Who is behind the killings of Zetas?

Who is this Man?

Who is this Man?

Who is behind the killings of Zetas — another drug gang or agents acting on behalf of the government or military? An ad hoc group whose presence is being tolerated by authorities as well as the public?

Coastal Veracruz, the gateway to Mexico for centuries of immigrants from Europe and beyond, a laid-back beachfront vacation spot for legions of Mexicans, has in recent months become the latest state to be thoroughly sucked into the deadly and devastating drug war.

On Sept. 20, nearly three dozen half-naked bodies were dumped in broad daylight on a busy highway underpass in a well-to-do tourist area of the city of Veracruz. Fourteen more turned up a few days later — during a convention of the nation’s top state and federal prosecutors. Then, on Oct. 6, barely 48 hours after announcing a major security offensive, military and police found an additional 36 bodies, and 10 more turned up the following day.

In videotaped presentations, a group of masked men with military bearing has claimed responsibility for the spate of killings, portraying it as a cleansing operation. Many of the bodies had a “Z” for Zeta written on the back with ink marker, a witness said.

The mystery group announced that it was in Veracruz State as “the armed branch of the people, and for the people.”

“We are asking officials and authorities who support the Zetas to stop doing so, and let the armed forces know that our only objective is to finish the Zetas,” the spokesman for the group told the camera. “We are anonymous warriors, without faces, proudly Mexican.”

For years with the Zetas tightly in charge, and the public terrified into submission, the state had stayed relatively calm. But months ago, traffickers associated with top drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman are believed to have moved in from the north with an eye toward seizing territory from the Zetas, who had long controlled Veracruz’s valuable routes for smuggling drugs, migrants and contraband.

The “Zeta killers” burst on to the scene shortly before President Felipe Calderon deployed fresh military forces into Veracruz this month.

Their sudden rise and the surgical precision with which the killers systematically picked off nearly 100 people in 17 days has led to conjecture among some people that they may be operating with implicit or direct support of the government or military. Some suggest that the June kidnapping, torture and killing of three marine cadets in Veracruz might have propelled the marine corps to begin acting outside the law. Officials dismiss such speculation, and others wonder why a group aspiring to be a clandestine death squad would post videos on YouTube.

Indeed, some point to Guzman’s Sinaloa network, and say the military look to the killings may be an attempt to deflect attention.

If that’s true, the Zeta killers would simply be the latest of the many cartel-affiliated paramilitary gangs that have been fighting in Mexico since the beginning of the offensive that Calderon launched against the cartels at the start of his administration nearly five years ago.

The Zetas themselves started as the private military arm of the Gulf cartel, hired gunmen recruited from army elite forces to fight and kill the cartel’s enemies. They evolved into a full-fledged trafficking cartel after splitting violently from their former patrons.

Vigilante gangs purporting to be defending society and working with some level of official complicity have frequently acted in Mexico in recent years. La Familia in Michoacan, which surged in Calderon’s southwestern home state in 2005, claimed that it was protecting residents from the Zetas.

In 2009, Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the affluent city of San Pedro Garza Garcia near the northern industrial hub of Monterrey, announced the formation of “intelligence squads” to “cleanse” his jurisdiction of criminals. One particularly notorious thug turned up dead in short order.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in the expanding drug war since December 2006, when it began, according to government intelligence figures.

The government of Veracruz has sought to minimize the horror the state is living, or cast it as part of a broader national phenomenon for which local officials are not responsible.

Yet state officials have only exacerbated the uncertainty and suspicion by hiding information on new fatalities and claiming with excessive haste that most of the first batch of 35 dead were criminals. In fact, neither Gov. Javier Duarte nor state Atty. Gen. Reynaldo Escobar, who made those claims, had that information. The city’s top newspaper, Notiver, later reported that the majority did not have criminal records. Escobar has since been forced to resign.

“Where is the government? What is happening here? What is it all about?”

Jerez Zacatecas belongs to ‘Los Zetas’, say the locals!

One citizen wrote about the open activities of these thugs:

In my town of Jerez Zacatecas to file a report to the local police or PGJE is like throwing the rope around your neck because these police agencies have been completely corrupted by the criminal organization of ‘Los Zetas,’ This is especially true with the municipal police.

