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Why a Zetas Split is Inevitable

  • Written by Elyssa Pachico and Steven Dudley
  • Friday, 24 August 2012

Regardless of the veracity of the current rumors that Mexico's feared Zetas organization has split into pieces, the organization's breakup is a foregone conclusion given the group's local revenue streams.

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In the latest of a flurry of articles, a US law enforcement source told the Associated Press that Zetas second-in-command Miguel Angel Treviño, alias "Z-40," has successfully taken over control of the entire group, displacing Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z-3,” its long-time number one.

This fight, which InSight Crime has also chronicled, has been public for weeks. In August, police said that a Zetas commander in Quintana Roo state, Charly de Jesus Alcantara Trejo, alias “El Caricaturas,” was handed over to police by the Zetas. El Caricaturas was loyal to Z-40, and was allegedly betrayed by a faction loyal to Z-3, local media reported. A wave of violence in San Luis Potosi state has also been interpreted as indicative of a rift between Z-40 and another local Zetas commander, Ivan Velazquez, alias “El 50” or “El Taliban,” according to statements made by the San Luis Potosi state attorney general.

But the evidence is hardly definitive. The AP article cites but one US law enforcement official and various "narco-banners." These banners, however, accused both leaders of betraying several of Zeta operatives, suggesting the rift was from below, not between the top echelons. Other banners appeared in Zetas strongholds, like Tamaulipas and Veracruz, denying that such a rift has occurred.

InSight Crime Analysis

Whether the rift is real or not, the breakup of the Zetas will happen. Unlike the group's progenitors the Gulf Cartel -- who earn most of their profits from the international export of drugs, and thus concentrate their finances, the know-how and the contacts at the top levels of leadership -- the Zetas follow an entirely different financial model. According to a recent book on the Zetas, "The Executioner's Men," by Sam Logan and George Grayson, only 50 percent of the Zetas' revenue is from cocaine trafficking. (InSight Crime believes it is even less.) The rest comes from Zetas’ low-level criminal activities -- extortion, kidnapping, theft, piracy and other licit and illicit activities.

And since a large portion of the Zetas' revenue streams come from the bottom and local sources, rather than the top and international sources, this makes it more likely that local Zetas cells see how these businesses work and how much money is being pocketed by this hard work. Perhaps more importantly, the barriers to entry into these businesses are minimal: The infrastructure needed to manage them is already there; and the wherewithal to recruit and operate on the local level already exist. The result is that the a mid-level commander will be more likely to break away from his bosses simply because he can.

This is arguably what makes the Zetas’ model of organized crime different and more menacing than the older, traditional cartels. Cartels who earn most of their revenue through international drug exports essentially cannot run their business without the international contacts necessary to do so. But in the Zetas’ case, because of their revenue comes from local criminal activities that can be practiced anywhere and by virtually anyone, they have created the ultimate “democratic” model of organized crime. It is a model that can be easily replicated across Mexico, and is inherently vulnerable to suffering internal splits.

So while a dispute between top leaders Z-40 and Z-3 operates in the realm of speculation, there is no doubt that the Zetas as an organization will not last.

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