By Olga R. Rodriguez
The Associated Press
Mexico City -- Three Mexican cartels have joined forces to destroy a gang of hit men that has grown into a feared drug trafficking outfit with reach into Central America, Mexican and U.S. officials said Monday. The shift in allegiances is fueling bloody battles along the Texas border.
Intelligence reports indicate the Gulf cartel has recruited its former rival, La Familia, to crush the Zetas gang in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, said Ramon Pequeno, the head of the anti-narcotics division of Mexico's federal police.
An official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking organization, has also joined the alliance against the Zetas, whose rise to power has come to threaten all three of the cartels.
"It's an issue of a common enemy," said Will Glaspy, head of the DEA's office in the border town of McAllen, Texas.
The pact followed a break between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, which started as a group of hit men for the Gulf but quickly began rivaling its creator. Tamaulipas has long been the stronghold of the Gulf cartel, but the Zetas have begun taking over.
It was the first official confirmation of the pact, which has been rumored since banners appeared throughout the region earlier this year announcing the campaign by "the cartels of Mexico united against the Zetas."
One banner even urged President Felipe Calderon to withdraw the army and let the new alliance exterminate the Zetas. Videos and e-mails were sent around warning families to stay home, saying the conflict would get worse.
The campaign to wipe out the Zetas has raised fears of open warfare in Tamaulipas, with armed men throwing up roadblocks around army garrisons and ambushing military patrols - brazen tactics that experts say are meant to get soldiers out of the way of the turf war.
Calderon has deployed more than 40,000 soldiers to the border and other regions to combat drug trafficking groups, an effort backed by U.S. intelligence work and aid.
In an indication that Washington expects the battles along the border to continue, the State Department extended until May 12 the authorized departure of relatives of U.S. government employees from consulates in Nuevo Laredo and five other northern cities.
The decision came two days after a grenade attack against the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo, a city across the border from Laredo, Texas. Nobody was hurt.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual said Monday it is not clear yet who threw the grenade or why.
"I do not want to speculate. We do not know who it was," Pascual said during a visit to Nuevo Laredo to express support for consular employees. "It could have been someone who we didn't give a visa to."
La Familia, whose stronghold is in the Pacific coast state of Michoacan, has sent a large number of gunmen across the country to Tamaulipas to help the Gulf cartel exterminate the Zetas, Pequeno said.
He spoke at a news conference to announce the arrest of three alleged members of La Familia, including one who confirmed the alliance to police.
The DEA's Glaspy said the alliance also includes the Sinaloa cartel, led by Mexico's most powerful kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have been each other's biggest rivals, and their pact shows the extent to which the Zetas have become a common threat.
"The Zetas have been trying to wage war on everybody for a while," Glaspy said. "It's been well-documented that the Gulf cartel has formed alliances with the Sinaloa cartel and (La Familia) to wage war against the Zetas."
An official with Mexico's Public Safety Department, who was not authorized to give his name because of his agency's policy, confirmed the Sinaloa cartel's involvement.
Mexican and U.S. authorities had previously confirmed the split between the Gulf and the Zetas, a gang that began as special forces soldiers recruited in the 1990s to be the Gulf cartel's muscle.
The Zetas - who gained a reputation for brutality by starting the practice of beheading rivals - have since evolved into a drug trafficking force of their own, and branched out into extortion, migrant smuggling and kidnapping, said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and author of "Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State?"
"The Zetas have become too powerful. The Zetas have taken over probably 70 or 80 percent of Tamaulipas," Grayson said. "The Gulf cartel simply couldn't handle the Zetas by themselves."
The reach of the Zetas now extends to Central America, where they have corrupted police and set up training camps in Guatemala.
In one banner, the Gulf cartel implied it was uncomfortable with the brutal tactics of the Zetas.
"The Gulf Cartel separates itself from the Z in our ranks. We don't want kidnappers, terrorists, bank robbers, rapists, child killers and traitors," read a banner hung from pedestrian bridges in Tamaulipas last month.
The feud escalated when a member of the Zetas was killed in January in Reynosa, a city across the border from McAllen, Texas. Battles ensued when the Gulf cartel refused to hand over the man responsible.
It's the newest front in Mexico's drug war, which has claimed more than 18,000 lives since 2006 despite Calderon's troop deployment.
Elsewhere in Mexico, police found the body of a man whose face had been skinned in Cuernavaca, a central city that has become a battle ground for control of the Beltran Levya cartel, whose leader was killed in a battle with marines in that city in December.
In the nearby town of Temixco, a man and his pregnant wife were killed by gunmen who left a threatening message, police said.
Associated Press Writer Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.