In the town of Jerez it’s nothing new to see cars and trucks with tinted windows bearing expired license plates from the United States or in many cases vehicles that have been reported stolen, yet the police or traffic officers do nothing. Inside these vehicles it’s also common to see the occupants talking suspiciously on radios, or consuming drugs in public and in many cases they are armed with weapons. These men that we all know belong to Los Zetas do whatever they want; they stop traffic when they park in the middle of the street, they walk real slow like they own the street, they cut in front of the lines in banks, supermarkets, etc.

They think they own the streets and when they see young people riding in their cars with the music a little too high, they detain them, beat them and threaten them. Sometimes they take away their cars, or in some cases they tell the municipal police to handle it, who pick them up and beat them with boards.”

As proof of the corruption in Jerez the following was told by a resident of this city that exposes the huge complicity between the police and the Zetas:

“Last Sunday I was taking a drive through the streets of downtown on Main Street when I saw a cop stopping and diverting traffic to another street, of course I obeyed, maybe there was some emergency or construction. I decided to take another street two blocks up ahead and to turn back to the street that was closed, and I noted that there were several trucks parked in front of a bar that I recognized as belonging to people that have connections to Los Zetas. I thought ‘shit.’ … a complete command of municipal police blocking traffic just because criminal thugs are drinking in a bar … that is nothing more than stupidity.”

Another local resident added the following:
“I know several police officers and even a police commander who work for Los Zetas, they routinely conduct illegal checkpoints to steal cars and money from people. One of them, the commander, is known as Comandante Felipe, and other have stupid little names like el chikis, el negro, el guapo, etc, and so on.
If that wasn’t enough the Mayor Eduardo Lopez Mireles, not long ago threw out the army from the city, the only incorruptible agency, who use to enforce the law as it should be. The military were the only ones that made Jeres feel safe, but now we can’t even go out and enjoy our town because if you run into one of these thugs, is like running in to a child with a gun, they don’t know how to use it and why even use it? The damage they are causing to the town or the damage they are causing to each other.”

The Zeta Killers to rid the country of the feared Zetas cartel!

Zetas Cartel Members "the Targets"

Zetas Cartel Members "the Targets"

The federal government has announced a fresh security operation aimed at regaining control over the eastern coastal state of Veracruz, where entrenched criminal organizations and a paramilitary-style gang have unleashed a wave of deadly drug-war violence.

In a formal and subdued setting before a portrait of national hero Benito Juarez, members of Mexico’s national security council said Tuesday evening that only the state had the authority to combat criminal groups in the country’s ongoing conflict against traffickers.

The statements made an indirect reference to the so-called Mata Zetas, or Zeta Killers, an apparently well-armed and well-trained new gang that surfaced in late July. The Zeta Killers claim their only goal is to rid the country of the violent and feared Zetas cartel. The group has called on Veracruz residents to stop paying extortion “taxes” to the Zetas.

“Those who seek justice by their own hand, or invade the state in its intransferable duties, become delinquents, and the government will apply to them the full force of the law,” Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake Mora said.

Mexico’s federal government in recent days has aggressively sought to dispel the notion that the Zeta Killers are a “true” paramilitary. An increase in such vigilante violence would more closely echo the worst years of Colombia‘s long armed conflict, where paramilitary violence was rampant.

It’s a parallel that both Mexican and U.S. authorities strive to avoid, analysts and reports have said, and there are many differences between the drug war experiences of Mexico and Colombia.

Blake stood at attention alongside top security and military officials, as well as Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte, as the government said it would seek to reinforce local police units in the state and root out corruption in the state police force. Last week, the government said it would be sending more troops and federal police to combat the organized crime groups in Veracruz.

The Zeta Killers’ declaration of war against the Zetas has resulted in a statewide outbreak of intense fighting and reports of kidnappings. On Sept. 20, 35 bodies were dumped on a busy boulevard near the Veracruz port, a gruesome act for which the Zeta Killers have claimed responsibility.

The government’s new Operation Safe Veracruz appears modeled on previous multi-agency operations that the administration of President Felipe Calderon has undertaken in other regions of the country since he took office in late 2006.

Calderon launched the government’s campaign against Mexican drug cartels with a military-led operation in his home state of Michoacan. Enforcement pushes elsewhere have produced mixed results. In Chihuahua state, where violent Ciudad Juarez is located, a military and federal operation corresponded with an increase in claims of human-rights violations by government forces.

The “Town of Death” hosted by the Zetas!

Towns of Death
Towns of Death

The “Town of Death” in northeast Mexico, 90 miles south of Texas, is to know the ironies of Mexico’s public image: a lot of illusions, a lot of good people trapped in bad circumstances — and a lot of disconnect when it’s all viewed from the United States.

