Reports of a split between the two leaders of Mexico’s notorious Zetas drug gang suggest that a violent power struggle may be brewing in the group's northeastern home turf, a conflict which could shake the established order in the country's criminal underworld.

According to a new report from Proceso, the partnership of the Zetas' two main leaders -- Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z-3”, and Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40” -- has come under strain, and the two appear to be headed for an open confrontation.

In recent months, a series of public banners (known as “mantas”) and videos uploaded to the internet have made reference to the two Zeta leaders’ capacity for betrayal. One manta, which appeared both in Monterrey and Zacatecas on June 1, placed a photo of Lazcano amid several former Zeta leaders who have been killed or arrested over the past several years, implying that Lazcano arranged their downfalls so as to secure control of the group. However, the manta also alleges that Treviño was involved in the betrayals and asks, “Are we better off with Lazca or Z-40?”, which suggests that the authors were either disgruntled lower-level Zetas or a rival group passing themselves off as such. A series of videos was posted online over the following days which referred to Treviño as the “New Judas” and accused him of using federal troops to have his fellow Zetas commanders picked off one by one.

The Proceso report points to Treviño as the more powerful of the two leaders today, with Lazcano evidently spending much of his time in recent years in foreign countries, among them Germany and Costa Rica. But the tangle of accusations and apparent betrayals, which are far more numerous than those outlined above, suggests a breakdown in organizational structure that goes beyond the two principal leaders. As InSight Crime has noted in the past, this hypothesis is supported by the numerous incidents of disobedience in the ranks of the Zetas.

Proceso describes the 49 dead bodies left in along a highway in Nuevo Leon in May as another example of this phenomenon. According to the magazine, the local boss charged with carrying out the crime disobeyed Treviño in not tossing the bodies in a nearby town plaza, because of his worries about the backlash of such a provocation. Instead, he dumped the bodies along a comparatively remote stretch of highway, where they were subsequently discovered by authorities.

Treviño’s relative strength doesn’t assure that he’ll emerge victorious or (even less likely) strengthened by the internal strife. Indeed, the reports of internal decay make it likely that whatever the result of the recent tensions, the victorious capo will be heading a weaker organization.

Continuing degradation in the Zetas' command structure would likely be a source of violence in the group’s territories in the northeast, especially Veracruz, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. Certainly, internal strife within a group typically leads to a sharp uptick in murders. Such has been the case in Mexico’s northeast for years: the 2010 conflict between erstwhile allies the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas has driven a sharp increase in murder rates in the state's named above. A similar dynamic was at play in 2008, when the Beltran Leyva Organization split from the Sinaloa Cartel, which drove an outbreak in violence across wide swaths of western and southern Mexico. Or, further back, the split between the Carrillo Fuentes family and the Sinaloa Cartel following the latter’s murder of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes in 2004 eventually precipitated the fight over Juarez that has turned the border town into Mexico’s most violent city for the past four years.

In such cases, the subsequent fighting may be initially motivated by revenge or personal hatreds, but the dispute for territorial control is often not far from the surface, and helps sustain the conflict for years to come. For instance, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes’ murder may have helped spark the tension that led to the fight for Juarez, but it was control of the border town itself, one of the busiest along the US-Mexico border, that turned a blood feud into something like a war zone.

However, a prolonged spiral of violence isn’t inevitable; the division between the Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templarios, which followed the 2010 death of Familia boss Nazario Moreno, provoked a relatively mild increase in violence in Michoacan. Indeed, the state’s murder rate in 2011 (a little more than 17) remained below the national average (just shy of 21), and the rate through six months of 2012 is virtually identical.

A weakening of the Zetas in their home turf may also discourage the group’s forays into far-flung regions of Mexico, such as Jalisco or Sinaloa. The organization’s presence in such areas has led to a great deal of violence, and has helped cement the Zetas’ reputation as the most expansionist, destabilizing gang in Mexico. Should fighting at home lead bosses to call their gunmen deployed elsewhere back into the state’s northeastern home, this could lead to a lessening of tensions elsewhere.

Furthermore, reports that a significant chunk of the Zetas could align with the Gulf Cartel could be a key factor in determining the impact of the split. If a resulting alliance is capable of overwhelming the divisions between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas bosses -- i.e., if the Zetas resisting collaboration with other groups are eliminated from the industry-- then it could ultimately turn into a driver of a more peaceful interaction between the various gangs in Mexico’s northeast.

That’s the most optimistic scenario, and while not implausible, unfortunately recent history suggests that it is not a particularly likely outcome.

Investigations

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