Los Zetas’ ‘Way of Combat’
by Antônio Sampaio on 19 July 2013 · 0 comments
Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, has made it clear that he does not consider the fight against crime a ‘war’ like the previous government did.
His stated aim is to focus on socio-economic programmes to stop cartel recruitment and strengthen institutions. Yet, that did not stop him from celebrating the arrest, on 15 July, of the leader of the main organisation driving brutal violence there. Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as Z-40, was the leader of Los Zetas, which has acquired a reputation for its open war against state security forces and rival drug groups.
Treviño Morales was known for putting his enemies in oil barrels and setting them on fire, a perfect if grim example of the kind of brutality that has spread in Mexico’s cartel wars. His capture is unquestionably a victory for Peña Nieto’s government, but it is not the end for Los Zetas’ violent campaign. The real origin of the group’s power was not Z-40’s intimidation methods, but a calculated strategy of paramilitary violence.
Originating in the late 1990s from a group of 31 deserters of the Mexican Armed Forces, led by former members of the Airmobile Special Forces Group (Gafe, in the Spanish acronym), Los Zetas never lost their military-oriented way of fighting. They were created as relentless enforcers of the Gulf cartel, with specific instructions to recruit only military personnel. They recruited heavily from the Kaibiles, a special forces group from Guatemala when the memory of their brutality during the 1980s war against leftist guerrillas was still fresh. The Zetas – and their Gulf bosses – were not only after the Kaibiles’ ‘killing machine’ (as they proudly called
themselves) but also the military tactics and discipline acquired in their training, which to this day is considered one of the most rigorous in the Americas. The urge for building a highly militarised force encouraged Los Zetas to adopt the unusual approach of advertising a recruitment campaign for Kaibiles via pirate radio stations in northern Guatemala.
The original deserters were led by three men, two of which have been killed and one captured. A total of 21 of the founding members have been killed or captured. The last original Gafe deserter at the head of Los Zetas was Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, or Z-3, killed last October by Mexican forces.
Despite the lack of military background, Treviño Morales, his successor, applied the typical terror tactics of the Kaibiles, such as decapitations and burning people alive, quite effectively and kept the group cohesive after an internal struggle last year.
Although Lazcano was a strong force behind Los Zetas’ extraordinary expansion through Mexico’s east coast, Central and even parts of South America, the key driver for the group’s resilience lies in its consistent paramilitary strategy. Whereas many criminal organisations strive to control territories and routes, especially for drug trafficking, Los Zetas moved beyond the sporadic killings and armed disputes of the criminal underworld to a permanent strategy of brutal violence, supported by a strong arsenal and training camps. The latter is perhaps the best example of how the paramilitary strategy resembles guerrilla-style warfare of the type usually associated with ideological insurgent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In one such camp, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, young men and women between the ages of 16 and 21 were found in military uniforms, being trained to fight for plazas (strategic points for criminal activity, including drug trafficking) with
AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers and an M-60 machine gun.
Partly as a legacy of its Kaibiles training, partly as a whole new approach to crime, Los Zetas used violent imagery in a systematic and strategic way.
I wrote on the symbolic effects of brutal violence for KoW almost exactly one year ago. Decapitations, massacres and public displays of bodies were intended not only as a message against a particular rival group, but as a public signal of territorial control. Exemplified by the massacre of 72 US-bound migrants in Tamaulipas in 2010, this strategy consisted in establishing the group’s credibility as a perpetrator of brutal violence. In cases such as the Tamaulipas massacre, brutal violence was meant not just for rival groups, but for society in general and even the state, with the knowledge of the psychological effects through redistribution of the images through the media. This increased the group’s credibility as a ruthless applier of hard power.
The expansion of Los Zetas’ power and reputation from a localised enforcer of the Gulf cartel to one of the two most powerful cartels in Mexico (alongside the rival Sinaloa, which operates mostly in the west coast) influenced other actors in the country’s criminal world. La Familia Michoacana, originally an ally of the Zetas, showed its adoption of violent imagery tactics by tossing severed heads into a crowded nightclub dance floor when it announced it was operating autonomously in 2006. The tactics spread further to a splinter cell of La Familia, the Knights Templar.
Whereas there is a chance that Los Zetas will splinter and cease to exist as a coherent organisation after Treviño Morales’s arrest, its strategy of paramilitary violence has been replicated and become a ‘way of combat’ among Mexican cartels. None of the ‘followers’ of this strategy have had the same level of success as Los Zetas, but some, like the Knights Templar, have used violent imagery quite effectively to establish their own turf, adding a layer of religious symbolism with the worship of grim figures not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, such as La Santa Muerte (Holy Death). The arrest of Treviño Morales is a strong signal of Mexico’s capacity to go against the most violent criminal groups. But Los Zetas’ strategic thinking remains a powerful influence over criminal actors there, some of which may now apply this ‘way of combat’ to explore gaps in their old enemy’s structure.
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