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Los Zetas Holds U.S. Drug Business at Gunpoint

February 6, 2011

The following article is reprinted with permission from Russia’s Strategic Culture Foundation. (Bold font appears in original version.)

Los Zetas Holds U.S. Drug Business at Gunpoint
©  Nil Nikandrov
Source:  Strategic Culture Foundation
February 5, 2011

Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel run by former special forces officers, turned independent several years ago. The officers sent the Z letter as the codename during their army service, hence the name of the group. For a long time, Los Zetas members used to be hired as bodyguards and hitmen by the influential El Golfo cartel supplying cocaine and heroin from Colombia to the U.S. Eventually Los Zetas outgrew the role and started fighting for control over drug markets and supply routes, regarding El Golfo as the main rival. Fairly soon other Mexican drug cartels found themselves dragged into the strife.

Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs contributed to the complexity of the situation. In a clear attempt to boost his popularity following a rather unconvincing victory in the presidential race, Calderon launched a campaign targeting drug cartels which so far met with virtually no resistance in Mexico. Facing an increasingly aggressive drug supply from Mexico which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the FBI were unable to counter, Washington readily blessed Calderon’s aspirations. The global financial crisis forced many of the U.S. banks to welcome cocaine-related financial flows, thus helping breed drug groups which evaded the control exercised by DEA and other U.S. special services. Washington, in its turn, simply sought to regain control as the drug revenues slipped away.

Such were the settings in which the Zetas started building their own bases in the U.S., Central and South America, and the Caribbean in a hope to establish new routes of drug supply from Peru and Colombia to the U.S. via the Pacific and Atlantic “corridors”. The advent of a strong unfamiliar player to the drug market did not go unnoticed. The ferocity of Zetas seemed shocking even for the drug business: they serially killed witnesses, tortured and beheaded their victims to intimidate competitors and law-enforcement agents, and never hesitated to kill people in numbers.

It is an open secret that today’s world owes the spread of torture as an almost routine practice to the CIA, DEA, and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The Zetas surely learned the craft at the time when their careers were interwoven with those of professionals from the above services. The Zetas record can be traced back to the 1970s-1990s, the epoch of counter-insurgency in Mexico and Central America. U.S. instructors trained a total of 15,000 Mexican special forces officers at Fort Bragg (North Carolina) and the School of the Americas (SOA) sited in the proximity of the Panama Canal, and later – when SOA closed – at Fort Benning (Georgia). Quite a few of the trainees acquired combat experience later during the offensives against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994-1995. Miserable pay and lack of social status lead thousands of Mexican soldiers and officers to flee from the army and some escapees were recruited by various criminal groups. Switching from army service to organized crime is a phenomenon occurring frequently not only in Mexico, but also in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Those who received counter-insurgency training under the U.S. oversight – for example, the Kaibiles, a Guatemalan analog of the Zetas – tend to be particularly ruthless.

U.S. agencies, aware of what Pentagon’s pets are like, seem alarmed by the increasingly tight alliance of Mexican and Guatemalan organized crime groups. At the moment Washington is trying to eradicate the monsters of its own upbringing, but the U.S. is clearly behind the curve as the carefully tuned and perfectly controllable U.S. domestic drug business is already exposed to the Zetas onslaught. The threat that the war over the drug market is going to spread from Mexico to the U.S. is growing day by day. As of today, the Zetas are fairly entrenched in the part of the U.S. bordering Mexico where the group is known to be buying administration officials, ethnic Latin Americans being the prime target group. Until recently a network of informants managed to help Zetas avoid serious defeats. The drug cartel is heavily armed with various types of weaponry from guns to grenade launchers which the group obtains from gun stores sited all along the 3,170 km U.S.-Mexican border. In some cases, Zetas resort to the assistance from their Mexican army contacts who have access to Pentagon’s arsenals and get the best of the U.S.-made supplies like latest versions of bullet-proof waists, advanced means of communication, helmets equipped with night-vision systems, etc.

Presidents of Central American Countries, Mexico, and Colombia will convene in Guatemala in June, 2011. The stated integration agenda will likely be overshadowed by urgent issues related to the fight against drug cartels. Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom warned that – unless drastic measures were taken to suppress drug trafficking – the death toll in 2011 would reach unprecedented proportions, and Salvador’s Mauricio Funes expressed concern that Zetas are making inroads into his country’s army and police top brass.

One might get an impression that the campaign against drug cartels is the Latin American leaders’ brainchild, but in fact the blueprint including the plan for coordination between the region’s armies, police, and intelligence agencies was fed to the local representatives during consultations at the respective U.S. embassies. Washington’s motivation behind the agenda is clear: it hopes to build a barrier against the drug threat before the narcotic flow spills across the U.S. border. Mexico as the country which lost over 30,000 lives in the drug war presents a stark example of human, socioeconomic, and political costs of a protracted drug-related conflict. Washington is not going to wage a serious war against the drug business within the U.S. as it would put in jeopardy the country’s financial system propped up by billions of dollars in “drug investments” from across the world. While large-scale offensives against drug groups are launched almost anywhere – in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, or Peru – nothing of the kind happens in the U.S., where the “home” drug mafia remains untouchable. Arrests on the lowest order may be carried out on a regular basis to showcase some activity, but the financial indicators of the U.S. drug mafia are never severely affected. Some 10 million Americans are cocaine addicts plus 30-40 million are occasional drug users, and the people’s comfort should not be infringed upon if it’s a market economy. The U.S. public discourse reflects the society’s progressing tolerance to drug use. The “weakness” explainable under the conditions of modern life’s permanent stress is portrayed with understanding in movies and books, and even politicians oftentimes admit lightheartedly to flirting with drugs back when they were college kids.

Latin American countries are confronted with a lot more stringent criteria, though. These liberal novelties are not meant for their populations and therefore hard times await drug cartels defying DEA control. El Golfo boss Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén and a bunch of his bodyguards were shot dead in Matamoros (Tamaulipas) in November, 2010 during a raid launched by Mexican marines after the group was tracked down by DEA and CIA operatives. Frightening pictures of the dead drug lord and his guards – with broken sculls and amidst pools of blood – were posted in the Internet. The raid left a total of at least 50 dead. Of course, these were Mexican, not American dead – the U.S. is fighting on other countries’ territories and at the cost of other nations’ blood.

… Brownsville is a nice place on the Rio Grande, at the Mexican border. It is home to a university, several museums, and a host of golf fields. Tourists flock to Brownsville mainly to watch hordes of birds in their original environment. At nights Brownsville’s cozy restaurants are packed as visitors savor Margaritas and other staples of the Mexican cuisine. Brownsville is a nice place, and, importantly, a peaceful one, in contrast to the country just across the river.


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