Saturday, March 13, 2010

Violence the result of fractured arrangement between Zetas and Gulf Cartel, authorities say

This provides a decent overview of the situation in Reynosa 


Violence the result of fractured arrangement between Zetas and Gulf Cartel, authorities say
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March 09, 2010 9:30 PM
By JEREMY ROEBUCK, The Monitor
REYNOSA — At dusk the city’s center drains of life.

Classrooms remain half full during the day and businesses surrounding the main plaza shutter with the first twinge of twilight.

The shooting has largely quieted but Reynosa’s residents stand one mass e-mail, one Internet posting or one YouTube video away from descending into panic again.

Three weeks after a series of daily shootouts left dozens dead in the Mexican cities that border the Rio Grande Valley, the details behind the violence remain hazy — obfuscated by an almost complete Mexican media and government blackout on information.

What is clear, however, is that a longstanding arrangement between the region’s two dominant drug trafficking organizations — Los Zetas and their former employers, the Gulf Cartel — has fallen apart, authorities on both sides of the border say.

The resulting dispute over control of lucrative smuggling corridors has turned a region stretching from Matamoros in the east to Nuevo Laredo in the west into a battlefield.

But for the U.S. law enforcement officials and academics who have closely watched the evolution of the two dominant Mexican criminal syndicates, the real question is not when the infighting will end but why it took so long to erupt in the first place.

‘THE GLUE’

The current tensions stretch back more than a decade to the beginnings of the Zetas as a criminal group.

Looking to protect himself from the leaders of rival organizations, then Gulf Cartel head Osiel Cárdenas Guillén began recruiting deserters from the Mexican army’s special forces unit in the late 1990s to serve as his personal bodyguards and assassins.

The team of former military men, personally loyal to Cárdenas, led the charge in the 2004-to-2007 battle between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels for control of the Nuevo Laredo corridor, one of the most profitable smuggling access points into Texas.

Using violent tactics previously unheard of in Mexico’s narcotics industry, the group launched rocket-propelled grenades in the streets, murdered police officials and attacked employees at the city’s largest daily newspaper because they were unhappy with the coverage.

But a 2007 truce that ended the worst of the violence left the Zetas without a clearly defined purpose. And Cárdenas’ extradition to the United States that same year left the Gulf Cartel without a clear leader.

Others have since risen to helm the group, but none have been able to control the two linked criminal organizations, said one U.S. federal law enforcement official familiar with the structure of both groups.

“Osiel was looked at as an extraordinary leader,” he said. After his extradition, “there was enough leadership there to maintain the organization, but Osiel was the glue that held everything together.”

Since then, the Zetas and their former bosses have co-existed uneasily.

The Gulf Cartel continued its business of controlling smuggling routes stretching from Matamoros to Nuevo Laredo, while allowing the Zetas to operate their own parallel network in overlapping cities like Reynosa and Miguel Alemán, according to a series of federal indictments handed down in U.S. courts last year against top leaders.

The heads of both organizations — Antonio “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén, brother of Osiel, and Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sánchez for the Gulf Cartel and Heriberto “Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano for the Zetas — formed a loose triumvirate that decided matters ranging from payments owed to plaza bosses to the price charged for drugs. Collectively, the two organizations referred to themselves as “The Company,” the indictmentsstate .

But Osiel Cárdenas’ sentencing last month in a federal court in Houston to 25 years in prison may haveplayed a role in fracturing that operation, said Howard Campbell, a University of Texas-El Paso anthropologist who has studied Mexico’s drug cartels.

The former kingpin pleaded guilty Feb. 24 to multiple counts of drug conspiracy, money laundering and threatening U.S. federal agents and is believed to be cooperating with federal investigators.

The extent of that cooperation remains under court seal. But any information he has provided that could damage either group is likely to result in reprisals, said Campbell.

“There’s no end of people willing to replace whoever gets captured or killed,” he said. “It seems absolutely expectable that heads will roll and that him cooperating will lead to violence.”

‘A TENUOUS SITUATION’

Others downplay the impact that Osiel Cárdenas’ sentencing had on the realities of the Tamaulipan drug landscape.

Certainly, he was a powerful leader, said Will Glaspy, head of the McAllen office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But he has remained in U.S. federal custody since his extradition, and both groups have survived independently without him.

In the time since his removal, the Zetas have grown their operations to dozens of Mexican states and expanded into other criminal enterprises such as kidnapping for ransom, extortion and oil theft.

The current conflict has its immediate roots in a more recent development, Glaspy said.

On Jan. 18, a member of the Gulf Cartel allegedly shot and killed top Zeta lieutenant Victor “Concord 3” Peña Mendoza in Reynosa. When Zeta leader Lazcano demanded that Gulf bosses turn over the shooter, they refused.

“That strained what was already a tenuous situation,” Glaspy said. “It’s gotten progressively worse from there.”

Gulf bosses sought the support of longtime rivals such as the Sinaloa Cartel, their former enemy in Nuevo Laredo, and Michoacán-based organization La Familia to weed out the Zetas for good, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

The Zetas, meanwhile, called in reinforcements from across the country to bolster their position along the Tamaulipan border.

With well-armed groups amassing on both sides, violence became inevitable.

PANIC

Three weeks ago, that tension snapped.

A series of mass e-mails distributed among Reynosa residents Feb. 17 warned of a brutal day of violence and set off a panic the next day.

Parents pulled their children out of schools. Businesses closed their doors in fearful anticipation. As the days progressed, wild stories flew of downed helicopters, hundreds of casualties, and military shootouts around school campuses.

“It sounded like the world was coming to an end in Reynosa,” said Glaspy, who has spent much of his time recently investigating these tales. “But as far as we can tell, there is no evidence of the worst stories.”

But while the most outrageous rumors were written off completely by Reynosa city officials, some reports proved to have a basis in reality. Violent flare-ups between presumed Zetas and suspected Gulf Cartel members erupted in cities across the border region.

Residents of towns like Camargo — across the border from Rio Grande City — posted videos to YouTube with images of bullet-ridden vehicles and bodies lying in the streets.

The governments of Tamaulipas and Reynosa gradually began to release information on verified incidents, such as a Feb. 18 attack in Valle Hermoso, a suspected Zeta stronghold near Matamoros.

Isolated attacks between the two groups have continued, but the worst appears to be over for now, said Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño. The Zetas are believed to have retreated to Nuevo Laredo, which has served as a base of operations for years, and recent law enforcement intelligence suggests a truce between the warring factions may be in the works again.

“Things have relaxed, but nonetheless we recognize the potential that still remains,” the sheriff said. “We still have our reactionary force on alert. We have a contingency plan, and we’re ready to respond.”

While no one contacted for this story could say their law enforcement agency had solid evidence pointing to a finalized truce, each person agreed that it is ultimately in the best interest of both the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas to settle their score without violence.

Daily shootouts and rising body counts can only result in increased scrutiny from the Mexican government and pressure on their bottom lines.

“The one sole motivating factor for this whole thing is to reap that profit margin,” Treviño said. “When you start infighting and killing each other off and so forth, you’re definitely cutting into that.”

Which group will end up taking home that profit in the drug cities south of the Valley remains to be seen.

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