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'El Taliban' Capture Will Not Heal Zetas Divide

Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban" (center) Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban" (center)

Mexicos' marines have arrested a top Zetas commander responsible for a bloody rift within the cartel, but even his capture will not be able to stop the group from splitting.

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Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias “El Taliban,” was detained on September 26 in San Luis Potosi state in central Mexico. The Marines described him as the Zetas’ regional boss for states like Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, and parts of Coahuila and Guanajuato, reported El Universal.

El Taliban was identified by the Attorney General’s Office as one of the 37 most wanted criminals in the country, and had a $2.3 million reward on his head. He did not form part of the Zetas’ original core, who were ex-military, but he was already a member of the group when they broke away from the Gulf Cartel in 2010, as indicated by his previous alias, “Z-50” (the 14 original members of the group all took numbers as their aliases, and the practice continued for some time afterwards).

El Taliban was at war with Zetas commander Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” who he accused of betraying some of the Zetas’ founders in order to secure his own position. Messages on narco-banners and YouTube videos in El Taliban’s name accused Treviño of betraying the Zetas’ third-in-command and founding member Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, alias “El Mamito,” who was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the United States. El Taliban also accused Treviño of betraying another popular commander, Efrain Teodoro Torres, alias “Z-14,” who was killed in a shootout in 2007.

The dumping of 14 bodies in Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas, in June may have been a reference to the alias "Z-14," as well as to the 14 original members of the Zetas. El Taliban was blamed for the killing, which was seen as one of the first acts of war against Treviño. Treviño reportedly responded by killing 14 of El Taliban’s followers in San Luis Potosi in August.

A narco-banner that appeared earlier this week implied that El Taliban had rejoined the Gulf Cartel, presumably in order to get backup for his fight against Treviño. In previous narco-banners, criminal group the Knights Templar had made reference to wanting to destroy Treviño’s faction of the Zetas, implying that they were fighting alongside El Taliban.

InSight Crime Analysis

The timing of El Taliban’s arrest strongly suggests that he was set up. One likely candidate is the former head of the Gulf Cartel, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," who was recently arrested and is probably giving information to law enforcement authorities. El Taliban could also have been betrayed by one of his own operatives, who for whatever reason wanted to tilt the battlefield in favor of Treviño.

Treviño is an obvious beneficiary of El Taliban’s capture. The Zetas’ other top commander, Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z-3,” to whom El Taliban pledged loyalty, does not appear to be taking an active role in the conflict. According to a Zetas operative arrested in May, Lazcano is overseas, and has recently spent time in Guatemala.

However, even with El Taliban gone and Lazcano absent, Treviño is unlikely to be feeling confident. Two of his family members -- his nephew and his brother -- have been arrested so far this year. If anything, the battle with El Taliban will likely only serve to make Treviño more suspicious of mid-level commanders who could betray him, which does not herald peaceful days ahead.

El Taliban’s capture will do little to reverse the dynamic pulling the Zetas apart: that the top leadership is losing its power to enforce discipline over local cells. El Taliban’s rebellion was just the most blatant example of a plaza boss openly defying the top leadership. As Reporte Indigo has reported, local cells of the Zetas are carrying out unauthorized kidnappings in parts of Nuevo Leon. One of the Zetas arrested over the 2010 slaying of 72 migrants was described as having “disobeyed” orders to reduce violence. And the operative arrested in May for dumping 49 bodies along the highway said that he had not followed Lazcano's orders, deciding to leave the bodies along a road instead of a town square.

El Taliban’s rebellion may be a foreshadowing of the Zetas’ future: more and more of these “orphan” Zetas cells will likely break away from the central leadership and start acting on their own terms. El Taliban argued that his defiance was a rejection of Treviño’s betrayals, but if the Zetas' split deepens, it will likely be for reasons of self-interest: local groups will want to rob and kidnap to stock up on their personal finances, regardless of whether they have permission from the Zetas' top leadership.

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