Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A frame from a July video in which a paramilitary group vows to eliminate the violent Zetas drug gang.
By JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA
Wall Street Journal
A self-styled drug-trafficking group calling itself the "Zeta Killers" claimed responsibility this week for the recent murders of at least 35 people believed to belong to the Zetas, Mexico's most violent criminal organization.
The claim by the "Mata Zetas" has stoked fears that Mexico, like Colombia a generation before, may be witnessing the rise of paramilitary drug gangs that seek society's approval and tacit consent from the government to help society confront its ills, in this case, the Zetas.
On Wednesday, Mexico's national security spokeswoman Alejandra Sota vowed in a statement that the government would "hunt down" and bring to justice any criminal group that takes justice into its own hands.
The issue surfaced last week after 35 bodies were dumped just blocks away from a hotel in the port city of Veracruz where Mexico's state attorney generals were due to hold a meeting the following day. Two days later, after the convention kicked off, an additional 11 bodies were found in different parts of the city.
The shocking scenes, suggesting mass murder in front of the country's top law-enforcement officials, were followed up days later by a video in which five hooded men took responsibility for the murders, saying the victims were all Zetas who had carried out crimes like extortion.
"Our only objective is the Zetas cartel," said a burly, hooded man who said he was a Mata Zetas spokesman, in the video. The man said that unlike the Zetas, his group didn't "extort or kidnap" citizens and were "anonymous warriors, without faces, but proudly Mexican" who would work "clandestinely" but "always to benefit Mexico's people."
The mysterious group appears to be part of the New Generation drug cartel, which operates in the northwestern state of Jalisco, according to an earlier video that showed some three dozen hooded men brandishing automatic rifles as a spokesman vowed to wipe out the Zetas in Veracruz. In that video, the spokesman lauded the work of the Mexican armed forces against the Zetas, and urged citizens to give information on their location to the military.
The rise of any paramilitary gangs could propel Mexico into an even more violent stage of a drug war that has killed more than 43,000 people since President Felipe Calderón took power in December 2006.
In Colombia, government-backed peasant militias formed to defend against Communist guerrillas in decades past were eventually taken over by drug traffickers, who were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. "This is a version of para-militarism which is emerging," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on Latin America and drug trafficking at the University of Miami. "We are not sure who these guys are. They are outlaws, but if they kill Zetas, they could find a following among some of the Mexican political and military elite. It bodes very badly for the rule of law in Mexico."
Other analysts say the Mata Zetas appear to be just another drug gang battling it out with the Zetas over turf.
The new group "pretends to use vigilante tactics to finish off another criminal organization," wrote Eric Olson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, on El Palenque, a Mexican website.
In the recent past, other cartels, most notably La Familia, based in the state of Michoacán, have tried to use the Zetas' reputation for brutality as a way of rallying popular support and gaining new adherents to fight them. La Familia recently suffered a major split after the group made peace with the Zetas.
Nevertheless, the rise of a group like the Mata Zetas raises troubling questions for ordinary Mexicans and the government: Is it a good thing when members of a bloodthirsty cartel known for murders, extortions, and kidnapping are themselves summarily killed by other criminals?
While Mexico's federal government has condemned the killing, the response by Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte was widely seen as more equivocal.
"It's lamentable the assassination of 35 people, but it's more so that these people had chosen to dedicate themselves to extortion, kidnapping and murder," the governor wrote on his Twitter account a day after the event.
Among other atrocities, the Zetas are blamed for last month's casino fire that killed 52 people in the business capital of Monterrey in Nuevo León state, and the murder of 72 U.S.-bound migrants last year in Tamaulipas state.
The Zetas evolved from a small group of elite soldiers who defected in the late 1990s to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel into a vicious multinational crime organization.
Since they broke with the Gulf Cartel in 2010, the Zetas have been fighting a bloody turf war across Mexico against other groups, in which thousands have perished.
Jorge Chabat, a security analyst at the CIDE think tank in Mexico says that the emergence of illegal groups such as the Mata Zetas—perhaps with some help from local or national government authorities—wouldn't be a surprise, given the level of violence inflicted by the Zetas on the Mexican population and the Mexican state's inability to provide its citizens with protection.
Officials "would never tell you openly, but I wouldn't be surprised if some sectors of government look the other way, and I fear that parts of the civilian population would also see this with approval," he said.