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Heating Up the Plaza: How Mexico's Gangs Use Scorched Earth Tactics

  • Written by Gary Moore
  • Tuesday, 06 December 2011

Mexico's drug gangs do not just fight each other with bullets, but through tactics like having rivals' birthday parties busted by the police, or commiting random acts of violence that will force a government crackdown.

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Cartel Spanish 101:
Dropping a dime is like heating up the plaza: You burn your villages in retreat...

In back-street English, “dropping a dime” on someone means snitching to the cops. But the drug war in Mexico adds a further dimension to this, because it’s not just a two-sided fight.

As Mexico’s cartel hit squads shoot at one another, they are also in conflict with the third leg in a war triangle: the not-always-perfect forces of law and order, represented by government troops and police. This means that snitching can be used tactically, as a weapon.

gulfplazasfour

The result looks like three-dimensional chess. Mexico’s triple-sided combat opens an extra dimension of possible moves for cartel players. Like an aerial dogfight, the action doesn’t just go side-to-side, but can shoot up vertically.

If Cartel A loses a chunk of turf to Cartel B, then Cartel A can, in effect, scorch the earth it is leaving. There are two ways to do this, which both involve luring law enforcement into the fray as Side C, and poisoning the spoils won by Side B.

The first way is the dime. You simply tell the cops (sometimes corrupt ally cops) where Cartel A is hiding out, to prompt a raid. But the second way is more subtle. There is a kind of jiu-jitsu called "calentando la plaza" -- "heating up the turf" -- if that turf is held by a rival.

This takes us back to the cartel dictionary. The ground won or lost is a "plaza" -- a term nobody has been able to translate very well. It doesn’t mean a palm-lined village square. In underworld parlance in Mexico, a plaza is a geographical area of influence. Nor is it limited to border staging areas for drug smuggling. A plaza can be deep inside Mexico. It can be the size of an entire Mexican state, or a group of states -- or just a city or county-sized area within a state -- or only a section of a city. But the core meaning remains: a plaza is where you squeeze out profits. No other gang is supposed to move in (unless they pay “derecho de piso” -- a user’s fee, or turf tax -- also not translating very well).

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Plazas are useful because, even if drug smuggling goes badly, you can turn to the ordinary citizens in your plaza and push some meth or marijuana onto the vulnerable. Or, more directly, you can extort the populace under threat, pulling in a monthly protection fee from the scared guy in the corner shoe store, maybe even the taco stand on the street. Cartel battles are fought over such captive areas, like medieval spoils. This is one of the open secrets of Mexico’s drug war: an uneven slide toward anarchy, with “taxes” collected by the boys down the block.

If a plaza is lost -- if another gang comes in a bigger caravan of SUV’s and newly stolen quad-cab pickups --there is still the wild card: You can lure in "the heat." Crime news from Mexico is laced with acccusations that one or another sour-grapes gang faction has been "calentando la plaza" (“heating up the turf”) by committing acts of violence. These may look random and pointless, but there is the hidden gain: they may force law enforcement to crack down by hitting the easiest targets, your surprised rivals.

Maybe you massacre a few civilians. This might pressure an embarrassed government to send in the Marines. If it’s a plaza you don’t control anyway, what do you have to lose? The troop surge will keep your rivals from doing business. The word for this -- “calentar” (to heat up) -- equates law enforcement with a warm reception, like an old Chicago gangster flick with Joey or Louie musing: “We gotta lay low. Da heat’s on.”

But Joey or Louie were seldom so successful at dominating large swaths of society as to need the extra geographical word: “plaza.” The drug war has seen efforts to carve up Mexico like a pie (a Cuernavaca cartel summit in 2007 sounded like the dons in "The Godfather" carving up 1950s Cuba). There is something timeless in the idea of the plaza. Warlords in the Dark Ages might have called it a fiefdom.

Even the simpler form of 3-D cartel chess, the dropped dime, is an art. The throwaway cell phone rings up the confidential government tip line. The heat is sent directly to the victorious rival’s celebration party. Soon Mexican Marines are swarming the ranch or restaurant, backed by the grim thump-thump-thump of a U.S.-supplied Blackhawk helicopter. The spectacular mass arrest may be followed by a stern government press release, announcing primly: “The Marines acted upon information from a concerned citizen.” But was it really a heroic passerby -- or a knife from Joey or Louie?

It can come thick and fast. At present the remnant Gulf Cartel, cornered in an urban strip of border Mexico just below South Texas, is dismembering itself so rapidly -- in a feud between the R’s and the M’s (also not translating very well) -- that police and soldiers practically have to use dump trucks to cart off the gunmen getting fingered by vengeful colleagues. Nearly every month -- almost every week -- some new plaza boss seems to get his birthday party busted -- perhaps through shrewd intelligence work by the authorities. But perhaps also through that mysterious phone call.

Of course, such tactics are only a side issue. Dwarfing them are the overall effects of the gang conflicts.
For example, the small border municipio of Miguel Aleman (a municipio is akin to a combined city-county unit) has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. But it has 12 miles of U.S. border frontage along the Rio Grande. Well positioned for smuggling, this municipio is said to define a “plaza,” or area of influence, for the Gulf Cartel.·Their rivals, the Zetas, were also established here, but were largely driven out in the “New Federation” cartel war of 2010. The Zetas sometimes return on disastrous raids, “heating up the (lost) plaza.”miguelalemanthree

mpomiguelalemanAs a Gulf Cartel plaza, Miguel Aleman is watched over by a plaza boss, in charge of illegal profits. But who is this boss? The answer -- or lack of an answer -- reveals the chaotic nature of Mexico’s drug war. The line-up shifts quickly:

1) Eudoxio Ramos, arrested October 27, 2011, was said to have been plaza boss of Miguel Aleman in the past, presumably in early 2011 or before.

2) Gilberto Barragan (“El Tocayo”), arrested May 20, 2011, was called the plaza boss of Miguel Aleman at the time of his arrest.

3) Samuel Flores (“El Metro Tres”), a major regional operative, was found dead on September 2, 2011. At the time, he was called the plaza boss of both Miguel Aleman and much larger Reynosa next door.

4) Ricardo Salazar, arrested Oct 8, 2011, after an hours-long firefight killed 10 gunmen, was said to be Miguel Aleman plaza boss at that time.

5) “PepioMuñetonez, apparently never apprehended, was reportedly named by Eudoxio Ramos, above, as the current plaza boss of Miguel Aleman at the end of October.

So who runs the Miguel Aleman plaza? The specifics are a blur. Much of the Mexican violence can be seen only as a chaotic silhouettte.

See Gary Moore's blog.

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