HomeNewsAnalysisThe 'Zeta Killers' and the Rise of Narco-Horror

The 'Zeta Killers' and the Rise of Narco-Horror


The release of a new video showing an armed group calling themselves the "Zeta Killers" confirms the evolution of Mexico's drug war into a battle of information, images, and propaganda played out in the media.

The video released by the "Mata Zetas," or "Zeta Killers" confirms what a number of independent analysts have begun to discuss: a new evolution in the terrain of what is commonly referred to as the “Mexican drug war.”

In essence, this is the repeated messages and nagging reminders; this is a war of information, counter-information and images. With this in mind, there are three very direct ways of understanding this video: 1) The Mata Zetas organization is part of the armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel posing as an independent vigilante group; 2) The Mata Zetas are a group of foreign mercenaries operating on Mexican soil to eliminate the sworn enemy of the Sinaloa Cartel, which seems to operate with a degree of complicity from the government of President Felipe Calderon; and 3) The Mata Zetas emergence is the result of the atomization of the cartels, in which groups emerge which are increasingly smaller, and harder to control. What would the late Paul Castilian (head of the Gambino crime family during the 90's in the U.S.) say in response to this? What kind of Cosa Nostra would we have, if it was not governed and controlled?

This was to be expected. Since the beginning, when severed heads were thrown into a nightclub in Apatzingan, Michoacan in 2005, and the first narco-banners, drawn up by Arturo Beltran-Leyva, appeared with messages taunting the Mexican Army, Mexico’s drug war has been played out in the media. The media profile of the war was confirmed in 2006 when journalist Joaquin Lopez Doriga released on his program a video which showed the execution, in front of the cameras, of several members of the Zetas criminal group. Subsequently, the rise of narco-corridos and the flourishing of narco-culture seemed to demonstrate that the Mexican cartels had understood the notion of homo videns, or Foucault's famous quote: Who has not been on TV, had not existed.

This trend, however, which is fed by the debatable partiality of the Mexican government, has resulted in the creation of a new concept: narco-horror. This concept really should not surprise students of Mexican history: the walls of the Aztec temples, the murals of Rivera and the photographs of the Mexican Revolution testify to a history of violence. Violence as symbol and means of communication has accompanied every stage of Mexican history. Modern Mexico can be no different: each narco-banner, every scene featuring torsos, hands, feet, heads and human guts (like some Aztec ritual offering) is a reminder of a country that has always been violent. Nevertheless, narco-horror is a new and distinct condition.

Mexico’s narco-horror is about more than just the jaded nature of a society faced with out-of-control violence, dolled up by the government of Felipe Calderon like the best of the PRI regime manner. To cite just one example, on Saturday, September 24, more than 60 youths were kidnapped from rural areas of Veracruz state, but there was little mention of this mass kidnapping in the media. This media blackout is about more than just “avoiding the appearance” of anarchy and maintaining that only the state has the right to defend the people. (Although, of course, the law does not always guarantee that justice will be served).

The situation goes much deeper than that, and it is one in which yet again the visuals seem to tell a story that is already well-known. In this case, although the men are not holding guns in military style, the Mata Zetas video appears exactly like a communication from ETA or Hamas (men at a table, wearing ski masks, dressed in the same way). The men -- who are seated at a table as if giving a press conference, except for their black attire and ski masks -- present their message to Mexican society: the Mata Zetas exist to serve the nation, they respect political institutions and the president, they do not commit extortion. Their war is against the Zetas.

Two things about this video seem important. First, the viewer is struck by the width of the Mata Zetas’ shoulders and the size of their muscles, and the coherent speech of the group’s spokesperson, who has no discernible accent and uses no mafia slang. Second, and equally surprising, is that the content of the speech - we do not kill innocents, we do not extort, we respect the government and our war is a private one against those who have broken the old rules - is not new, but rather is a very familiar message. On August 10, 2006, in a local television interview in the western Mexican state of Michoacan, the founder of La Familia cartel, la Tuta, repeated the same arguments when calling for a national pact to end the violence. Few were surprised at the Familia's willingness to negotiate, since the group's very existence is dependent on deal-making. The group was created in reaction to the Zetas' arrival in Michoachan; the tentacles of the Sinaloa Cartel make up the Familia's foundation. The discursive evidence in this video brings us back to the same old song that has been heard from members of the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as members of its armed wing, the Gente Nueva.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s rivalry with the Zetas, which is even more intense than its rivalry with the Gulf Cartel, has existed for many years, from the time when the Zetas were a disciplined army in the service of the Gulf Cartel. Its roots lie within the structure of the Sinaloa cartel itself: Guzman Loera’s armed wing, the Gente Nueva, Chapo’s people, Mayo’s organization and his armed faction, the Mayitos, the Anthrax Association, the armies of Macho Prieto, of Flaco and Chino, all seem to be engaged in an eternal rivalry with the Zetas. Research evidence suggests that the now-defunct AFI (Federal Investigation Agency) hunted Zetas under order from the Beltran Leyva clan, who at that time formed the part of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Just as disorder dominates Mexican society, so it governs relations between the mafia families. In the midst of this anarchy, President Calderon’s complicity in using security forces to fight the Sinaloa Cartel’s private war against Zetas is beginning to become evident.

(See full video below.)

David Martinez-Amador is University Professor of the course of blood rituals in secret societies, cults, sects, fraternities and mafia.

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