By ALFREDO CORCHADO - The Dallas Morning News
The Mexican government is refocusing its drug-war strategy to take down the Zetas paramilitary cartel, a significant shift in approach that is likely to be met with increased violence, according to U.S. and Mexican officials familiar with the plan.
Underscoring the shift is a series of bloody confrontations in the past several weeks pitting the Zetas against Mexican marines. The targets of those clashes were "senior Zetas leaders," said a U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The battles led to dozens of cartel members being killed or arrested, helping to weaken what many consider to be the most violent cartel group and the one that poses the biggest threat to Mexico's national security.
On Monday, an alleged top leader and founding member of the Zetas, Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, known as "El Mamito," was paraded before the media after his capture Sunday in Mexico state. He was named a suspect in an attack in February against two U.S. agents in which one was killed and the other wounded.
The U.S. law enforcement official confirmed the strategy against the Zetas and insisted that the U.S. government continues to play a minor role, limited to sharing "reliable intelligence" with Mexican officials.
A Mexican intelligence official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, played down the shift, saying that the Mexican government will "continue to look after targets of opportunity" regardless of criminal group, but added: "No doubt we have increased the pressure on the Zetas."
A security expert applauded the move.
"Given the extreme levels of violence attributed to the Zetas, it would make sense for the government to focus its attention and resources on this particular group," said Eric Olson, security expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, which recently completed a weeklong fact-finding mission in Mexico City that included meetings with key U.S. and Mexican officials. "They may not be the most powerful or richest of the cartels, but they are amongst the bloodiest and are extending their reach from their base in the north and along the entire Mexican Gulf and into Central America."
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Texas authorities warned U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Nuevo Laredo, citing intelligence that the Zetas planned to target Americans tourists. So far, no incidents have been reported.
On Friday, a spray-painted message directed at U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents was found next to a school in Ciudad Juarez. It said: "Gringos (D.E.A.), We know where you are and we know who you are and where you go. We are going to chop off your (expletive) heads."
Authorities wouldn't say which cartel issued the warning. The Zetas have allied with La Linea, enforcers for the Juarez cartel, to fight their common enemy in Ciudad Juarez, the Sinaloa cartel headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
For Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration, targeting the Zetas could be good politics. After several years on the payroll of the Gulf cartel, the Zetas went into the drug business on their own and now control several lucrative territories. Weakening them may help Calderon rally public support for his strategy.
Calderon is facing his final year in office and is under immense pressure to show that his strategy is succeeding, particularly as the presidential campaign heats up and questions about his approach persist.
Calderon's overall approval rating remains at about 60 percent, but support for his organized-crime strategy is about 40 percent, according to a recent poll by Buendia & Laredo.
Some question whether the new strategy will work.
"The marines are capable of dealing a major blow to the Zetas, but they're understaffed and underfunded," said Alberto Islas, a security expert in Mexico City. "The marines have not affected their operations in a significant way. ... That is why the Zetas have expanded into other states and countries. The marines are heading a containment strategy, not a decapitation strategy against the Zetas."
Zeroing in on the Zetas may lead to more violence and generate more suspicion of favoritism toward one cartel over the other. National security spokesman Alejandro Poire, in his weekly blog, denied that the government was taking a selective approach and noted that the rival Sinaloa cartel has suffered major blows due to the government's strategy.
But Olson, of the Wilson Center, said the government was on the right track.
"The truth is, it's an important tactic to address the violence that is most pressing first," he said. "The longer-term needs for judicial and prosecutorial reform, police professionalization, and better educational and economic opportunities for youth are also critical, but in the short run a more focused and strategic approach is probably needed."
Among the crimes attributed to the Zetas: The bodies of 72 migrants were found last August on a ranch in San Fernando, in Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas, and in the spring, authorities found graves containing the remains of nearly 200 people believed kidnapped from buses headed toward the border. At least 21 suspects have been arrested in those slayings, including Edgar Huerta Montiel, 22, and his girlfriend last week in the central state of Zacatecas following a shootout with marines that left 15 cartel gunmen dead. In mid-June, more than 30 people believed to be cartel gunmen were killed in a gun battle in Monterrey.
The U.S. also has plenty of motivation to help Mexico in taking down the Zetas. In February, suspected Zetas cartel members killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and wounded his colleague Victor Avila on a major highway in the central state of San Luis Potosi.
Rejon, the alleged Zetas co-founder, was identified as third in command of the group. The State Department had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
The men alleged to be the two top leaders of the Zetas are Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as "El Lazca," and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, known as "El 40," a U.S. fugitive who spent time in North Texas. Authorities say Lazcano deserted from the Mexican army in 1999 and formed the Zetas with other members of an elite special operations unit, including Rejon, and became the armed wing of the Gulf cartel.
The Zetas now have a presence in all 31 Mexican states, as well as associates in several U.S. states, from California's central coast to North Texas, said a security expert at the Washington-based Savant Group, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Zetas are estimated to have more than 15,000 members, the U.S. law enforcement official said, ranging from support staff such as lookouts to those considered "hard-core," including well-trained military deserters and former law enforcers.
Last week, Mexican officials said that the number of people killed in drug-related violence had surpassed 6,000, bringing the death toll since Calderon launched his military-led crackdown in December 2006 to more than 41,000.