Friday, 10 December 2010

Los Zetas, the catalyst of the Mexican insurgency

There' s an excellent article in The Counter Terrorist on Los Zetas, the most infamous of the Mexican cartels. It gives a solid overview of their origins, as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, through to their emergence:
Deserters from the Mexican special operations force, Known as GAFES (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales), they became the close protection detail for Gulf cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Under the command of "Z1" Arturo Guzman Decenas, the original 31 Zetas brought their skills and combat tradecraft to bear for the Gulf cartel's business interests...

Once in place, the original Zetas each trained a cadre of soldiers, recruited from state and municipal police forces And, in some cases, the rank and file of Mexico's army. This initial group of elite bodyguards catalyzed an evolution of lethal force and tactics used within Mexico's criminal underworld. Late model SUVs with tinted windows and no license plates became the normal method of transport. Tight shot groups in Los Zetas' victims indicated a high level of proficiency, though this particular high-skill level has diluted over the years.
Their split with the Gulf Cartel and emergance as a cartel in their own right:
The Gulf-Zeta split broke the duopoly known as the Company, which had been maintained by both factions to pursue drug trafficking and distribution, human trafficking, product piracy, kidnapping, and petroleum theft.
And now their expanding business interests and growth as a major player in the Mexican drug deal:
The Zetas are known to have pilfered large quantities of oil from PEMEX (Petroleos Mexicanos) to fund their enterprises. Gangsters have siphoned more than $1 billion worth of oil from Mexico's pipelines over the past two years...

Meanwhile, a firefight between Los Zetas' gunmen and the Mexican military left five dead on July 27, when Los Zetas fought to retain control over a PEMEX well near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. The petro theft constitutes a symbolic and a financial threat to the Mexican government while providing a vast stream of income, perhaps as much as $715 million a year, that gangsters use to buy weapons, bribe officials, and bankroll their brutal assault against the Mexican government.
The concluding paragraphs paint a grim picture for the Mexican state:
Los Zetas have spread from an original 31 mercenaries into a sizable private army and criminal enterprise. On the business side of the house, they specialize in drugs, human trafficking , small arms trafficking , extortion (street taxes), kidnapping (levantones), murder, petroleum theft, and CD/DVD piracy. Indeed, drug trafficking likely comprises less than half their criminal revenuegenerating portfolio. Their current allies include factions of the Beltrán-Leyva organization, the Juarez and Tijuana cartels, Bolivian drug clans, thirdgeneration (transnational street/prison) gangs, and the Italian 'Ndrangheta. They conduct raids and ambushes, and employ small unit infantry tactics supported by intelligence operations to engage in close quarters battle with state security forces. Assassinations of police and political figures, including mayors and candidates for state office, and threats against journalists and judicial officials, round Out their violent range of actions.

They employ these means to thwart competition from other gangs, to control economic spheres of influence, and increasingly to control territory to avoid interference from the government and determine who runs the state. In short, the Zetas are waging criminal insurgency against their competitors and state institutions. To do so, they increasingly employ threats (in March 2009 they threatened to kill Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom; in August 2010 they killed two Mexican mayors)... They have the tactical skills to produce insurgent-style, high-order street violence. They also pose a significant threat to state security forces. It remains to be seen if they can consolidate their reach and sustain their onslaught before meeting a more proficient rival (licit or illicit).
The Zetas have operated as a powerful catalyst for the violence which is currently ripping through Mexico. They served to destabilise not only the existing cartel structure, which had until then been relatively sedate, albeit powerful. They have also fought the state to a near standstill, operating as a non state military force in both the countries and many cities.

The real risk is that the Zetas continue to share their skillset with allied gangs, both in South America and into the United States. If the distribution gangs the Zetas do business with were adopt the high level sophistication which the Zetas demonstrate there is no fundamental reason for them to be any less successful.

The Mexican insurgency continues to grow over time, posing a threat not just to Mexico, but also its neighbours. It remains to be seen if the state can ever recover, and if neighbouring states, particularly the USA, can push back against violence.

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