los Negros and Los Pelones to Nuevo Laredo in a bid to try to take over the plaza, the term for a major drug trafficking waypoint. The Zetas took on a huge role in defending the city for the weakened cartel, and as a result became more important to it.
As time went on, the former leaders of the Zetas began to intertwine themselves more in the business aspects of the cartel. In the past few years, Zetas have taken over leadership positions in both enforcement and trafficking, becoming an inextricable part of the cartel while still remaining a unit unto themselves. This led to growing tension between the two groups, but that was largely surmounted at the time by the task at hand of defending their turf. Then in 2007, Cardenas was extradited to the US, the kiss of death for any leadership role he retained in the cartel, and suddenly the cartel and the Zetas had the future to think about.
2007 was a big year in the drug trade. The Sinaloa cartel began sending forces en masse to Juarez, Mexican President Calderon launched his ‘War on the Cartels’, and the Zetas continued their ascendancy in the Gulf cartel. But the violence that would break out over the next few years began to bite the changing industry in the ass. In addition to sucking up focus and resources, the violence in Juarez and place like Sinaloa, Guerrero, Nuevo Leon and Michoachan actually developed into a sort of public relations disaster for the cartels.
You have to remember, Mexico tends to revere its drug traffickers, iconizing them in corridos and viewing them essentially as peasants who rose up to strike back at the dominance of the Mexican oligarchs and the U.S., playing off the latent anger of generations past at the Hacienda system and serfdom. These images are carefully cultivated by the culture and the cartels themselves, because having the people on their side is a huge advantage, especially in the rural and mountainous regions where they base operations. The border cities are ruled more through fear, but even there the children grow up wanting to be like the narcos, who they see driving fancy cars and flashing money around.
So though it may sound strange, the drug trade is still a business, and every business has to deal with their public image. Just last week, Sinaloa honcho Mayo Zambada actually gave an interview to the magazine Proceso that had all the elements of positive marketing spin. Mayo talked about how he lived “constantly in fear,” chased by the Army and authorities. He painted himself as a persecuted farmer, whose only recourse was to flee to the mountains and country side, where “I know the vegetation, the rivers, the rocks, everything.” It’s touches like these, along with generous bribes to the right people, that have allowed people like Mayo and Chapo to stay in business as long as they have.
For the Zetas, like most military groups, public relations isn’t exactly a first priority. This became apparent as they rose to power. The Zetas seized their window of opportunity and as they gained more control, the difference in how they operated compared to the Gulf cartel was striking. In Nuevo Laredo (a plaza controlled by Miguel Trevino, the Zetas second-in-command) there were reports of extortion, armed robbery and kidnapping for money. It’s hard to corroborate all of them or directly link them to the Zetas, but it’s worth noting that they did occur, and that the rumor mill blamed the Zetas for them. For example, rather than buying cars from local dealerships in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas have been accused of simply stealing them, a story that was corroborated when a raid in Tamaulipas the other day uncovered a Zeta operating headquarters with a garage full of SUVs-every one of them stolen.
Whether stories like this are actually unique to the Zetas is up for debate, but the fact that the Zetas are not in line with the traditional role of drug traffickers and do not have the confidence of the people is at the heart of the current conflict. Gulf cartel propaganda, including that found on their own YouTube channel, is aimed at discrediting the Zetas as bandits, common thugs who don’t have the people’s interest at heart. The Gulf cartel now says that they only wish to operate in peace as the cartel the people have known for so long and, presumably unlike the Zetas, do not want to harm the citizens of their region. It’s a war to win hearts and minds as much as it is a war for turf. The Gulf cartel is playing off the perception of the Zetas as brutal, lethal enforcers. This, ironically, is what the cartel originally hired them to be.
But perhaps the most telling detail about the war on the Zetas is the fact that La Familia Michoacan and the Sinaloa cartel have actually allied with the Gulf cartel to fight them. These three groups have been bitter enemies for years, but they’ve found a common goal in stamping out the Zetas. What could the reasoning be? Firstly, the Zetas really are a threat to the established cartels. They are highly trained to fight, and have continued to develop a growing force of their own over the years, even recruiting defectors from the Guatemalan Kaibiles special forces. They’ve also reportedly formed strategic alliances with the Juarez cartel and have a long-standing ally in the Beltran-Leyva cartel, the rogue former employees of Chapo Guzman. From a business standpoint, putting down the Zetas is the best interest of all these groups.
However, it’s also important to take the notion of public relations into account. For starters, playing on the unpopularity of the Zetas allows the cartels to position themselves as the better alternative, so that when the Zetas are defeated, the citizens of Mexico can look forward to things ‘going back to the way they were’, which will be advantageous for the cartel. But to really get to the crux of this issue, we have to distinguish between the two ‘drug wars’ currently going on. There is the war between the cartels, but there is also Calderon’s war on the cartels. This second war has everything to do with public relations, politics and appeasement. Calderon is the first president in a while to (at least ostensibly) try to do something about the cartels, and showing success in that effort requires events that look like victories. Offering up the Zetas is a perfect solution for the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels in this situation, because it’s as close to working together as the government and the cartels can publicly come. If the public comes to associate the Zetas with the death toll and all the terrible by-products of drug violence, it’s a strategic win for both the cartels and Calderon’s administration once they are defeated.
The Zetas are keenly aware of this, even if it is already too late to stop it. A recent email circulating that claims to be from Zeta command says:
I hope everything is clear about what the true reality is. Who recruits people who are not prepared, who murders innocent people to then blame us, who want to cause confusion in the city so that the citizens think that with them, all the Extortion, Murder and Kidnappings will end, who publishes thousands of Communications and pay big amounts of $$$$$ so that their videos are published.
Consider also that on the day this fight began in February, eight Reynosa journalists were kidnapped. There has been a virtual media blackout in the area, with citizens getting the majority of their information and warnings about gunfights and roadblocks from Twitter and other open source Internet media.
But despite the onslaught from their enemies, the Zetas show no signs of backing down. This battle of wills could be the culminating battle of the drug war. The defeat of the Zetas would be a huge step towards reestablishing a balance of power that could lead to relative peace in the region. It’s funny that such a fight is being fought where it began, against the group that originally precipitated a huge forward step in the culture of violence that made these cartels capable of causing the destruction that they have. There’s something supremely ironic about watching the Gulf cartel desperately try to destroy the monster it created. But it will be a long bloody fight before that occurs, and it’s certain that the legacy of the Zetas is something that will never entirely just go away.
Previously: The Sinaloa Cartel and Where We Are Now
John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.