A recent series of arrests casts light on the Zetas’ infiltration of state and federal government in north Mexico, suggesting it may be time to rethink some basic assumptions about the drug gang's modus operandi.
On Monday, Deputy Attorney General Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas Martinez announced that at least 11 current and former officials in the Mexican border state of Coahuila served as a kind of “protection network” for the Zetas drug gang. In exchange for allowing the group to operate more or less freely in the region, the officials allegedly took between 60,000 and 1.7 million pesos a month ($4,700 - $130,000). According to Salinas, eight of these officials are in police custody, while three others are still at large.
The particularly worrisome aspect about this revelation is the wide range of officials involved. In addition to military and police officials, the Zetas’ Coahuila network included a regional director of the Federal Investigations Agency (AFI), an ex-official in the Coahuila Department of Health, a former state attorney general and a local administrator for the Federal Attorney General’s Office.
The Zetas are well-known for their links to the Mexican security forces. The original 31 founders were all ex-members of the special forces, and the group is known to have deeply penetrated the military in Hidalgo, Chihuahua and Tabasco, among other parts of the country. They are believed to have connections with local and state police as well. Last December, 22 police in Tabasco state were arrested for colluding with the drug gang, and more than 900 police officers were fired in the state of Veracruz due to suspicions that the force had been infiltrated by the Zetas. Until now, however, their influence on other Mexican institutions has been thought to be much weaker.
The Coahuila case suggests that this may be changing, and provides analysts with a reason to question the prevailing perception of the group. Unlike other drug cartels in Mexico, the Zetas are thought to be more prone to exerting their influence by violence and intimidation rather than by “softer” means like bribery. The 2010 assassinations of a Monterrey-area mayor and a Tamaulipas gubernatorial candidate, for example, were both attributed to the Zetas.
However, this view could be based on a fundamental misconception of the Zetas. As InSight Crime has reported, the perception of the Zetas as Mexico’s “most dangerous” drug trafficking organization is flawed. A look at drug-related violence over the past several years reveals that the rival Sinaloa Cartel has had a larger share in the recent upsurge in violence in Mexico, with some estimating that the Sinaloans were involved in nearly 80 percent of organized crime-related killings from 2006 to mid-2010.
In fact, it would make sense for the Zetas to increasingly depend on building alliances with government officials rather than on acts of violence to control their turf, as they have greatly expanded in recent years. In October, federal officials claimed that the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel had, between them, come to “dominate” the Mexican criminal underworld, effectively relegating smaller drug trafficking groups to second-tier status. Some in the country believe that the Zetas now control more territory than the Sinaloa Cartel, to the point that they could now be more powerful than their rivals.
This heightened profile provides the Zetas with an incentive to minimize violence in order to deter unnecessary attention from law enforcement. Indeed, the Zetas’ bloody reputation has caused the Mexican government to name the group its top priority, and the US Treasury Department to intensify efforts against the gang.