Thursday, September 22, 2011

The matazetas

In the aftermath of the recent killings in Veracruz, there's been a lot of talk about the so-called "matazetas," apparently an alliance between la Gente Nueva (originally from Sinaloa), la Generacion Nueva de Jalisco (from Jalisco) and possibly, the Gulf cartel. The Wall Street Journal has a fine piece on the subject and the fears of paramilitarization. (Link in title of post)

Contrary to conventional wisdom (if there is any such thing in Mexico's drug war), the Matazetas are nothing new. Around 2004, when a Sinaloa cartel-backed kill squad known as Los Negros moved into Nuevo Laredo to take on the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas, the name "matazetas" was born (to the best of my knowledge, that is the first time it was mentioned.)

Then in 2005/2006, when La Barbie took it upon himself to work with La Gente Nueva and try to instill the fear of God in Los Zetas in Tamaulipas, the term matazetas became commonplace. (One of the infamous videos of La Barbie's men executing Zetas, which were later uploaded onto the Internet, was titled "Be a patriot, kill a Zeta.") Throughout Tamaulipas, if you ask anyone with a decent memory, they'll tell you stories of the matazetas, and the fears that residents had back then that these apparent vigilantes, or paramilitaries as some are calling them, might take over. They might even admit that they preferred the Zetas running the show.

Throughout 2007, Veracruz was in the midst of a raging turf war, too – the violence there is not that new, although it does appear to have intensified with the latest killing of 35 Zeta-affiliated gangsters. Back in 2007, Los Zetas was under threat from an armed wing of La Gente Nueva, according to newspaper reports. Chapo was trying to take the plaza.

The local Veracruz chapter of La Gente Nueva went by another name, too, according to a Dec. 16, 2007, story in Mexico's leading newspaper, El Universal.

"They're known as Los matazetas," wrote correspondent Edgar Avila Perez.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The significance of Veracruz

So 35 bodies were dumped in full display in Veracruz. (Link to AP story in title of post)

The significance of this latest massacre should not be understated, in my view. Veracruz is traditionally a Zeta-Gulf cartel stronghold. I last went there in late 2008, and everything you could imagine was said to be run by Zetas. Bars, nightclubs, hotels – if you named it, locals likely identified it as a Zeta operation.

Real Zetas, mind you, not the young thugs running around the country currently calling themselves Zetas for shits and giggles and to make a name for themselves.

Rumor (based on a narcomanta allegedly left at the scene) has it that Chapo's Gente Nueva were responsible for the latest killings.

If that's the case, and Chapo's people are moving in on Zeta turf in the southeast/gulf region, then this could spell serious trouble for an already volatile area.

For several decades, the southeast corner of Mexico (Veracruz is at what I consider to be the tip of that corner) has been inhabited by both the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know details of the arrangement by which they co-existed, but there is sufficient evidence that both big groups have been allowed to operate in the states of Veracruz, Quintana Roo and Yucatan. Veracruz and Cancun have both served as useful ports of entry for cocaine coming in from Colombia, as well as shipping points for drugs destined to Europe.

So if Chapo's people are indeed going after rivals in Veracruz (the city), it could signal a shift of some kind. We already know that US officials believe the Gulf cartel leadership and the Sinaloa cartel have formed an alliance against the renegade Zetas, so this may be just another sign of that move.

But we also know that the Sinaloa cartel is hellbent on expanding its operations, particularly to Europe, where drug consumption is up and law enforcement is down (would be nice to have a port like Veracruz in one's control). We also know that the goal of the Mexican authorities is not to end drug trafficking altogether (an impossibility) but to make it so difficult to traffic through Mexico that the cartels have to look elsewhere.

Back to the Caribbean, for instance.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Games without frontiers

In early 2009, a lawyer believed to be representing the Sinaloa cartel named Humberto Loya-Castro allegedly approached DEA agents in an attempt to introduce them to a client of his – Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of El Mayo Zambada, and according to U.S. Justice Department indictments, ranked as high as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in the Sinaloa cartel.

Loya-Castro allegedly indicated to the agents that Zambada-Niebla might be interested in cooperating with the authorities. DEA agents in Mexico apparently obtained permission from higher-ups in Washington, D.C. to conduct a preliminary introductory meeting with Zambada-Niebla, arranging to meet the lawyer and his client in Mexico City on March 18.

