Zetas Burn Media’s Script in War on Drugs
A Closer Look at Narco-Capitalism on U.S.-Mexico Border
By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
May 28, 2005
The violence plaguing the border town of Nuevo Laredo, sister city of Laredo, Texas, has led to travel advisories being issued by the State Department and dire warnings from U.S. officials that narco-traffickers are on the hunt for U.S. citizens.
The truth is that the violence in Nuevo Laredo is a direct byproduct of narco-capitalism. Sure, if you happen to be on the wrong street corner when a gunfight breaks out, you are in danger, just like you would be in any inner city in the states when rival gangs pull out their pieces and start shooting at each other.
In addition, just like in any big city in the states, you have to be careful of the company you keep.
“Narcotics is the underlying reason (for the violence) but not for those caught in the middle,” explains one federal law enforcer who works the border near Nuevo Laredo. “I am sure some of the victims were just too friendly with bad people and were taken somewhere for a good time, and it got out of hand, and they were killed. But it seems the majority of them were indeed linked to narcotics, since guns, paraphernalia were found. It’s too much of a coincidence that they disappear without a trace and then are later found in deep-concreted holes in the back of narcos’ houses. Sad but true.”
Adds a former high-ranking DEA official: “Will narco-traffickers go after you just because you’re an American? No. But sometimes you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
At the center of the rash of murders and kidnappings in the Mexican border town is supposedly a gang of ruthless former Mexican military commandos known by the codeword Zetas.
Depending on which press reports you read, the Zetas were either trained at Fort Bragg or the School of the Americas in the United States to serve in a special forces unit in the Mexican military. But the allure of money in the narco-trafficking business caused them to turn their special powers to the dark side.
Well, as with most mainstream media scripts on the drug war, the real story behind the Zetas is a bit more complicated. Narco News interviewed several former and current high-ranking DEA and Department of Homeland Security officials to get the straight scoop.
Here’s what we were told.
First, the Zetas are a very amorphous group that started out from a core of Mexican special forces defectors who over time have either recruited or trained additional members. But make no mistake about it; the Zetas are very good at what they do. One former DEA official says they are “better than the Secret Service.”
“In terms of weapons, communications, perimeter control and security, these guys are very good,” he adds.
A major reason for their “professionalism” in this area is that many of the Zetas have received some specialized military or other tactical training from U.S. agencies, including from the DEA, FBI and U.S. military.
A former DEA officials who worked extensively south of the border during his career explains:
“A lot of the Zetas came from former Mexican police offices or the military, and some are even students from universities in Texas that work part time with the Zetas to provide security. So they come from a diverse background. Some of them have prior training from the DEA, FBI and the U.S. military, as well as other agencies. We go to great lengths to assure they are not engaged in criminal activity before training them, but later on they can be lured into drug business by the money. It happens … And they (the Zetas) are very organized and have recruiters, who are out constantly bringing in new people and training them.”
That means the Zetas understand U.S. and Mexican government strategy in the drug war, and they are equipped, thanks to the money inherent in the narco-trafficking trade, to carry out sophisticated surveillance, security and assassination assignments.
According to U.S. law enforcement officials, the Zetas are a true mercenary force that will work for the highest bidder.
The two rival drug lords at the center of the turf war in Nuevo Laredo are allegedly Osiel Cardenas Guillen and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Cardenas, who has been in jail on drug charges in Mexico since 2003, reportedly oversees his narco-trafficking organization from prison. His group, often referred to in the mainstream press as the “Gulf cartel,” has controlled the Nuevo Laredo market for years.
Cardenas’ primary enforcers are the Zetas. Along with the Zetas, Cardenas organization also has plenty of local Mexican cops on the payroll, according to U.S. law enforcers.
“Clearly, a number of Mexican state police are corrupt,” says a former DEA supervisor. “They often get killed (in these turf wars) because they are working for a rival drug organization.”
(By the way, it’s no secret that narco-traffickers also buy off law enforcers on this side of the border as well.)
In recent years, Guzman has made inroads into the Nuevo Laredo market by waging a bloody street war against the Cardenas organization and the Zetas.
Guzman’s operation, referred to in the mainstream press as the “Sinaloa cartel,” has a couple hundred hired guns committed to the battle in the border town of some 500,000 people, according to law enforcers. Cardenas has a slightly larger force, law enforcers contend.
“One thing people, including the media, don’t seem to see that is very important is that most of the significant narco-traffickers come from the Mexican state of Sinaloa,” says one former DEA supervisor. “That’s because Sinaloa has fertile ground and a railroad line running through it, so some mafia groups historically started to develop there, and it now has an infrastructure, so it is kind of a hub.”
The bloody turf war in Nuevo Laredo is being waged to gain control of the market, because it is considered a key transportation node in the drug-trafficking business. Guzman has moved in big for that reason, and his organization is allegedly responsible for the murders of numerous Mexican law enforcers who are on the payroll of the Cardenas organization, according to U.S. law enforcement sources.
“He (Guzman) is like the Robin Hoodlum of today,” one federal border law enforcer told Narco News. “That is why all the comandantes and officers who are being, or were being, paid by the Zetas are being shot. Chapo (Guzman) is getting control of the authorities. …”
The law enforcers also contend that Guzman, as part of his strategy in taking over Nuevo Laredo’s narco trade, has employed journalists in the area to spread propaganda favorable to his operations. That, in turn, has led to hits being ordered against some journalists as part of the turf war.
“These narco-traffickers are very astute, and they do use journalists to do campaigns against other competing groups and to make their group look like Robin Hood,” explains a former DEA supervisor. “So some journalists do write stories for money. Narco-traffickers do own some media people.”
(And can we really assume that only happens in Mexico? Borders do not seem to restrict extreme capitalism, as the war on drugs clearly demonstrates.)
The Zetas figure into the picture because, to date, they have allegedly been aligned against Guzman’s organization. However, as one former DEA officials tells it, in the narco-trafficking business, there is no one player calling all the shots. Rather, at any given time, there are a number of organizations, some gaining power, some dwindling in power, but all vying for their piece of the market. So the players, and the teams they play for, also are constantly in flux.
“A lot of people think there is one or two organizations controlling the drug trade, but that’s just not the case,” explains one retired DEA supervisor. “There may be one organization that is dominant in an area for a time, but there are always other organizations working to make inroads and smaller ones coming up.
“What that means is you have to be extremely ruthless if you want to compete, so it’s much more intense than a normal business. You have to develop a massive infrastructure, including security, assassins, connections in law enforcement and government, a money laundering system, and have access to smart investors.
“Narco traffickers are very smart people, but they aren’t experts in all those areas, so their organizations have to become very structured, and the competition is extreme, which is why things so easily escalate into violence.”
The Zetas represent one part of that structure, so that means when the Zetas sense the tide is turning against their current employer, like true mercenaries, they will follow the money. And in true business fashion, another organization will work them into their “structure.”
In that case, the turf war in Nuevo Laredo could settle down, assuming Guzman gets the upper hand and, by extension, the loyalty of the Zetas.
That is, until Guzman falls, and the next narco-general emerges to stake a claim on the empire.
And so goes the ongoing saga of extreme capitalism in the narco-trafficking market. The militarization of the border in the name of the war on drugs isn’t likely to change that game, but rather likely only allow for more bullets to be spent.
Ok, that’s my report for now. I’ve got to check my front door. I hear someone knocking….
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