Mother’s Day Massacre: Los Zetas and Sinaloa Behead, Hack and Taunt

By Jamie Dettmer

The struggle between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel for control of north-east Mexico took another macabre turn during Mother’s Day weekend with the discovery of dozens decapitated bodies on the highway east of Cadereyta.

The bodies were found on May 13. Initially, the authorities said they had found 49 bodies in garbage bags with their heads, hands and feet cut off. But officials said the death toll could reach 70.

Investigators are working to match the parts and identify the victims. At least six of the victims were women.

A narco-message left near the bodies was signed by Los Zetas but police believe that the Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa Federation ally, may have been responsible and have arrested eight Gulf members. The bodies were found near the 47 km marker on Highway 40. That road leads to Reynosa, an area that Los Zetas have been challenging the Gulf Cartel for control.

Officials from the Mexican Defense Department said the men were captured in the Nuevo Leon municipality of China and that soldiers seized a kilo of cocaine, four rifles, a handgun, ammunition, and three hand grenades.

Los Zetas in the wake of the dumping of the bodies posted banners denying any part in the incident. One the of the banners stated, “[W]hen we hang banners we say ‘Las Golfas,’ and they say ‘Golfo.’”

Mexico’s interior and justice ministries are scrambling to provide beefed-up federal assistance to state authorities in Tamaulipas following the discovery of another 23 bodies in the embattled border city of Nuevo Laredo on May 4.

The escalation of cartel-related violence in the city has prompted federal and state forces assigned to a joint Regional Coordination Group to be placed on maximum alert. The Army took over a year ago security work in Nuevo Laredo after the municipal police force was disbanded.

The Secretary of the Interior, Alejandro Poiré Romero, held meetings on May 5 with the governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torre Cantú, and said he would have the full support of federal forces “to assist in the security of the state.”

In a statement released by the Interior Ministry, Poiré said federal and state authorities would “continue fighting in close collaboration and coordination, the criminals responsible for the violence that has occurred in Nuevo Laredo.”

The bodies dangling from a bridge or dismembered and stuffed in ice chests and trash bags marks a further gruesome escalation in the struggle between the country’s two largest cartels, the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas, for dominance of lucrative drug trafficking routes in northeast Mexico into the U.S.

Nine of the bodies – five men and four women—were found hanging from a highway overpass at the junction of National Road and Boulevard Luis Donaldo Colosio and bore clear signs of torture.

The State prosecutor, Victor Almanza, told Agora that most of the victims wore jeans, shirts and but had no shoes on and “all had their hands tied behind their backs and had bullet wounds in different parts of their bodies.” Some were blindfolded and the victims had no identification on them but appeared to be between 25 and 30 years old.

The bodies were accompanied by a crude, profanity-filled narco-banner draped nearby and apparently from Los Zetas. Addressed to the Gulf cartel, an ally of the Sinaloa Federation, it warned: “F******(Golfas) whores, this is how I’m going to finish off every f*****you send to heat up the plaza. You have to f*** up sometime and that’s when I’m gonna put you in your place…See you around f******.”

Just hours after police found 14 decapitated bodies in black trash bags in a parked truck behind a government customs building. The missing heads were stuffed in three ice chests and left near the office of the city mayor. All 14 victims were men and in their twenties, said state prosecutors.

A narco-message was placed near the ice coolers, this time apparently from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Federation’s boss, consisting of threats against the mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Benjamin Galvan, and state and municipal public safety officials.

The mayor was likened to the character Willy Wonka from the film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the message was a direct response to a claim Galvan made on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation doesn’t have a presence in the city. “They want credibility that I work here (?),” the message mockingly enquired.

The message promised that while the mayor continued to live in a world of chocolate “saying that nothing is happening here and all is well” heads will keep rolling. The message signed off: “All who died in Nuevo Laredo is pure scum or Z!! Attn: Your father Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.”

