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.

El Chapo Starts Beheading Los Zetas

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.

 

Los Zetas And The Migrants

It is tough and perilous enough traipsing from the Central American states up through Mexico without cartels and gangs preying on you. But Mexico’s hyper-violent cartel, Los Zetas, is making it all a lot more dangerous.

The Mexican military is aiming to crackdown this year on human traffickers based in Tamaulipas and say a raid in February that rescued 73 undocumented Central American migrants being held captive at safe houses in the northeastern state is just the beginning.

According to the Defense Secretariat, 18 minors were among the group that was freed in February from three houses in the town of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. Four arrests were made.

Last year, military personnel and federal police rescued more than 250 victims of human trafficking, including Mexicans and Central Americans who were being held against their will in border cities such as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, say defense officials.

The February raid undertaken by troops attached to military region IV was part of Operation Northeast – a military initiative aimed at combating organized crime primarily in Tamaulipas and neighboring states. A spokesman for the defense secretariat says that the assaults on the three properties were “coordinated and simultaneous” and were mounted as a  “follow-up of information on criminal groups, particularly Los Zetas, trafficking and operating in the state.”

The four arrested traffickers were handed over to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and the migrants were transferred into the custody of immigration agencies. Depending on their status in Mexico they will be allowed to remain in the country or returned to their countries of origin, say officials.

Cartels and gangs linked to transnational organized crime organizations in the country have turned the trek through Mexico for Central American migrants intent on entering the U.S. into an increasingly hazardous journey. Human trafficking has become big business for the cartels and migrants are prey to extortion and ransom demands as well as being at risk of abduction, forced labor and compelled prostitution.

They risk also death.

In August 2010, Mexican authorities found the bodies of 72 mostly Central American migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, a massacre an 18-yearold Ecuadorian survivor blamed on the Los Zetas drug cartel. The victims were trying to reach Texas and according to Mexican police were slain when they refused to work for the cartel as couriers and enforcers. The survivor, Luis Freddy Lala, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint to raise the alarm.

Fourteen of those massacred were women.

The survivor’s then pregnant 17-year-old wife, Maria Angelica Lala, told Teleamazonas in Quito that her husband had paid $15,000 to smugglers to guide him to the United States.

In the wake of the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the cartels, saying they are “resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment.” And his then spokesmen Alejandro Poire, now the interior secretary, told reporters at a press conference: “It’s absolutely terrible, and it demands the condemnation of all of our society.”

The migrants who were massacred came mainly from four countries: Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. Diplomats from all four countries assisted police and federal authorities on the scene to help establish their identities.

Migrants heading for the U.S. along the Gulf coast have long been prey to extortion, theft and violence but the increased involvement of the cartels, and their determination to make a lucrative criminal enterprise out human trafficking, has made the journey much more dangerous, say government officials and those who work for migrant organizations.

And it isn’t only Tamaulipas that can be dangerous for them. Migrants moving through the state of Veracruz on freight trains and in trucks are viewed by Los Zetas there as cash cows.  Stories have proliferated in the Mexican press of the cartel extorting migrants and forcing some to join the criminal group.

Last year, masked Los Zetas gunmen stormed a freight train traveling through the state and snatched 80 migrants, most of whom were from Guatamela and Honduras. Officials from the National Immigration Institute mounted an investigation along with federal prosecutors and state officials in Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Reliable figures on how many migrants are kidnapped each year are hard to come by and estimates range dramatically. According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission, at least 11,333 migrants were abducted in Mexico between April and September 2010.

In eyewitness testimonies—replete with allegations of beatings and multiple rapes—for that study Los Zetas is mentioned frequently.

A Catholic priest in Matamoros, Fr. Francisco Gallardo Lopez, who works with Central American migrants, told Agora that the coyotes (smugglers) of the past were bad enough. “They would cheat and lie and beat them up and leave them high and dry but the situation has got a lot more serious and abusive.”

In testimony before a UN Commission, Salvador Beltran del Rio, head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said the main threat to migrants is organized crime.

This was confirmed first-hand to Agora by migrants who had taken refuge in a shelter in Mexico City. A 22-year-old Honduran, Hector Mejia, said he had made his way to the capital after some of the migrants he had been traveling with were forced by their guides to accompany gunmen in two cars in Ciudad Victoria. “They were just taken. I think the rest of us would have been but they didn’t have room,” he says.

Especially ugly, the cartels have increasingly resorted to sex trafficking to generate more profits. Some of the women trafficked are Mexican but also Central American migrants are coerced as well, say Mexican officials.

Last July, speaking before the Mexican Congress, President Calderon urged lawmakers to help him fight this “new form of slavery” by passing tougher measures on the sex and human trafficking.

“There are thousands and thousands of cases, in a society that is still unaware of the seriousness of this crime,” Calderon told lawmakers. Arguing that confronting human trafficking must be given greater priority, he emphasized that the problem won’t be solved just by law-enforcement agencies.

“Lawmakers and citizens alike must take action,” Calderon said. “We have to create a unified front to end human trafficking in Mexico. This front is not limited to police or officials, this front starts in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the communities.”

Estimates again vary on how many women and children are being trafficked every year throughout the country. The Mexican government estimates about 20,000 a year. UN agencies believe the figure could be higher.

“Los Zetas is the most aggressive in building sex trafficking into their business model,” says Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman.

She worries that when caught drug trafficking, criminals get harsher jail time than they do for human trafficking.