Capture of Top Zetas Boss Sparks Gun Battles in North Mexico

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Mexico’s army arrested a high-ranking member of the Zetas gang, though not ‘Z-40’ as was initially reported, triggering gun battles across the northern city of Saltillo as his underlings attempted to rescue him.

Carlos Oliva Castillo, alias “La Rana,” was caught in Saltillo, reportedly his center of operations, along with a bodyguard and his girlfriend, after an anonymous tip to police. His subordinates attempted to rescue Oliva by luring the convoy transporting him into ambushes, officials said.

This precipitated a series of gun fights across the city, capital of border state Coahuila, which resulted in a number of injuries and deaths, and prompted the mayor to urge residents to stay in their homes. A video recorded at a middle school adjacent to one of the battles and subsequently uploaded to the Internet demonstrates the intensity of the fighting, as well as the teenage boys’ morbid fascination with the events, even as the entire class was glued to the floor to avoid stray bullets (see footage below).

However, the rescue attempts failed, and the three prisoners were transferred to the custody of the Mexican Justice Department’s special division for organized crime, in Mexico City.

Initial reports suggested that the intensity of the criminals’ response was due to the fact that one of the men involved was Miguel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” the second-highest ranking member of the Zetas. However, the government never confirmed this, and it appears that the involvement of Treviño in the Saltillo shoot-up was merely a rumor.

While he didn’t quite enjoy Treviño’s ranking within the Zetas, government officials say Oliva was an important part of the criminal organization. According to a spokesman from Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense, Oliva was in charge of drug transportation in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila, the three northeastern states that serve as a major bastion of Zeta activity. He first joined the group in 2005, and reported directly to Heriberto Lazcano, alias “El Lazca,” the group’s top leader.

The government has also claimed that Oliva was the intellectual author of the August attack on the Casino Royale in Monterrey, in which 52 civilians were killed by a fire set by the Zetas. However, the government offered little evidence of his role in the attack, and its credibility is diminished by the fact that it named four other alleged Zetas as the intellectual authors last week, without mentioning Oliva.

Nevertheless, Oliva’s arrest is part of a series of heavy blows to the Zetas. These have stemmed both from the government’s designation of the Zetas as a top security priority, as well as the increased attention to the group following outrage over the Casino Royale attack. Two of the four authors of the attack on the gambling hall were arrested earlier this month, and authorities have so far captured 12 of the 18 men they say carried out the crime, not including Oliva. Earlier this summer, another high-ranking member of the Zetas fell when founding member Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, alias “El Mamito,” was arrested in Mexico State on July 4.

The Zetas also appear to be suffering an attempt by a rival to take control of the Gulf state of Veracruz. Scores of bodies, thought to belong to Zetas members, have been dumped around the port city of Boca del Rio in recent weeks, apparently by a gang called the Mata Zetas, or Zeta Killers, which serves as arm of the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG, for its initials in Spanish.)

All of these factors add up to a deeply hostile climate for the Zetas. The combination of government pressure (both from Mexico and the U.S., which also recently intensified its focus on the Zetas), popular outrage over the Casino Royale attack, and opposition from the longstanding enemies like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel as well as new upstarts like CJNG, make the prospects of the group look shaky.

However, despite the threats to their organization, the two men most identified with the Zetas — Treviño and Lazcano — remain at large. Indeed, the Zetas’ highest tier has been relatively undisturbed for the past several years, despite the increased pressure on the lower ranking members of the organization. The last time a Zeta of comparable stature to Lazcano or Treviño was taken down was 2004, when founding member Rogelio González Pizaña was arrested in Matamoros.

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