This is the second time that El Chapo has responded to the mayor’s insistence on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation isn’t operational in Nuevo Laredo. The day after Galvan made the claim a car bomb was exploded outside the city’s Ministry of Public Security.

The narco-message left by Los Zetas with the nine bodies hanging from the overpass on May 4 blamed the Sinaloa Federation for the bombing, according to El Norte newspaper.

The Attorney General of Tamaulipas state, Bolivar Hernandez Garza, says investigators are having “difficulties in identifying the bodies”. He added: “The identification and investigations of events of this nature are very demanding work for the experts,” he said. “In 14 cases the bodies were separated from the head, and this makes the work on identification even more challenging,” he added.

The federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) dispatched a team of prosecutors, forensic experts and crime of scene coordinators from Mexico City to assist state authorities in the investigation as well as to help to identify the victims. The prosecutors from the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime are being charged with opening an organized crime case. “The goal is to work collaboratively to expedite the investigation and to trace the perpetrators,” says a PGR spokesman.

The increased tempo and brutality of tit-for-tat slayings in the confrontation between El Chapo and Los Zetas has prompted widespread horror in Mexico. The killings have ranged across the north of the country.

At least 20 suspected drug gang members, a police officer and a soldier have been killed in six confrontations in Sinaloa since April 28, a spokesman for local prosecutors there said.

But the worst of the violence since April has taken place in the states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

The two cartels have been trading insults via narco-banners, goading and taunting each other as the bodies have piled up. The worst incidents in April included:

  • The discovery on April 10 of the dismembered bodies of five young men near a primary school in Culiacan. A narco-banner nearby accused the Sinaloa cartel leader of being in league with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and was signed “Los Zetas”.
  • The butchering on April 17 in Nuevo Laredo of 14 alleged Zetas by the Sinaloa Federation. The mangled and mutilated corpses were grouped in two rows underneath a banner proclaiming that “El Chapo” will clean out Los Zetas. The banner also boasted: “We have begun to clear Nuevo Laredo of Zetas.” and
  • The killing of 17 people on April 20 by gunmen dressed in black tactical gear with skull patches on their sleeves who burst into a neighborhood bar in the city of Chihuahua and opened fire, according to state and city authorities.

According to international consultancy, Stratfor, El Chapo is relying on an allied cartel for many of the Sinaloa Federation attacks in Tamaulipas. The consultancy said in an April report that New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) has become a real force within El Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation and that the group has developed tactical capabilities that make it a “formidable opponent” for the well-trained and armed Los Zetas.

The War In Veracruz

Federal and Veracruz authorities have launched another joint operation against Los Zetas and other cartels operating in the eastern Mexican state.

The governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte de Ochoa, announced on April 10 the kick-off of Operation Safe Cordoba, saying at a press conference that the objectives were to stamp out “high impact crimes” and to pursue kidnappers “to the full extent of the law”.

“From the first day of my administration, the security agenda has been a priority in responding to the situation our nation is experiencing, and in Veracruz’s case we are dealing with this in coordination with the federal government,” the governor said.

Although the open-ended operation will focus on Cordoba, the fifth-largest city in the state, Duarte argued the operation would have a knock-on regional effect, partly because of the city’s strategic location at the center of the state.

Founded in 1618, Cordoba city is made up of 15 barrios and has a population of about 150,000.

Operation Safe Cordoba is the third joint federal-state anti-crime operation launched by the governor. Last October, Operation Safe Veracruz, which focused on the port city that gives its name to the state, was launched. It was followed quickly by Operation Safe Orizaba, which focused on Cordoba’s twin city – the two are 20 kilometers apart.

Within days of the launching of Operation Safe Veracruz, federal and state authorities trumpeted successes, notably the capture on October 26 of the alleged Veracruz leader of Los Zetas, Carlos Arturo Carrillo Pitalua, and the arrest two days later of the woman in charge of the cartel’s finances in the state, Carmen del Consuelo Saenz. Ten other alleged Zetas members were also rounded up.

