According to Excelsior, the Mexican army is building a string of new bases across the Zeta cartel’s stomping grounds of Tamaulipas to support some 13,000 soldiers currently patrolling the state. This means nearly 30 percent of the Mexican army’s counter-cartel troops are fortifying directly in the Zetas’ homeland (more are fighting the Zetas elsewhere), and it’s a sign Mexico’s cartel strategy has finally found its main enemy.
The shift has been building over the past several months, with the bulk of troops moving into the state in late 2011. The plan: retake areas where “local authorities were overwhelmed by organized crime and drug trafficking.”
Four of the bases will be built in Tamaulipas proper, from a strip of land stretching up the Texas border down to Reynosa and into Mexico’s badlands. Another will be in neighboring Nuevo Leon, also Zetas territory. Two more bases will be built elsewhere: one in Chihuahua, where the Sinaloa Cartel is strong, and another to the southwest in Michoacan, which has seen the Zetas move in to counter a Sinaloa assault against the declining La Familia Michoacana gang.
More troops and more bases makes sense in the context of a widely-circulated report released earlier this month from SIEDO, the Mexican government’s counter-cartel agency. The report, echoed by private intelligence firm Stratfor’s annual summary of Mexico’s drug violence, found that the Zetas have now eclipsed the poweful Sinaloa Cartel as the country’s largest, operating in 17 states and with no signs of slowing down.
But on the other hand, because the Zetas are now the largest cartel in Mexico doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the most powerful. The Zetas are a new breed of cartel — different from the traditional, top-down and tightly-knit organization of Sinaloa. Instead, the Zetas are closer to a decentralized network of criminal gangs wearing the Zetas brand.
“They frequently become involved in small-scale feuds that have nothing to do with orders from the top, so having an especially large, bottom-heavy network of these bands could draw unnecessary attention, inviting a crackdown from law enforcement officials,” wrote analyst Geoffrey Ramsey at InSight, a Latin America crime and security monitor. Sure, the Zetas’ growth may make them look powerful, but the Sinaloa Cartel “maintains connections at all levels of government, including sections of the federal police and military, and its influence does not seem to be going anywhere,” Ramsey writes.
In comparison, the traditionally dominant Sinaloa Cartel — led by kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — declined from 23 to 16 states, lost its top security chief and has been forced by government interdiction to outsource some of its methamphetamine labs to Guatemala.
Meanwhile, the Zetas are launching another wave of assaults against the Gulf Cartel border bases of Reynosa and Matamoros. The Zetas, at first led by a core of former army commandos who went to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before splitting nearly two years ago, reportedly “shattered the relative peace of recent weeks” in a series gun battles, ambushes and car chases. According to The Monitor, a McAllen, Texas newspaper across the border from Reynosa, one (common) cartel tactic involved setting up road blockades near targets, to prevent the military from responding to attacks.
Perhaps the most notable shootout was one between “groups of gunmen” near “a large bronze rooster statue” in Reynosa. The statue, called the “Rooster of Vista Hermosa” mysteriously appeared two weeks ago and is likely a monument to slain Sinaloa narcocorrido singer Valentin “The Rooster” Elizalde. The singer was killed by the Zetas for singing a diss song against the Zetas in Reynosa back in 2010. The statue has been reported to serve as a means to promote a new alliance between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels against the Zetas.
So pick your target. On the one hand, a decentralized — and notoriously violent — network of Zetas franchises. On the other, the mega-rich drug lords of the Sinaloa Cartel and their allies across the southern tip of Texas. The first is on the warpath across the country; the second would rather talk business.