Identifying, Battling Key Agents in Mexico Gang Structures

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A new report analyzing the operational structure of several Mexican gangs, including how different individuals serve specific purposes key to different criminal activities, offers a more complete portrayal of groups like The Zetas.

The report “Structure of a Transnational Criminal Network: ‘Los Zetas’ and the Smuggling of Hydrocarbons,” published by Colombia’s Vortex Foundation, turns the spotlight on the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Familia Michoacana, as well as the “nodes” that support them. 

The authors define nodes as agents performing specific functions in a gang. By analyzing these nodes through the examination of judicial reports spanning 2002 to 2010, the authors are able to create a detailed picture of a gang’s structure, highlighting the specific functions that allow a criminal group to thrive. 

One such node is Omar Lormendez Pitalua, a Zetas hitman who operated in Nuevo Laredo and Michoacan, among other areas. Pitalua, a longtime confidant of some of the foremost Zetas commanders, was also charged with establishing relationships with local politicians and security agents on behalf of the Zetas, which gave him an unusual influence over different realms of Zetas activity. Pitalua was the member of the Zetas who initially negotiated an alliance with Servando “La Tuta” Gomez and the Familia Michoacana in the mid-2000s, so as to oust the then-dominant Milenio Cartel. 

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

Another example is the node formed by Miguel Angel Almaraz Maldonado, a Zetas operator charged with setting up the infrastructure to move stolen oil and gas. This includes bribing public officials, renting trucks, and setting up the financial networks used to process the proceeds. His role spanned both legitimate and criminal activities, all with the goal of supporting the Zetas’ operations.

The authors also discuss a police officer in Tamaulipas who goes by the name “Karen.” While starting out as just being bribed to look the other way, Karen eventually ascended the ranks of the organization itself, along with colleagues within the police. Judicial documents say he helped Zetas avoid capture; set up shipments of drugs and money; and served on the security team for Zetas commanders.

The nodes that this report describes are divided between corrupt public servants and open criminals. These nodes are complementary and vital, comprising of both openly criminal enterprises and legitimate activities used to support the existence of the gang. Collectively, they allow a gang to operate simultaneously in a number of different realms. 

InSight Crime Analysis

In certain senses, this reports confirms the intuitions of anyone following the evolution of Mexican organized crime. As InSight Crime and many other analysts have noted, the Zetas engage in a wide range of criminal activities. More broadly, all groups have a structure that assigns different functions to different actors.

However, the report offers a portrayal that is more detailed and comprehensive than is typical. That is, they describe the gangs not as militaristic organizations bent on bloodshed, but as business enterprises, with different divisions employing people with different skill sets and objectives. These enterprises, of course, often engage in violence, but it is one of several means, not the end.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Aside from the inherent advantage of allowing a greater understanding of a gang’s inner workings, the analytical approach that the authors employ also offers some prescriptions for policy-makers. They use numerical scores to determine which nodes have the most interaction in different realms, and use their identification of different actors to see where a given gang has the largest concentration of resources, thereby approximating where a gang’s strength lies.

In theory at least, such knowledge could guide security agencies in how they attack gangs. For instance, given that the Zetas derive a disproportionate share of their income from oil theft, operations targeting their hydrocarbon infrastructure could be far more effective than nighttime patrols through Zeta-held areas by military convoys. Similarly, the identification of nodes with activities in multiple realms could be used to target the gang members most important to its profitability, rather than tracking down merely the most notorious kingpins.

It’s also noteworthy how virtually every one of the nodes either relies on the collusion of public officials or seeks to secure this collusion. This is true whether one seeks to move stolen oil without interference or if a gang is seeking information about a rival. As such, this report offers further evidence that the single most important challenge facing Mexican authorities is combating the gangs’ corrupting influence.

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