The 35 bodies dumped last month in Veracruz, eastern Mexico, with a note threatening to get rid of the Zetas drug gang, revives an old riddle: Is there a "Good-Guy" Cartel?
The bodies were dumped on September 20 in a busy area of Boca del Rio, Veracruz, after gunmen stopped rush hour traffic. Left with the corpses, reportedly, were two written messages, explaining that the dead were Zetas, members of Mexico's most violent and perhaps most hated criminal organization.
The notes were self-righteous: "People of Veracruz, don't let yourself be extorted" (this was in reference to a notorious Zeta tactic, the bleeding and squeezing of local businesses and other targets). Another angry passage drew a line in the sand: "No more extortion, no more deaths of innocent people" (this referred to massacres by the Zetas; the 52 bystanders killed in a botched casino attack on August 25, the 72 immigrants machine-gunned in August 2010, and the scores of bus passengers bizarrely executed by Zetas last March --none of whom appeared to be gang combatants).
In the face of such Zeta atrocities, the killers of the 35 were portraying themselves as noble saviors, driven to mass murder by worse murderers. Government statements would vary, rather strangely, as to the apparent background of these vigilante killers, but one of the notes was blunt. The killers identified themselves as "G.N."
The Gente Nueva (New People) have surfaced before in Veracruz, typically leaving vigilante rhetoric on the bodies of targets linked to the Zetas. In a March 2007 video ("For a Clean Mexico. Sincerely, Gente Nueva") they interrogated two accused Zetas, then killed and dumped their bodies.
But in 2008 the Gente Nueva disappeared from Veracruz for a while, popping up in the deserts of Chihuahua, where they fought in the big cartel war around Ciudad Juarez. There, growing numbers of Gente Nueva confirmed suspicions: Rather than being outraged citizens in arms, these "New People" were not-so-new salaried hitmen, forming a secretive armed wing of Mexico's largest drug trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, an arch-rival of the Zetas.
The use of coy vigilante messages ("I killed them to protect you") is a fixture in the Mexican cartel conflicts. Some groups -- notably the big Sinaloa Cartel (but less so the rapacious Zetas) -- seek to curry public favor by claiming that hits on rivals are done to safeguard the citizenry. In analyst jargon, the Sinaloa Cartel has long presented itself as being only a "transactional" drug smuggling corporation (i.e., seeking only to smuggle drugs through Mexico and not prey directly on Mexican citizens), while the Zetas, using naked force, make no bones about being a "territorial" cartel (claiming ownership of everyone and everything on Zeta turf, and mercilessly exacting tribute).
When put that way, the best option for Mexico might seem clear: Leave the good-guy smugglers alone to clean up the bad-guy predators, in hopes of an imperfect peace. The Sinaloa Cartel's enduring message -- "We're the lesser of the evils" -- has persuaded some. "Some drug gangs, notably the powerful Sinaloa·Cartel, eschew the practice [of extortion] as bad for business," said the New York Times not long after the 35 bodies were dumped. "If the Sinaloa Cartel achieved hegemony, it would reduce all the fighting," a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency source was quoted as saying in April. "Could drug lord win mean peace?" asked a caption in the El Paso Times.
Pressured by Mexico's agony, the arguments can make observers edge toward accepting the Sinaloa Cartel's description of itself. Possibly, at some high level, the cartel's shadowy leaders, like Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, may genuinely seek to limit lower-level depredations as being bad public relations, or simply bad. But at street level, armies of Sinaloa Cartel thugs commit the same crimes that the self-righteous banners denounce.
When Sinaloa's street muscle, the Gente Nueva, went to Chihuahua (many are still there), their main target was not the Zetas but rivals in the Juarez Cartel (no angels themselves). Sinaloa was seeking a vast new chunk of turf, and here the Gente Nueva used fewer vigilante maxims, and more unabashed gangbanging. The demand of the note left by the bodies in Veracruz -- "no more killing of innocents" -- looms as queasy doublespeak if compared to Gente Nueva tactics in places like Chihuahua.
On October 9, 2008, a hit squad walked into the Rio Rosas bar in Chihuahua City, south of Juarez, and mowed down 11 apparent bystanders. Clues pointed to the Gente Nueva. Juarez itself saw the Casa Aliviane series of massacres in August-September 2009: eight mowed down at the Seven and Seven Bar on August 17, then 20 mass-executed at the Casa Aliviane drug treatment center on September 2, then on September 15 another 10 killed en masse at a treatment center, including the center's doctor. Motives were always obscure, accusers were frequently compromised, but again the shakeout pointed to the Gente Nueva.
Gente Nueva hitmen poured into Chihuahua in blitzkrieg vehicle convoys, laying waste to villages. Others reportedly crowded on to commercial airline flights, getting shipped into the war after being recruited in the hardscrabble sierra of Sinaloa. Seeming to be mostly entry-level cannon fodder, they were issued smuggled assault riles, rented rooms and stolen SUVs. Both these troops and their enemies, in Juarez Cartel crews like La Linea, Los Linces and the Barrio Azteca, struck not only at gang targets but at ordinary citizens, in a flood of extortion, robbery, kidnapping and neighborhood drug sales.
The full extent of the Gente Nueva's activities was made clear near the back door of the Chihuahua corridor in Torreon, Coahuila, in another series of massacres. On January 30, 2010, hitmen stormed a Torreon tavern called the Ferrie, killing 10 and wounding at least 15 others, none accused of being cartel rivals. The bar itself was apparently linked to the Zetas, and hence unknowing patrons -- and happenstance pedestrians outside (including children) -- were targeted as tokens. This was repeated May 15 at Torreon's Las Juanas Bar (27 mowed down, 8 of them fatally), and at a birthday party on July 18, when 17 non-cartel proxies were slaughtered at the Quinta Italia Inn -- which sparked a jaw-dropping sequel. On July 22 the angry Zetas, indirect targets of the Torreon hits, struck back -- on YouTube.
A local police officer, Rodolfo Najera, was kidnapped by the Zetas and, bleeding from their interrogation techniques, told a camera that the Torreon massacres were committed by the Sinaloa Cartel. This might seem thin proof, but Najera specified a surprising home base for the killers: a nearby prison. The Sinaloa Cartel was said to have a team made up of prison inmates, who were let out at night by the warden, like work-release vampires, to roam the streets and kill.
The Mexican government, far from denying this, swept down on the prison and arrested the warden, two guards and two supervisors. Ballistics tests were announced. The Torreon massacres were shown to have used official prison guns. Questions mushroomed: If all this was true, and the Zetas could unmask it simply by grabbing a cop off the street, why had the government previously been so blind to it -- only to about-face so quickly? The warden, Margarita Rojas, had previously been a celebrity Woman of the Year for her prison reforms, but now stood accused of taking $700 to $2,000 a month from the Sinaloa Cartel -- through the Gente Nueva.
If such patterns were to be examined deeply, the Sinaloa Cartel's emblematic slogan, saying that only its rivals are bad-guy mass killers, might look more like: "We try to keep our massacres slightly smaller than theirs."
The initials "G.N." on the 35 corpses last month carried a potent message, but not exactly the one claimed.
See Gary Moore's blog.