An apparent battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas in Tamaulipas is a bad omen for security in the northeastern Mexican state, which is largely a Zetas stronghold.
The mutilated bodies of dead Zeta members have begun to appear around Nuevo Laredo, the Zeta-controlled border town across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, according to Blog del Narco. The bodies have been accompanied by banners bearing threatening messages, known as "narcomantas," signed by Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo."
One of them reads as follows:
“This is how you do away with dumb [expletive] people, cutting them to pieces, all of those rats that rob and dedicate themselves to kidnapping and killing innocent people, I’m going to show you how I manage my cartel that is 30 years old, not like you people who were shoe-shiners and car-washers and got to where you are through betrayal...Sincerely, El Chapo.”
The messages, like many narco-communiques, seek to paint the author as the morally superior gang by emphasizing that the Zetas are traitors, that they are responsible for breaking the pacts established in recent years among different gangs, and that they target the civilian population in ways that the other groups do not. Each of these allegations support the popular perception of the Zetas as a uniquely violent and dangerous organization. And there is at least some evidence to support the claims: areas controlled by the Zetas often have higher rates of alternative organized crime activities like extortion and kidnapping, though other criminal groups have also begun to diversify their operations away from mere drug trafficking in recent years.
Tamaulipas, long controlled by enemies of Guzman, has emerged as one of Mexico’s bloodiest states since 2010. The split between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas has sparked a violent reordering of territory in Mexico’s northeast, one that is still not settled despite two years of hostilities. The Gulf has seen the size of its territory decrease from the days of its alliance with the Zetas, and though it retains influence in certain key spots like Reynosa, the decline pushed the venerable group into an alliance of convenience with Sinaloa.
Logic dictates that the entry of another major gang will only lengthen the dispute and increase the level of violence in Mexico’s northeast. However, it’s not yet clear whether the spate of killings and accompanying messages represent a genuine attack on the Zetas from the Sinaloa Cartel, or if they are just an easy way to intimidate their rivals. It’s also interesting that the primary target of Guzman’s venom in the narcomantas is Miguel Angel Treviño, who is typically described as the Zetas’ second-in-command, rather than top boss Heriberto Lazcano. This suggests that the attacks on the Zetas stem from personal ire.
This not the first time Guzman has made a play for Tamaulipas, which is home to a number of significant border crossings and serves as the Mexican gateway to the east coast of the US. Following the 2003 arrest of Osiel Cardenas, the Gulf boss who founded the Zetas as his personal enforcer unit in the late 1990s, Guzman flooded the area with Sinaloa gunmen. In doing so, he sparked a battle for the region that didn’t subside until he pulled back years later.
These reports come amid an ongoing effort to ramp up the pressure on Guzman, with many believing that Calderon is eager to capture Guzman as his final major act before leaving office in December, or better still, before his successor is elected in July. Earlier this month, Mexico’s top organized crime prosecutor said that authorities were on the brink of nabbing Guzman while he was in Los Cabos in February.
While it is impossible to say with certainty, the narcomantas' content suggest that Guzman feels secure enough to make a major incursion into another region, and is not spending his every waking moment watching his back for imminent arrest. This would also indicate that the claims that Zetas are the emerging underworld hegemon -- both Mexico’s organized crime prosecutor and the consulting firm Stratfor recently identified the Zetas as the gang with the largest reach in the country-- are premature.
The Sinaloa Cartel’s arrival into Tamaulipas comes on the heels of the Zetas attempting a similar maneuver against them. In December, Riodoce reported that the Zetas and other Guzman enemies had been filtering men into Sinaloa. Taken together, these events suggests that even for the most powerful gangs, maintaining control of their home territory is increasingly difficult.