Federal and state authorities in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas are bracing themselves for a new phase of inter-cartel violence following public threats against Los Zetas from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Banners bearing the threats from the head of the Sinaloa Federation have appeared in the border town of Nuevo Laredo—along with the mutilated bodies of six Los Zetas members.
One of the banners stated: “This is how you do away with dumb [expletive] people, cutting them to pieces, all of those rats that rob and dedicate themselves to kidnapping and killing innocent people, I’m going to show you how I manage my cartel that is 30 years old, not like you people who were shoe-shiners and car-washers and got to where you are through betrayal. Sincerely, El Chapo.”
Independent experts believe the narco-messages from Mexico’s most powerful drug boss and the bodies herald a new phase in the struggle for mastery between the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas. And they say by having his name associated with the banners, El Chapo is demonstrating a determination to disrupt Los Zetas in their home-state of Tamaulipas, which they have dominated since splitting in 2010 from the Gulf cartel.
“Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo are controlled by the Zetas but the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros are still in the hands of the Gulf cartel,” says José Luis Valdés-Ugalde of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. “The Zetas objective is to take control of all of the Gulf cartel’s territories.”
He adds: “The Gulf cartel could lose control of Reynosa, if they fail to receive support from the Sinaloa cartel. The Zetas can maintain control of Monterrey, if there is no major pressure from the government or from the Gulf cartel and/or Sinaloa Federation.”
The six bodies, which were found on March 23, by soldiers on patrol, had been dismembered, said a spokesman for 8th Military Zone. He said they were discovered on a road in the Valle Hermoso district. Five of the bodies—four of them men’s and the fifth a woman – had been decapitated. Three of the victims had been bound and another that was found wrapped in a sheet was in an advanced state of decay.
Several of the narco-banners openly challenged and insulted the top Los Zetas leaders Heriberto Lazcano, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and his brother Omar Trevino, accusing them of being rats and garbage and sneering at their social backgrounds and intelligence.
The day before another six bodies (three men and three women) were found by soldiers on a road near Ciudad Victoria, the state capital. A spokesman for the state attorney General’s office says those bodies were thought to have been the handiwork of Los Zetas
Mexico’s two most powerful cartels – Guzmán’s Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas – have been locked in a struggle for mastery that has left thousands of foot-soldiers dead. The competition between the two crime organizations that’s triggered massacres and assassinations is dominating the criminal landscape in Mexico. Other cartels and crime gangs are being squeezed by Los Zetas and the Sinaloans and forced to align themselves with one or other.
But barring a devastating blow against the Sinaloa Federation or an internecine blow-up, the Sinaloans are better placed and more efficiently organized to win the struggle for the upper hand, argues Alberto Islas Torres, the founder of Risk Evaluation, a risk management company, and a former adviser in the presidential administration of Ernesto Zedilllo. “The Sinaloa cartel is more entrenched in society,” he says.
Nevertheless, Los Zetas last year managed to pile up significant geographical gains. A map breaking down cartel dominance and presence released by Mexico’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) at a forum for crime experts earlier this year at the National Institute of Penal Sciences suggested that Los Zetas is now operating in 17 Mexican states. The Sinaloa Federation is operating in 16 states. Four years ago, the Sinaloa Federation controlled 23 states.
The two top cartels have raised the ante in their competition with grislier slayings and even more torture tactics – a move apparently signaling their resolve to one-up each other and to force smaller gangs into submission.
While Los Zetas may be operating now in more states than the Sinaloa Federation, the latter is not only the oldest – a point stressed in the narco-banners in Tamaulipas—but still the largest cartel with tens of thousands of operatives and gang members under its sway. El Chapo’s organization dominates most of western Mexico and controls Ciudad Juarez, a crucial drug plaza, and is more effective at arranging and maintaining alliances.
El Chapo has tried before to stamp his authority on Tamaulipas. He launched an effort after the 2003 arrest of then Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas but failed to make much headway. Since 2010, the Gulf cartel has been weakened considerably by its struggle with Los Zetas and forced as a consequence into an alliance with El Chapo.
Last summer, Guzmán launched through an allied gang, New Generation (Gente Nueva), an offensive against Los Zetas in the Gulf state of Veracruz. As in Tamaulipas in March, the offensive started with a massacre and menacing narco-banners. Thirty-five semi-nude bodies – all showing signs of torture—were dumped from two trucks at the height of rush-hour traffic in front of horrified motorists. Photographs released subsequently by the Mexican Interior Ministry showed that some of the bodies were marked with a “Z” on their torsos.
The Sinaloa-linked group that claimed responsibility for the massacre, Los Mata Zetas, or The Zeta Killers, claimed in narco-banners that they were acting on behalf of the people and acting against the murderous rampages of Los Zetas. “We don’t extort, don’t kidnap,” they said, claims echoed in the narco-banners from El Chapo in Tamaulipas.
Valdés-Ugalde believes the Sinaloa cartel attack in Veracruz was a retaliation for Los Zetas moves on Guadalajara, which placed pressure on allies of the Sinaloa cartel. Likewise, El Chapo’s move now comes at a time his Gulf cartel allies are under considerable threat.
The Sinaloa attack on Los Zetas in Tamaulipas coincides with some recent Los Zetas setbacks in the state dealt them by federal and state authorities. On March 14 a senior Los Zetas leader in Nuevo Laredo was captured following several shootouts in the border city, according to the Secretaria de Defensa Nacional (SEDENA). Carlos Alejandro Guiterrez Escobedo, alias “El Fabiruchis” was detained soldiers after six of his armed accomplices were killed.
The brother of the alleged perpetrator of the massacre of 72 Central American immigrants in the municipality of San Fernando, Guiterrez Escobedo was considered the head of the Nuevo Laredo plaza and, according to a SEDENA statement, received direct orders from Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.