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.

Battle for Jalisco

On February 20 in the early morning Mexican soldiers seized 13 Los Zetas members after tip offs from locals fed up with the extortion demands being made on them

The arrests in the town of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, 15 kilometers from Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco and Mexico’s second largest city, didn’t make major national headlines  – none of the group was senior enough for that. But the operation illustrates the determination of the commander in the region, General Genaro Lozano Fausto Espinoza, to keep the pressure on the cartels, from second-tier crime groups such as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) up to the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas.

The military’s  focus was rewarded in February , not just with the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members, two of whom were women. Earlier in the month, on February 2 five members of New Generation were surprised by marines at a checkpoint set up on a road on the outskirts of Tecalitlán Pihuamo in the southeastern of the state. The marines found weapons and crystal meth, according to the Ministry of Defense.

And on February 9 the general and his troops got their biggest break – the record-breaking discovery in Tlajomulco de Zuniga of a 15-ton stash of methamphetamine worth $4 billion, equal to half the total meth seizures worldwide in 2009, according to United Nations data.

The methamphetamine was stored in barrels on a ranch.

According to the general these successes – from the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members to the capture of the five New Generation operatives and on to the methamphetamine seizure – all comes down unrelenting work. But he points also to another factor that has advanced his struggle with crime organizations – improved coordination with local and municipal authorities, from law-enforcement chiefs to state and city officials.

But the challenge is big for the general and his men.

Jalisco has become in the last year a major flashpoint in the struggle for mastery between competing cartels and seven crime organizations are jockeying for advantage in the state. The competition has become fiercer and bloodier with the arrival towards the end of 2010 of Los Zetas.

In a 48-hour period in the last week of January, Jalisco racked up 30 homicides. In the small municipality of Ejutla clandestine graves containing 7 bodies were found – four of the dead were burned beyond recognition. In Lagos de Moreno two policemen were shot dead. A third officer was seriously wounded and was later shot dead by gunmen in the hospital he had been rushed to, triggering another firefight.

The other homicides were all in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara.

The number of murders in Jalisco has jumped from 570 in 2009 to 882 in 2010. Last year, there were 1,100 slayings.

Last November, 26 corpses were found stuffed in three vehicles by municipal police in a busy avenue in Guadalajara, marking a new stage in the face-off between the warring cartels. All the corpses were bound and gagged, some had been asphyxiated, some had died from blows to their heads and one was beheaded.  Jalisco Governor Emilio González wrote on his Twitter account he was “shocked” by the killings.

According to the state’s interior secretary, Fernando Guzman Perez, the words ‘Milenio Zetas’ or ‘Milenium’ were written on the chests of the dead in oil—indicating that the killers were affiliated to Los Zetas and a small crime gang they have recently aligned with, the Milenio Cartel.

The cartel battle in Jalisco in many ways is about who controls Guadalajara, an important city for the cartels. Control of the city means you have control of important narcotic shipment routes up from the south and to the west and north.

Until the summer of 2010, the city was seen as a Sinaloa cartel bastion and as a result was free of extreme inter-cartel violence, that is until the Sinaloa cartel’s tight grip was loosened by the death of its major lieutenant in Guadalajara, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, who died in a shootout with federal police.

Jalisco has become a target for Los Zetas, who have been expanding west from their bases on the Gulf coast and have taken over already the neighboring Zacatecas state in their push westwards.