According to navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara, the 29-year-old Saenz oversaw the receiving and laundering of the proceeds from drug sales, pirated goods and kidnap ransoms.

On April 15 this year marines attached to Operation Safe Veracruz arrested several Jalisco Nueva Generacion drug cartel members, including Marco Antonio Reyes, who was allegedly in charge of the cartel’s gunmen in the state, said the Navy Secretariat in a statement.

Marines seized also a vehicle, firearms, ammunition marijuana crack cocaine. Among those captured was Jose Luis Feria, who is suspected of being a money man for the cartel.

Half-a-decade ago Veracruz was a world away from the drug-related violence scarring Mexico’s northern cities. But in the past few years the crescent-shaped state has been sucked in inexorably — thanks mainly to the incursion of Loz Zetas and infighting between the cartels for control.

Wedged between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Gulf of Mexico, the state of Veracruz has experienced in the last year a brutal upsurge in violence. Veracruz is Mexico’s third-most populous state and is coveted as a key drug-trafficking corridor to the United States.

Tit-for-tat cartel killings increased, as did clashes between security forces and drug gunmen.

  • In January 2011 the Mexican military fought gunmen for hours in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, leaving at least a dozen suspects and two soldiers dead. The raging battle was conducted across two of the capital’s neighborhoods, forcing residents to remain indoors and sending pedestrians scurrying.
  • In April, Mexican troops battled gunmen trying to consolidate narcotic operations in Veracruz. Ten gunmen were killed in the clash, the state government said in a statement. A few days later, gunmen ambushed and killed a police chief, Juan Moreno Lopez, the head of the inter-municipal police force for the Minatitlan-Cosoleacaque area, and two of his officers.
  • On September 20 gunmen linked to the Sinaloa Federation dumped 35 bodies under an overpass in the Boca del Rio district of Veracruz city. The gunmen brandished weapons at terrified motorists while the bodies were unloaded on a busy freeway near a large shopping mall.
  • 16 people were killed in Veracruz on December 22 when five armed gunmen went on a killing spree. The killings began when gunmen opened fire on four people in the small town of El Higo and then attacked three passenger buses on a rural highway by Tampico. Three of the victims were U.S. citizens visiting family for Christmas.
  • A suspected member of Los Zetas led Mexican marines to mass graves at two ranches in the state of Veracruz where were 15 bodies were unearthed. The bodies included rivals and members of their own gang who had been executed.

Last October, Mexican President Felipe Calderon warned that violence-plagued Veracruz wasn’t doing enough to combat Los Zetas and the other cartels. In comments to a meeting of crime victims’ groups in Mexico City, he said, “I believe Veracruz was left in the hands of the Zetas.”

It was in the wake of that remark that state and federal authorities started to launch joint operations and fashion an overrall security strategy for the state.

The Veracruz Secretary for Public Safety, Arturo Bermudez Zurita, says Operation Safe Cordoba involves the Navy and Defense Ministry as well as state police.

“The operation is part of a strategic plan to strengthen security in this region, with actions tailored for the problems and challenges of the area, in order to contain and prevent criminal conduct,” he says.

Bermudez has called the civilian population to support the operation through anonymous tip offs.

Veracruz state, has become increasingly important as a revenue generator for Los Zetas aside from drugs. Oil plays a big part in the state’s economy with the northern part of Veracruz a major oil producer and Los Zetas has been pilfering the oil.

In what the Journal of Energy Security has dubbed “an alarming intersection between the drug violence and Mexico’s energy sector”, the cartel often works with former Pemex employees to identify which pipelines to tap and how.

According to Pemex officials, the company has lost more than a billion dollars to oil theft in the past four years. Half of that theft has been siphoned in sophisticated operations from oil facilities and pipelines in Veracruz. “They work day and night to find ways to penetrate our systems, our counter-theft structures, our infrastructure,” says Pemex spokesman Carlos Ramirez.