For years the Mexican government has battled drug cartels for sovereignty of the state. Finally a reprieve might be near. Not for the Mexican people, 23,000 dead and still exposed to the crossfire, but for police and military units on the front lines. Yet a general rule of politics and war is that a situation can always turn worse than it already is.
Mexico’s next cycle of violence could eclipse the last as quick math suggests 2015’s death-toll could breach 50,000.
The battlelines, reforming for months and possibly years, only recently become international headlines: Cartels Team Up to Destroy Hit Men Gang. Those hit men are Los Zetas, a paramilitary/drug cartel created for protection by the Gulf Cartel that eventually morphed into an enemy.
DEA officials laid out the reconfigured landscape last week in Texas, a distribution hub and primary battleground among the cartels.
"The Zetas have been trying to wage war on everybody for a while," said Will Glaspy, head of the DEA's office in the border town of McAllen. "It's been well-documented that the Gulf cartel has formed alliances with the Sinaloa cartel and [La Familia] to wage war against the Zetas."
While Los Zetas’ dominance, ruthlessness, and conquer-mentality are partial causes of this new alliance, the larger picture is fleshed out by high-ranking Gulf Cartel leader Jorge ‘El Coss’ Eduardo Costilla Sanchez. Sanchez had ordered the murder of Victor ‘Concord 3’ Pena Mendoza, a Zeta captain, back in January.
“After he died on 18 January, the Zetas' number two in command, Miguel ‘El Cuarenta’ Triveno, demanded that the Gulf Cartel hand over the killer. When that didn't happen, the event snapped tension that had built up since September 2008.”
Roughly when Los Zetas turned on its Gulf creators.
According to Salem News contributors Samuel Logan and John P Sullivan, “Concord 3 (Mendoza) was the linchpin that held together a shaky truce. His death on 18 January marked the end of the relationship held together by mutual necessity since Osiel Cardenas agreed to hire a group of highly trained mercenaries to watch his back. When the Gulf Cartel kidnapped Concord 3, it was marking a decision to separate from its former cadre of elite bodyguards. It was war.”
A recent report by Excélsior, one of Mexico’s oldest newspapers, claims the new bloc includes: the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquín Guzmán Loera (‘El Chapo’), the Gulf Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, the remnants of the Milenio/Valencia Cartel, and with a separatist faction of the Arellano-Felix organization (Tijuana Cartel).
They call themselves The New Federation.
These combined forces present a staggering level of power arrayed against Los Zetas, and with the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels being former rivals it’s hard to blame that angle of the story for attracting attention. The problem is that Los Zetas’s operations disappeared into the shadows - where the real story begins.
Alliances are often zero sum, interchanging allies and enemies as the environment demands. As cartels realign against Los Zetas, others must align in its favor. We aren’t witnessing one cartel supergroup teaming up on Los Zetas, but two supergroups lining up for a grand battle.
"We had six cartels, if you want to call them cartels, in Mexico,” said DEA agent Greg Thrash. “What we're seeing now is they're combining, and they're warring amongst one another.”
Los Zetas alone, as the most military sophisticated cartel, will be hard to destroy. One cartel clearly wasn’t enough and no tangible evidence exists that two are. The mission's improbability rises as Los Zetas equips and trains its own alliance: the Beltran Leyva organization, Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes organization (Juarez Cartel), and the Arellano-Felix organization (Tijuana Cartel).
The Beltran Leyva Cartel in particular switched sides from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2009.
While the cartels’ demand that the Mexican state stay out of their fight may relieve pressure on Mexican forces, a favorable long-term outcome is hard to imagine. There’s always a chance that the war, being so hot, could burn itself out, but we predict otherwise. In comparison to the storm already ravishing the state, Mexico is headed for a super-storm.
Our ultimate concern is Mexico becoming a lottery for the international crime syndicate. Its internal conflict has always been regional in nature, from the drug production fields in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, to Central American banks, to Mexico’s distribution routes and America’s streets.
But this regional conflict could swell to dangerously international proportions.
The pool of power - money, drugs, territory, weapons, political clout - is growing in proportion to the war. Before each cartel was competing four or five ways. Now the winner takes all and whoever comes out on top will hit an indescribable jackpot. Los Zetas would have plenty of spare billions to offer the world’s underbelly.
Both cartel groups would.
Reality must generate theory, which must leap back to reality. Los Zetas is comprised of former Mexican military commanders, who in turn recruited more commanders and soldiers. Its nature is to train up and Los Zetas’ has been raising an army since its formation: 1 to 10, 10 to 100, 100 to 1,000 and 1,000 to 10,000. That’s why its tactics are so advanced and uniform, why cartels copying Los Zetas operate in similar fashion.
Thus Los Zetas will require more recruits, and the first contacts have already been established by none other than Los Zetas itself. Originally the Gulf Cartel had cultivated ties with Ndrangheta, an ancient Italian crime syndicate, to open cocaine routes into Europe. Los Zetas took over the connection once it split with the Gulf.
Beltran Levya then brought in their connections to Norte del Valle Cartel, one of Colombia’s leading cocaine cartels.
Meanwhile Mexican cartels have already infiltrated most US street gangs, both Latin and African American. Sinaloa recruited MS-13 to counter the Gulf Cartel’s formation of Los Zetas. Since the Tijuana Cartel aligned with the Mexican Mafia, Los Zetas stands to absorb that organization into its army. Others are following.
Los Zetas also realized the need to replace itself by turning to ex-Kaibiles - Guatemalan Special Ops - to fill their previous role as special forces. It would seem unlikely for Los Zetas not to train its eyes on new government pipelines. After that a whole world of prospects await.
Why not another Italian crime syndicate, or the Russian mob? Reports have Los Zetas feeling around western Africa and its cocaine trade, home to al-Qaeda operatives and other militant groups allegedly involved in trafficking into Europe. Or what about the remnants of FARC, even the PKK or CIRA?
Any of these groups would be hard pressed to provide significant assistance to Los Zetas, but the intention may simply be to combine as many smaller parts as possible. This strategy would be no different than how the cartels already move drugs, money, and weapons across the US-Mexican border.
Agent Thrash compared the cartels to army ants. Well, army ants have spread globally.
Increasing the odds of this outcome further is US assistance to the Mexican military. As the war intensifies America will have no choice but to escalate own its military activity - equipping, training, and possibly fighting. The door then opens for PMCs like Blackwater, if they aren’t already in the state.
This would further invigorate Los Zetas’s own pursuit of foreign mercenaries.
Mexico, even with US assistance, cannot defeat the collective force opposing it, at least not in the next decade. The cartel’s total ranks number in the hundreds of thousands - over 100,000 drug suspects were arrested since 2006 alone - and they stand to swell as the jackpot rises.
This battle must erupt and Mexico has winner. The increasingly real question is whether it can survive the coming battle and the one after it.