Colombia’s ‘Zetas’ Capture: Game-Changer or Headline Grabber?

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Colombian police announced the capture of a link between major Colombian drug traffickers and the Mexico-based Zetas gang, but the claims are hard to square with the current reality of who moves drugs where.

As El Tiempo newspaper reports, the Colombian police said the four men captured were part of a network that helped move cocaine from the Colombian port cities of Buenaventura, Barranquilla, and Cartagena to Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, Belgium, and Holland.

This supposed network connects two large Colombian syndicates — the Rastrojos gang, and the organization of Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco” — with Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, alias “Z-3,” the head of the Zetas in Mexico.

If true, this would mark a major shift in underworld alliances. A connection to the Rastrojos and the Barrera clan would put the Zetas at the top of the distribution chain and represent a quantum leap in their ability to move bulk shipments and, therefore, their potential earnings. The two Colombian groups are considered the country’s most powerful and lucrative drug trafficking team and move multi-ton loads of drugs north to the United States and east to Europe via their numerous connections.

However, the announcement may be premature, better suited for a headline than an indictment. According to previous statements by the Colombian police, the Rastrojos and Barrera sold primarily to the Sinaloa Cartel, arch-rival of the Zetas. Sinaloa operatives and allies were concentrated in several key ports or ungoverned territories stretching from Panama to Guatemala.

The groups used eastern Colombia and southwestern Venezuela as a launch point for airplanes to Honduras; or sent drugs north from Colombia’s Pacific ports, hopscotching along the coasts or moving the product via semi-submersibles to middlemen and transporters in Central America.

They may have even been creating a new type of distribution chain, which moves coca base, the raw material for the production of cocaine, rather than the powder itself, as evidenced by the recent discovery in Honduras of a sophisticated laboratory which authorities said could have produced up to eight tons of the drug from chemicals found at the site.

Squaring this data, which is probably still very relevant, with the latest Colombian police capture and announcement is not easy. To begin with, it assumes that the Zetas have strong connections in Colombia. The evidence for this is scant.

While the group served as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, prior to their break in 2010, it was the Gulf Cartel, and not the Zetas, who managed the contacts with Colombia. This is clear from a 2009 U.S. indictment in which the top Zetas’ brass plays a logistical role in large shipments, securing, for example, storage space for the drugs.

Moving from arranging storage to creating the infrastructure needed to move the product through the isthmus does not happen overnight, although the process could well be in motion.

For the moment, the Zetas, it appears, depend on Guatemalan and Honduran contacts for their cocaine. The Zetas provide the cash and “buy into” loads brokered by these contacts. They then take possession of the product in one of these countries, and use their Mexican infrastructure to get it across the U.S. border.

This is part of the reason why Guatemala is so important to the Zetas. Without control over some part of that territory, they have little leverage in the drug trafficking world. Their hard push into the Central American nation can be seen as an attempt to control this chokepoint, through which·U.S. authorities say as much as 400 tons of cocaine passes a year.

The Zetas’ connections are concentrated on the Caribbean coast, and they move little, if any, product on the Pacific side. This would make shipments from Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific, unlikely.

Indeed, the Sinaloa Cartel seems to rely on its ability to control much of Colombia’s Pacific coast shipments. Other Mexican cartels tend to work on the fringes, such as in Ecuador, further up the distribution chain in Central America, or further down the production chain in Peru and Bolivia — thus the Sinaloa Cartel’s competitive advantage, since it can control the price from the production point northward.

The Zetas’ competitive advantage has been its ability to take territorial control of key corridors and monopolize all criminal activities in that area. Their emphasis on brute force and military control of territory, rather than strategic alliances and political control, makes it very difficult for them to create and sustain long distribution chains stretching from Colombia to the U.S. border or Europe.

A connection to Europe, however, is not impossible. There have been many reports connecting the Zetas to the powerful Italian syndicate the ‘Ndrangheta. However, even these reports rely on pre-Zeta-Gulf split data and investigations. What’s more, these reports seem to follow the general rule these days that references to “Zetas” operatives in Europe are sexier (and more Google friendly) than the messier reality that these are very loose federations of traffickers across the globe.

The Rastrojos and Barrera groups may be expanding their clientele. InSight Crime subscribes to the notion that the underworld is more fluid than static. But the idea that the Zetas have elevated their drug trafficking capabilities to the heights of their rivals, Sinaloa, gives them too much credit and smacks of hyperbole and an attempt to win a headline.

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