CARTEL'S ENFORCERS OUTPOWER THEIR BOSS
Zetas Grow into Paramilitary Group Now Hitting Mexico's Casinos
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - Even in a country accustomed to gangland violence, the news is disquieting.
In coordinated strikes, armed men rob at least five casinos in four states, killing a bystander and escaping with bundles of money. In the northern state of Sonora, an attack on a police station leaves five officers dead and announces the arrival of a new criminal force in the region. The likely culprit in both cases: the Zetas, a ruthless organization that was virtually unheard of just five years ago.
The Zetas, created by a group of highly trained military deserters to work as enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel, have become so powerful that their old handlers are quickly losing control, authorities said. The group, first concentrated along Mexico's border with Texas, has evolved into a powerful threat in its own right, spreading its brand of brutal violence into 31 Mexican states as it battles for control of new regions and key border entry points, U.S. and Mexican authorities say. "The Zetas have clearly become the biggest, most serious threat to the nation's security," said Raul Benitez, a Mexico security expert at American University in Washington, D.C.
"Now they want to control the nation's drug routes and along the way topple the traditional cartel leaders," said Mr. Benitez. "We're witnessing a classic coup under way."
Among the newly targeted border areas is Ciudad Juarez, the city across the border from El Paso and long the stronghold of the Juarez cartel, authorities said. The Zetas also have made inroads in Acapulco, Monterrey and Veracruz, usually with a flurry of high-profile killings of police and other officials.
Working with brutal Central American gangs and former death squads from Guatemala known as Kaibiles, the Zetas have morphed into a 2,000-member paramilitary organization operating in most of Mexico, including the Federal District, Mexico City, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and academic experts who monitor the group. Mexican authorities declined to estimate the size of the force.
"The combination of Kaibiles and former Mexican elite military units forms a deadly triangle that represents the perfect threat to Mexico," Mr. Benitez said. Former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, who recruited the original Zetas - numbering about 50 and many with training in the U.S., Israel and Colombia - was extradited to the U.S. in January. With him out of the picture, the group has become more independent, officials say.
Growing rift One U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said clear signs have emerged of a growing rift between the Gulf cartel and their enforcers. The mistrust is so great that leaders of both organizations - Jorge Eduardo Costilla-Sanchez, known as El Coss, the reputed leader of the Gulf cartel, and Heriberto Lazcano, known as El Verdugo, "The Executioner," head of the Zetas, communicate strictly via teleconference or through intermediaries.
"The Gulf cartel created the lion, but now the lion has wised up and controls the handler," said the U.S. law enforcement official, on condition of anonymity. "This has resulted in the lion roaming free and leaving a bloody trail of chaos. The Zetas don't ask the Gulf cartel permission for anything anymore. They simply inform them of their activities, whenever they feel like it."
Elements of the Zetas have been operating in U.S. cities as well, including Dallas, where hits have been ordered for at least three years now, according to a 2005 U.S. Justice Department memo. In March, a man who killed a Dallas police officer had apparent ties to a possible associate of the Zetas, Dallas police said.
Across Mexico, the Zetas' tentacles have spread from Nuevo Laredo and the state of Tamaulipas to more than 24 other states, including Nuevo Leon, Tabasco, Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sonora, Baja California, Chihuahua and even Mexico City, which previously was largely exempt from the executions recorded almost daily elsewhere.
Police recently found unexploded grenades in two subway stations, and there has been a steady number of drug-style executions. Signs have gone up in key intersections urging the Zetas out of the nation's capital. In Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, at least six law enforcement officials have been killed in the last two weeks, apparently the work of the Zetas, U.S. authorities say. Police officers are on high alert, and many have canceled vacations.
"Their modus operandi is very similar to operations in [the states of] Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Tabasco," said Julio Fentanes, a spokesman for the Juarez's municipal police. "Their style of operation, use of brand-new stolen SUVs [and] high-powered weapons, is similar to those of other commando groups that we have heard of in other territories." The Gulf cartel is battling the Sinaloa cartel for control of key drug distribution routes, including Interstate 35, which begins across the border from Nuevo Laredo. Nationwide, more than 1,200 people have been killed in Mexico this year, according to an unofficial tally by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal.
Since winning by a narrow margin in last year's election, Felipe Calderon has made confronting the drug cartels the focal point of his presidency. He has deployed troops in several states, including Michoacan, Guerrero and Tabasco, and the cities of Tijuana and Monterrey.
So far, most of those killed have been drug traffickers, soldiers and law enforcement officials, but a few civilians have been killed. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old student identified as Karen Siller Gomez was killed as she and her sister were entering the Caliente casino bar in Saltillo, Coahuila. Last week, casinos in the states of Nuevo Leon, Veracruz, Coahuila and Baja California were robbed in what a U.S. law enforcement official says were coordinated hits by the Zetas to pressure casino owners to let them in on the business.
On Sunday, Mexico City's Reforma newspaper reported that 26 casinos in 11 states had shut down because of pressure from drug cartels. Control regions Mexico's leading news magazine, Proceso, quoted Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora as telling Mexican legislators that the Zetas are in control of several regions of the country and have also been "taking control of several of our police forces, corrupting them. . They're taking our police away." A spokeswoman later confirmed Mr. Medina Mora's comments. The Zetas' strategy is to gain control of distribution routes into the U.S. by controlling border entry points and transshipment points, U.S. and Mexican authorities said.
In recent months, a shadowy new group known as La Gente Nueva, or "the new people," has entered the scene. La Gente Nueva, according to both U.S. and Mexican authorities, represents an effort to counter the Zetas' growing reach. The band of mostly former police officers appears to be receiving funding from the Sinaloa cartel and has set out also to avenge the lives of hundreds of police officers killed by the Zetas, authorities said. La Gente Nueva is also known for brutality, with torture and decapitation of its victims shown on videos, some of them posted on Web sites. Some authorities have compared the group to Colombia's Los Pepes, a vigilante group formed in the 1990s to track down and kill drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Los Pepes evolved into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a paramilitary group whose human rights abuses continue to haunt the South American nation.
The latest threatening note allegedly written by La Gente Nueva was left on a decapitated head in the Gulf state of Veracruz. It accused the state's top law enforcement officials of protecting the Zetas, saying, "[The officials] who work for the disgusting Zetas are going to end up just like this guy." [/FONT]
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