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Zetas Arrest Shows Mid-Level Commanders' Capacity for Mayhem

The capture of an alleged mastermind of the deadly Monterrey casino attack, a relatively low-level Zetas boss hiding out far from the scene of the crime, could be a sign that the group's command chain is fragmenting.

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Roberto Carlos Lopez Castro, alias "El Toruño," was arrested in Zapopan, Jalisco, on Thursday while driving with a female companion. Lopez, a former police officer in the northern city of Saltillo, is believed to be one of four leaders of the Nuevo Leon-based Zetas cell responsible for the August 25 arson attack which killed 52 people.

One of the most striking elements of this arrest is that neither Lopez nor his associates accused of ordering the blaze are particularly well known figures. Despite being responsible for the deadliest single attack of the Calderon presidency, he was essentially leading a low-profile, regional band, and was nowhere near as notorious as Zetas bosses like Miguel Treviño, alias "Z-40" or Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3".

A case broadly similar to Lopez's is that of Martin Omar Estrada Luna. Estrada is the Zeta who was allegedly behind the mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where close to 200 bodies were discovered earlier this year. Like Lopez, Estrada was a relatively anonymous local boss who was allegedly behind one of the most violent incidents of the past few years.

It’s not clear to what degree higher-ranking leaders like Lazcano or Treviño were involved in the attack on Monterrey, but, given that it provoked a storm of attention from federal authorities, the episode clearly ran counter to their interests. The same is true of the San Fernando massacres. Furthermore, reports have emerged that in carrying out the massacres in San Fernando, Estrada was actively disobeying orders from the Zeta leadership to cool the violence in his town.

Taken together, these events suggest that the capacity to generate acts of violence capable of altering the national landscape -- both the San Fernando and Monterrey incidents sparked significant reactions from the federal government -- has devolved down to the Zetas regional commanders. The higher-ups are not facing mutinies from below, and they remain the most powerful actors in the organization. However, the Zeta capos have lost a certain degree of control over their underlings, which has led to some seemingly irrational outbreaks of violence.

While this organizational deterioration has been most pronounced among the Zetas, examples have also emerged from other groups. For instance, the mass graves in Durango, which were discovered at roughly the same point in time as the San Fernando graves, are believed to be the product of a confrontation between opposing sects within the Sinaloa Cartel, long considered the most coherent of all the Mexican gangs.

Other criminal groups in Mexico have suffered a similar loss of control over their members. For the time being, this development will limit attempts by the government -- and, for that matter, by gang leaders -- to reduce the violence. Anyone wanting to broker a deal between groups would need the agreement not just of a dozen or so top capos, but of hundreds, if not thousands, of gangsters -- a much tougher proposition.

Lopez's arrest also demonstrates some shifts that will affect the Zetas' operations. The fact that he was hiding in Jalisco, several states away from Nuevo Leon, and that 11 of the alleged members of the group behind the casino attack have already been arrested, indicates that the government’s efforts to punish those responsible are bearing fruit, and that the organization's freedom to operate in Nuevo Leon has been reduced.

The Casino Royale attack has also led to crackdowns on official corruption in the region, which could indirectly affect the Zetas by eliminating their protectors within the government. One example is the scores of local police who have been arrested for collusion with criminal groups; another 175 municipal officers from municipalities near Monterrey were detained by the army this weekend. The popular outrage over videos in which the brother of Mayor Fernando Larrazabal is seen receiving a large cash payment at an area casino, has also increased suspicion of links between the Monterrey’s mayor’s office and local criminal groups, and could make it more difficult for the Zetas’ local political backers to work on their behalf.

Given that Nuevo Leon is one of the Zetas’ strongholds, and that its four million residents make up one of the wealthiest regions in Mexico, a decline in the group’s control would be a significant development.

The cases of Lopez and Estrada also demonstrate how far the Zetas have come from their famed roots among the special forces of the Mexican army. As mentioned, the first is a former police officer, while the second is a ex-gang member who worked his way up through the streets. These are standard paths of entry for Mexican criminal groups, but the Zetas were always known for being different in this regard.

The Zetas have long recruited outside of the military ranks, particularly for their low-level foot soldiers, so this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. However, Lopez and Estrada were much more than foot soldiers, which suggests that the group’s military background is fading into the background. This, in turn, may explains why the chain of command is not what it once was.

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