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The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian RevoltSamuel Logan & John P Sullivan Special to Salem-News.com
Confiscated arms at the US-Mexican border.
(MEXICO CITY / LOS ANGELES) - The recent split between two former allies in Mexico's criminal underworld has torn open a new chapter of violence in northern Mexico that has already tinged Monterrey and threatens to spread down the border line, Samuel Logan and John P Sullivan write for ISN Security Watch.
Between February and March, the number of homicides in Matamoros and Reynosa, two cities under siege in northern Mexico, surpassed 2009 totals. Police in the area, who only show up after the shooting has stopped, have recovered 50 abandoned trucks full of bullet holes and blood. Meanwhile, payments of $500 a month keep local journalists quiet and motivated to influence their colleagues to do the same. Those who speak out disappear.
Northern Mexico is deeply embroiled in Mexico’s ongoing violence, and as cartel members deal death to their rivals, the media blackout fuels rumor and fear - a perfect storm of misinformation allowing Mexico's newest cartel rivals to engage in a battle for control over some of Mexico's most lucrative criminal turf. The latest fronts are the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, nestled up against Texas.
Intense violence continues to rock these states as factions within Mexico’s criminal underworld battle for primacy. The tectonic shift between former allied cartels Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fuels battlefront intensity. As a result, gunmen contest northern and border cities, including Monterrey, Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo in a battle of ‘all against all.’
"My sense is that La Familia is cooperating with the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel against Los Zetas in the battle now raging in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon," George Grayson, a Latin American politics professor at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, US, and a senior associate at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ISN Security Watch.
Cartels vs Zetas vs the military
The war of ‘all against all’ is exemplified by recent events in Tamaulipas: shootouts, grenade attacks, explosions, kidnappings and reports of large convoys with armed men freely roaming the streets. While the conflict includes clashes between Mexican police, soldiers and cartel gunmen, a major component of the violence is linked to battles between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, Los Zetas.
This split is the criminal analogy to an internal corporate power struggle - in this case, competition for control of the enterprise known as ‘The Company’ - by a Gulf-Zeta duopoly focusing on drugs, human trafficking, product piracy and petroleum theft. Tensions between the two factions have been escalating for more than a year. In the build up to the current battles, preliminary skirmishes in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo involved civilian vehicles commandeered for use as street barricades on 8 and 19 February.
Narcomantas announced the start of the violent showdown, as the Gulf Cartel, La Familia and other smaller cartels unveiled narco-banners in several Mexican states announcing an alliance against Los Zetas. Counter banners, presumably authored by Los Zetas, were subsequently posted in Tamaulipas challenging the anti-Zeta alliance.
By 25 February, the US Consular Agency in Reynosa had closed indefinitely due to heightened violence, related to gun battles between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. In addition, local reports asserted that gunmen in as many as 20 vehicles clashed with members of the Mexican military and municipal police in Ciudad Mier, just west of Reynosa, during a daytime gun battle on 23 February that reportedly resulted in the kidnapping of 10 municipal police officers. Video and photos (caution, graphic) from that incident include abandoned police sport utility vehicles with bullet holes and broken windows and a damaged red truck with the insignia CDG - the Spanish acronym for the Gulf Cartel.
Nuevo Laredo appears to be the Zetas’ new stronghold. Gun battles signaled their arrival and news reports claimed the Zetas were reinforcing their positions, bringing in about 1,200 Zetas from around Mexico for pending actions. The Gulf Cartel also called in reinforcements, joining forces with two prior rivals, La Familia Michoacana and the Sinaloa Cartel.
By mid-March, after weeks of daily shootouts that left dozens dead in the Mexican cities bordering the Rio Grande Valley, the details behind the new narco-campaign remain hazy, clouded by an almost complete Mexican media and government blackout on information. What is clear, however, is that the playing field has changed.
Evolving alliances: Personal scores and business
The Gulf-Zeta split appears to have been triggered by high-ranking Gulf Cartel leader Jorge ‘El Coss’ Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, who ordered the murder of Victor ‘Concord 3’ Pena Mendoza, a Zeta captain who operated in Reynosa. After he died on 18 January, the Zetas' number two in command, Miguel ‘El Cuarenta’ Triveno, demanded that the Gulf Cartel hand over the killer. When that didn't happen, the event snapped tension that had built up since September 2008, according to some observers.
The Zetas responded by kidnapping 16 Gulf Cartel members in Miguel Aleman. That provoked the shootouts up and down the border. As fighting unfolded in early March, reports surfaced that members of Michoacan's La Familia were sent to Tamaulipas to reinforce the Gulf Cartel.
"Los Zetas are reportedly moving their cadres from Tampico, Veracruz and Tabasco to help out in the north," Grayson said.
Concord 3 was the lynchpin that held together a shaky truce. His death on 18 January marked the end of the relationship held together by mutual necessity since Osiel Cardenas agreed to hire a group of highly trained mercenaries to watch his back. When the Gulf Cartel kidnapped Concord 3, it was marking a decision to separate from its former cadre of elite bodyguards. It was war.
The Gulf Cartel would need help to defeat Los Zetas, and with little room for maneuvering within Mexico's tightly woven criminal landscape, they turned to ‘El Chapo’ Guzman and the Sinaloa Federation. The Sinaloa Federation accepted, identifying a chance to exploit the Gulf cartel’s niche to counter the growing competition from the Zetas.
On-going battle for primacy
The result of the Gulf-Zeta split is a new battle for primacy among Mexico’s criminal enterprises. The Zetas, formerly enforcers, muscle or a ‘praetorian guard,’ turned on their masters. After learning the trade, they sought to dominate it. In the face of this perceived slight, the Gulf Cartel turned to its former rivals. A new set of alliances has emerged, one where the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas each seek to dominate competing cartel blocs.
According to a report in Excélsior, the new blocs include: The Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, ‘El Chapo,’ aligned with La Familia Michoacana, the remnants of the Milenio/Valencia Cartel, and with a separatist faction of the Arellano-Felix organization (aka Tijuana Cartel). The second block consists of the Beltran Leyva organization, the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes organization (aka Juarez Cartel), Los Zetas and the Arellano-Felix organization.
This new bilateral competition will continue to challenge President Filipe Calderon, who many agree has not executed a well-defined strategy.
"Calderon has to adopt a more flexible strategy," Bruce Bagley, chairman of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami, told ISN Security Watch, adding, "[Calderon] needs to provide opportunities to young people because he is losing them. The strategy he is pursuing is not working."
As the fight continues, the Mexican public is weary of the violence. This fatigue has the potential to influence Mexico’s July mid-term elections. A change in strategy, even accommodation to the cartels in order to lessen the blunt outbreaks of violence, may gain favor. Even Calderón, who a year ago angrily rebutted suggestions that Mexico was becoming a "failed state," now describes the situation as a fight for territory and "the very authority of the state."
Learn more by visiting: ISN Zurech
Samuel Logan is a Latin American analyst for iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, an investigative journalist, and author. He is the founding editor of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, and has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch.
John P Sullivan is a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST) in Los Angeles. He is also a career police officer, currently serving as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs, criminal insurgency, and their impact on policing, intelligence, and sovereignty.
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