According to what appears to be a government response to a motion filed by Zambada-Niebla in a Chicago court (where he is now on trial), two DEA agents flew to Mexico City on March 17, where they met with their Mexico City-based counterparts; their superior in Mexico City at the time allegedly met with them and "expressed concern" about U.S. agents meeting with such a high-level member of a cartel. According to the document, the ranking agent ordered his subordinates to call off their attempts to meet with Zambada-Niebla unless they received further explicit authorization to do so.

DEA agents then allegedly met with Loya-Castro at a Mexico City hotel to break the news. But shortly after, Loya-Castro apparently returned to the hotel, Zambada-Niebla in tow. The DEA agents then allegedly informed the lawyer that they could not meet with Zambada-Niebla, who purportedly "indicated that he simply wished to convey personally his interest and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government.

This all is supposed to have happened on March 17, 2009. In the wee hours of March 18, Zambada-Niebla was arrested by Mexican authorities in the Lomas de Pedregal neighborhood of Mexico City (pic of the house above, courtesy of Google maps). In February 2010, he was extradited to the United States.

NOTE: The information above was obtained from a PDF of what appears to be the government response to Zambada-Niebla's motion, which was posted on the web. I can't vouch for the veracity of the document, hence my use of "allegedly" and "apparently" above. More information as I find out more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Viva Mexico!

In honour of Mexican Independence Day, here's a recap of how I spent the celebrations two years ago, in Badiraguato, Sinaloa. (Excerpted from The Last Narco)

As the rain fell hard, the last of Badiraguato’s revellers could be heard, singing, yelling profanities, stumbling or driving drunkenly home after the Independence Day festivities. They had just enjoyed a peaceful celebration – no violence at all, no shootings – much to the delight of local government and residents.

Some local narcos, sporting gold chains, guns and fancy cowboy boots, had filed into the square at about 9 p.m. to listen to the live traditional banda tunes with the rest of Badiraguato, but they’d caused no trouble. Some were surely just wannabe narcos, too, dressing like those they aspire to become.

A group of mothers, lined up in a row along the side of the plaza, looked on as one young narco grabbed the hand of a beautiful brown-haired girl of about fourteen. She was decked out in stilettos, an open-backed top and a short skirt. Her long nails were neatly painted, specks of glitter on her cheek reflected in the lighting. He dragged her out in front of the band and they began to dance sloppily – like teenagers – as the brass banda group churned out another lively, upbeat tune.

Normally, the sight of an apparent drug trafficker and a dolled-up teen princess dancing to what can only be described as circus music would be sidesplitting. But in Badiraguato it’s the norm – the narcos love their banda, and they love their princesses.

There was an air of calm to Badiraguato that Independence Day, 15 September 2009. The previous year had been a troubled one; homicides had dominated the talk of the town. ‘Mochomo’ – a nickname meaning ‘fire ant’ given to Alfredo Beltran Leyva – and Chapo had been at war, and no one really knew who was in charge any more. But now, with a pact between the feuding kingpins, there was control again and the violence was declining.

Soldiers in the shadowy barracks at the far end of Badiraguato peered out over the walls to catch a glimpse of the festivities – they had not been invited but they would enjoy as much of the moment as they could. Some residents glared at the soldiers; all opted for silence while walking by. Only when they were out of the soldiers’ earshot did they resume their conversations.

The air of calm in Badiraguato felt precariously temporary. The Sierra of Sinaloa was not what it once was. For several years, the region had been what one resident called a ‘marked zone’. The military was ever-present, but so were the narcos. By and large, the military avoided conflict, but that didn't mean the narcos weren't duking it out among themselves.

Homicide had become so common in Sinaloa that it cost a mere $35 to have a rival murdered.

On 15 September 2009, Independence night in Badiraguato, some locals hoped to see Chapo there. A group of local narcos had conducted a thorough review of their operations to make sure the marijuana was growing and being delivered at the pace they had promised. When he arrived, Chapo would be pleased.

A helicopter circled overhead before the fireworks began. The next morning, the helicopter appeared again. The military was watching, waiting.

Chapo never came.