San Fernando, the now-notorious Mexican farming center only two hours from Brownsville, Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, has in the past 13 months made Mexican history. Since August 2010, San Fernando has suffered the largest mass executions of trapped civilians not only in the “drug war” of this decade but in modern Mexico’s lifetime, arguably dwarfing anything since the Mexican Revolution closed in 1920.

Last year, Mexico’s least-restrained drug trafficking cartel, the Zetas, began using the rural crossroads at San Fernando as a staging area for unparalleled — and largely unexplained — atrocities. There was a cold-blooded targeting of arbitrary pawns, seeming to actively cultivate a reputation for naked menace.

But in early April this took a twist. The massacre sprees ended — and a new complication was added to San Fernando’s image, arriving by ponderous stages.

First, in August 2010, the atrocity series started with the lead-off Zetas massacre (an almost inconceivable 72 dead). And this brought only ambivalent government feints in response. So the pattern festered. By March-April of this year (with at least 193 more victims found in mass graves) things had gone from bad to worse in San Fernando — which caused the scales to finally tip. At last, the beleaguered Mexican government was moved to focus its resources massively and win an impressive victory — which then remained almost invisible in the United States.

The tipping point, in early April, came as new horror stories were confirmed. The Zetas had begun going so far as to kill non-criminal Mexican bystanders in a kind of assembly line of gore, using sledgehammer blows (thriftily saving bullets). Amid such horrors, any previous central-government qualms about meddling in provincial affairs were swept away. By late June, so many troops and federal police had surged into San Fernando’s forbidding landscape that the seemingly impossible occurred:

Quiet. Suddenly, arrogant and long-standing signs of Zeta presence — the pickups or SUVs openly cruising with brandished heavy weapons — were gone from the streets. Where had the Zetas gone? More than 80 were reportedly arrested. Others seemed to evaporate, either fading into the populace or fleeing west or south beyond the surge area. The last dim report of a carjacking on the “Highway of Death” through San Fernando (Mexican Federal Highway 101) seemed to come in July.

Deep fear — and very real danger — still remained, but for the shell-shocked people of San Fernando, things had definitely changed. I went there in September, and the place was visibly more relaxed. A few days later the Spanish news agency EFE confirmed a similar improved picture in the same region, but closer to the border, at Ciudad Mier more than 150 miles northeast of San Fernando. These visits were media exceptions, however. What might be called the Massacre Zone, a 200-mile block of borderland leading out to the Gulf, has come to be viewed as impossibly dangerous by news organizations, leaving it mostly in darkness, uninvestigated.

Thus there are few observers to note what is in effect a triumph by government forces. Nor is the Mexican government itself quick to shout its own victory. For one thing, the move entails an affront to Mexico’s division of local-state-federal power. The feds found themselves forced (the sledgehammers were not subtle invitations) to surge into 22 city-county units, including San Fernando, as a reported 2,500 troops and federal officers kicked out and replaced local police. In San Fernando 17 local officers were arrested outright as Zeta henchmen and possible massacre participants. The rest were sacked, while state police in fatigues and troop trucks laden with Mexican marines or soldiers became the icons of law and order.

The new peace in San Fernando, however, imperfect contrasts with some statements in U.S. Congress. On September 13, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla) called for current policy on Mexico to be scrapped because “there is an insurgency taking place in Mexico along the U.S. border” — conjuring images of thousands of ideological guerrillas, a la Pancho Villa, setting up utopian mini-states. San Fernando’s reality is the reverse: convoys of drug thugs aren’t a mass movement, and what’s more they’ve been run out of their outlaw’s roost.

The retaking of San Fernando fits an old pattern. A year earlier and more than a thousand miles west, a smaller outlaw’s roost — though still painful for trapped locals — festered just south of the Arizona border (Arizona media, fixated on immigration chimera, rarely noticed such features over in Mexico). The Cerro Prieto stronghold finally forced a troop surge after a cartel battle on July 1, 2010, killed at least 21 pistoleros. There had been desperate cries for help earlier, but a high-visibility crisis seemed to be required to spur military action. This dynamic of reactive rather than pro-active force can be seen back through history and down through neighboring nations in Central America, where military bodies have been burned by politics. In Mexico, San Fernando suggests, unexplained slowness in restoring order doesn’t mean the capability isn’t there — at least with regard to relatively small hideouts like San Fernando.