The U.S. government joined its Mexican counterpart in placing the Zetas at the top of its list of organized crime priorities last month. There are good reasons, however, to question this designation.

The Obama administration announced in July an upgrade in the threat perceived from the Zetas, along with three other transnational criminal groups. The new designation also gave the U.S. government a bit more leeway in seizing the gangs’ assets and directs more attention from various agencies in their direction. As the Treasury Department explained:

“As a result of this Order, any property in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons in which the significant TCOs listed in the Annex have an interest is blocked, and U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

The Order also authorizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the Departments of Justice and State, to identify for sanctions any individual or entity determined to have materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this Order.”

The Treasury Department announcement, however, offers little indication of why the Zetas were specifically singled out.

The move likely responds to a number of motivations. One is that members of the Zetas are accused of murdering U.S. ICE agent Jaime Zapata in February. Insofar as the U.S. wants to have a credible deterrent against targeting its agents, bringing all of the force of the law down on the Zetas makes sense. Another likely factor is that the Mexican government has also recently named the Zetas their top priority. As the two governments aim to increase their cooperation, focusing on the same common enemy is also a logical approach.

Beyond the need to protect one’s own and coordinate efforts, there is some operational justification for singling the Zetas out. They are widely considered the most brutal of the gangs operating in Mexico, with wanton bloodshed and needless killings –such as the massacres of migrants in Tamaulipas — turning into their trademark. However, if one accepts the explanation that the migrants were killed because they were suspected of being Gulf Cartel reinforcements, and if one recognizes that every gang in Mexico has perpetrated its share of utterly horrific acts, then this seems insufficient.

The Zetas are also considered the organized crime group that most preys on the sector of legitimate society. While the other gangs dedicate themselves primarily to trafficking drugs, the Zetas — whose connections to Colombian cocaine suppliers are perhaps not quite as solid as those of their competitors in Sinaloa, and whose own drug production in Mexico is not as well developed — rely much more on extortion, kidnapping, and other activities that necessarily victimize the nation’s legitimate businessmen.

Here, the logic for placing the Zetas first is on slightly firmer ground. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support the hypothesis that the Zetas are more predatory toward the average citizen than most gangs. However, they aren’t the only gang that operates in such a fashion–the Familia’s level of integration into the broader society in Michoacan is even more notorious, and the reported rates of extortion in Juarez, where the Zetas are not a major group, are higher than anywhere in the Zetas’ stomping grounds.

With regard to the Zetas preying on the broader population, the difference seems to be one of degree rather than magnitude. It is also the case of an industry that is gradually moving in that direction as a whole, rather than the Zetas serving as the single malign outlier.

A further explanation is that the gang is the most expansionist of Mexico’s criminal networks. According to this logic, which paints the Zetas as Hitler to everyone else’s Stalin, the Zetas are the top priority because they destabilize the industry in ways that other gangs do not. Given that a stable underworld equilibrium is a prerequisite for a safer Mexico, the gang that most frequently challenges the status quo is the first that needs to be taken down.

There is also some truth to this line of thinking. The Zetas have branched out far beyond their Tamaulipas roots and have stirred up trouble across Mexico. They took control of Cancun, consolidated their control across the southern Gulf states like Veracruz and Tabasco, fostered the Familia’s rise to power in Michoacan (before breaking with them as well), supported the Beltran Leyvas in their break with Sinaloa, and are presently operating and supporting proxies along Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

Yet an objective accounting of the past several years shows that the Sinaloa Cartel is the group whose destabilizing tendencies are most responsible for the recent upsurge in violence in Mexico. Sinaloa’s move on Juarez has alone caused some 10,000 deaths, roughly a quarter of all the killings linked to organized crime during the Calderon administration. They also took advantage of a weakened Arellano Felix clan to increase their control over Tijuana, in the process unleashing an ongoing battle for the city. Before that, the gang launched an aborted attempt to take over Tamaulipas that ironically helped cement the Zetas’ rise to prominence.

Indeed, according to an analysis from David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute based on statistics from the newspaper Milenio, the Sinaloa Cartel was involved in more than 80 percent of the killings linked to organized crime under Calderón through mid-2010. The Zetas, in contrast, were linked to less than 30 percent.

Taken together, the above raises significant questions about the reasons behind deeming the Zetas the clearest public danger.

Nor is it clear that the other gangs appearing on the Treasury are any more deserving. The Camorra, who were made famous in the book “Gomorrah,”  control a major port in Naples and are labeled by the Treasury as “the largest Italian organized crime group.” However, Treasury offers no evidence to support that assertion, and a good deal of recent reporting indicates that the Ndrangheta, a Calabria-based network with significant links to the Zetas, are significantly wealthier than the Camorra, with estimated revenues equivalent to roughly 3 percent of the Italian GDP. 

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