Mexico’s Zetas Gang Expand Influence in US: FBI

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A freshly leaked internal FBI memo provides insight into attempts by Mexican drug gang the Zetas to tighten their hold in the Midwest and Southeast U.S, painting a picture of a group bent on expanding their reach in the region.

The October 2008 brief, obtained by the hacker group Lulz Security as part of its “Operation Chinga la Migra,” offers an alarming view of the Zetas’ spread. The memo also provides a sense of the group’s rapid growth in recent years. As recently as 2005, the FBI denied that the group had the potential to develop ties in the interior of the country, citing their lack of support and resources within the U.S.

However, it seems that the Zetas may have been operating in mid-western and southeast U.S. states since 2007, and have been linked to incidents of kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion in the region. The brief cites an unnamed intelligence source who claims that a Zeta leader known as Gaspar Gonzales Alcantar used a network of enforcers to extort money from victims in both Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The memo also refers to another source with “excellent access” who speaks of a prisoner in South Carolina’s Bennettsville Federal Correctional Institution who has been dealing cocaine and marijuana to other inmates from within the prison since early 2008. According to the source, the individual has ties to the Zetas, and claims they are his sole supplier.

If these accounts are as credible as the FBI claims, it would mean that in 2008 the Zetas were poised to extend their reach into the Midwestern U.S., making their influence in this country much higher than is conventionally known. While alarming, this fits with much of the available information on the Zetas, which indicates that the group is working on deepening its criminal reach not just in the United States, but throughout the entire hemisphere.

The most well known aspect of this campaign has been the Zetas’ operations in Guatemala, where they have set up shop in remote areas along the border with Mexico. There the group has made strong connections with corrupt elements in the country’s military, including members of the Kaibiles, an elite special forces unit. Using this influence, the Zetas have taken over the territory of traditional powerbrokers in Verapaz and Peten, site of the May massacre of 27 farmhands.

Still, in spite of their reputation as the most brutal of Mexico’s drug gangs, the Zetas do not have the international connections that other groups — such as the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels — enjoy. In a recent interview with Mexico’s Ministry of Public Safety, captured Zetas leader Jesus Enrique Rejon, alias “El Mamito” told officials that the group buys most of its bulk cocaine from distributors in Guatemala. When asked why the Zetas do not buy from producers in Colombia, Rejon said it was because the Colombians are “not to be trusted.”

However, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2010 World Drug Report, the wholesale price for cocaine in Central America is more than three times higher than in Colombia ($8,100 per kilogram, compared to $2,300). Given the clear economic incentive for the group to purchase directly from Colombia, it’s likely that their use of Guatemalan middlemen derives more from their lack of contacts in the country than their wariness of Colombian distributors.

All of this indicates that, while the Zetas are still newcomers in the drug trafficking world, they are determined to expand their criminal influence. InSight Crime recently completed a field trip to areas of Zeta influence in Guatemala, and is in the process of assembling an in-depth look at the Zetas’ level of penetration of the country’s state institutions. The report, which will be be released this month, will offer a fresh look at the Zetas’ emerging empire, especially in Central America.

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