A criminal organization born out of betrayal has been weakened greatly by a game of alliances and double-dealing as Mexico’s drug war continues to play out like a TV drama.
So says George W. Grayson, author of the book The Executioner’s Men, which details the history and operations of the Zetas drug gang.
Grayson told The Monitor that the cartel’s internal struggle is to blame for the recent upswing in violence in Monterrey, one of the larger metropolitan areas in northern Mexico.
“Monterrey has erupted into a firestorm of violence,” said the professor of government at the College of William and Mary, who cited “30 killings in two days” last week in the city.
“In Monterrey, you have two factions of the Zetas fighting there,” Grayson said. “The Gulf Cartel is involved, too. You also have the forces of the Sinaloa Cartel.”
The Zetas’ internal battle for control of drug smuggling routes into the U.S. also has spread to the cities of Guadalajara, San Luis Potosí and Colima, he said.
While the fighting is taking place in Mexico, Americans, too, have cause to be cautious because the conflicts have the potential to spread. For certain, anyone with loved ones in northern Tamaulipas has reason for concern.
And though the factions fighting the Zetas’ internal battle may be targeting each other, the clash puts the wider public at risk, as well, said Luis Rosas, a former Mexican military officer who now holds crime prevention seminars.
Because criminal organizations operate on both sides of the border to cross their goods, it is common for drug lords to have family members living on the U.S. side and for the drug lords themselves to occasionally hide out there, too, Rosas said.
“Tamaulipas is deeply ingrained in the drug trafficking business,” Rosas said in Spanish.
“There you have relatives, compadres and close friends all working in the business,” the security analyst said.
But when a criminal organization splinters, those relatives and compadres’ loyalties are thrown into question as new alliances form and new battle lines are drawn.
“‘Well, since you work for him and my boss is against your boss, I have to come after you,’” Rosas said. “‘If I can’t get to you, I will get your son, your brother, your friend, your cousin, your mom or anyone that I can use to get close to you or to hurt you.’”
That is part of the reason why we are seeing a large increase in kidnappings, the security analyst said.
The former military and federal police officers who would one day form the Zetas drug gang were first recruited into the Gulf Cartel by its leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, to act as his organization’s enforcers. He had risen to the top by killing his rivals and feared the same fate would come to him, according to Drug Enforcement Administration documents.
Cárdenas’ caution may have paid off: He’s alive, but in a U.S. prison. After he was arrested in March 2003, the Zetas became their own organization — separate from, but affiliated with the Gulf Cartel. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas turned their guns on each other.
And now it’s the Zetas playing out a bloody, internal power struggle.
Rosas said the root of the split within the Zetas is the greed of No. 2 leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as “El 40” or “Zeta 40.”
“He planted the seed of discord within the organization. Originally the group had a military structure, which allowed the organization to rise to the top over other cartels,” he said. “They weren’t the most powerful, but they were the most organized and disciplined. Then you have this guy (Treviño) who wasn’t one of the original Zetas come in and quickly rise even over some of the original members and became power-hungry.”
In order to stabilize his power base, Treviño began creating groups of individuals loyal to him within the organization, Rosas said.
Now that the lines have been drawn, the Zetas’ No. 1 and No. 3 men — Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano and Ivan “El Taliban” Gonzalez Caballero — have joined forces to take out Treviño, Grayson said.
“It looks like El Taliban is backing El Lazca to the hilt, and he is in San Luis Potosí doing his best to recruit supporters,” Grayson said. “The problem is that (the former soldiers who were) are fewer and fewer, and most of the current plaza bosses have been recruited by El 40. He is the stronger player.”
A Mexican intelligence official and Grayson both pointed to a possible alliance between Lazcano’s group and members of the Gulf Cartel — primarily the forces loyal to Jorge Eduardo Costilla, who are commonly known as the Metros — in order to take out Treviño once and for all.