Mexico Should Cut Hype Over Drug Gang Arrests

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Mexico’s decision to focus on combating the Zetas, the country’s most brutal drug gang, has begun to deliver results, with the Defense Ministry announcing a series of heavy blows against the organization — but the government should be careful not to oversell its successes.

According to the ministry, an operation dubbed “Lince Norte” (Northern Wildcat), delivered some flashy results: authorities confiscated 1,300 firearms, roughly half a million dollars in cash, and more than 3.5 tons of drugs. In addition, the ministry said that 30 Zeta gunmen were killed in confrontations with the government, and 12 kidnap victims were rescued.

The government also touted the impact of two arrests: Carlos Adan Muñoz, alias “El Michel,” and Victoriano Quintanilla Soriano, alias “El Adal,” were detained in Aguascalientes and Coahuila, respectively, earlier this week. Both men are said to be high-ranking operators in the Zetas’ financial network, with Quintanilla allegedly a close collaborator of Miguel Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano, the two figures at the top of the gang’s structure.

The successes, such as they are, of Lince Norte are part of a newly announced government strategy of prioritizing the fight against the Zetas. As the Dallas Morning News reported in July, “The Mexican government is refocusing its drug-war strategy to take down the Zetas paramilitary cartel, a significant shift in approach that is likely to be met with increased violence…”

This shift in Mexican policy comes alongside a focus on the Zetas in the most recent U.S. organized crime strategy, also released last month by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While the strategy does little to radically alter the tools the U.S. government has at its disposal, the fact that the Zetas are the only Mexican drug gang it mentions by name demonstrates that the group is at squarely in the middle of the Obama administration’s radar screen as well.

Whether this recent Mexican operation has any lasting impact on the Zetas remains to be seen, but the triumphant press release celebrating the operation counts against the government’s credibility to a certain degree, because the men paraded before the cameras as vital parts of the Zetas command structure are not well known figures. Describing the arrest of Quintanilla as a major blow against organized crime simply makes people distrust the government’s pronouncements.

Likewise, the U.S. government often exaggerates the effect of its anti-drug sweeps. One example is the Justice Department’s breathless description of thousands of arrests in “Project Delirium” earlier this month, which they hailed as a “surgical strike” against the Mexican Familia Michoacana drug gang.

Another example of Mexico’s over-celebration of its achievements came with the July detention of the alleged Zeta leader Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar. Upon his arrest, which took place as he passed through a Mexico City suburb accompanied by a single bodyguard, the government claimed that they had dealt a historic blow to the Zetas in capturing one of its founding members. Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire went as far as to say that Rejon was the third-ranking member in the organization.

But Rejon clearly was not travelling in the style one would expect from one the country’s most wanted men. A subsequent interview with federal officials, uploaded to the Internet, also seemed to reveal significant gaps in his knowledge of his group’s activities. For instance, he does not appear to have had much influence on the proposed alliance with recently arrested Familia boss Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias “El Chango,” which would have been a major development.

Furthermore, all Rejon apparently knew about the origins of the organization’s cocaine was that it was purchased in Guatemala, and he expressed a similarly distant understanding of how the Zetas moved the merchandise past the U.S. border. The movement of drugs is the most important aspect of a drug gang’s existence, and a high-ranking commander would presumably be well informed of this element of the operation. Of course, his reticence regarding the details of the Zetas’ operations may just reflect a desire to protect his organization, but the idea that he was the third-ranking member of the group, and therefore one of the most powerful underworld figures in Mexico, is not supported by anything beyond the government’s word.

If federal officials want that to mean something, it is vital that they do not oversell their successes.

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