Zetas’ Denial Muddies the Case of 49 Decapitated Bodies

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Messages signed in the name of the Zetas have appeared in Mexico, denying that the group left 49 mutilated bodies on a roadside in Nuevo Leon, further muddying a case in which no one knows the identity of the victims, who killed them, or why.

Dozens of banners, hung in various cities, indignantly denied that the Zetas had murdered the 49 victims — while freely admitting to various other massacres — and called on the government to investigate more thoroughly. The communiques, known as “narcomantas,” appeared in the central states of San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas on Tuesday, and there were reports of them showing up in Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, on the US border, on Wednesday.

In a press conference after the bodies were found May 13, Nuevo Leon officials had said that the attack was likely carried out by the Zetas, since a message left at the scene had been signed in the name of the group. If the latest banners are taken at face value, the government’s statements appear to have angered the Zetas enough for them to issue a denial. The banners were addressed to the three men who held the press conference; Nuevo Leon’s Inspector General Adrian de la Garza, security spokesman Jorge Domene, and Security Secretary Javier del Real.

Blog del Narco printed the text of the narcomantas in full. The following is InSight Crime’s translation, broken into paragraphs:

ATTENTION Javier del Real, Jorge Domene, Adrian de la Garza — the Zetas disassociate [ourselves] from the 49 quartered bodies in Nuevo Leon, and we ask that before blaming us you check carefully — INVESTIGATE! Do your job like you should. Just because they go and give you a truck with bodies with a Zetas message, now you aren’t going to continue doing your job. And in order to do things in the easiest possible way, you’re even giving press conferences. That way you get out of your responsibility to investigate.

Señores, don’t be stupid, those who did it want to pass on the blame. For example, when we hang banners we say “Las Golfas,” and they say “Golfo.” Señores, don’t be stupid, analyze things and don’t just do your job the easiest way, to check that off. Also, think: if we had done this, what would it have cost us to throw the bodies in Reynosa? They left them in Nuevo Leon because it is our territory.

Señores, don’t be stupid, don’t just go along with them. Investigate — we distance ourselves from these 49 dead. Only those in Jalisco and the nine hung in Nuevo Leon, we accept our responsibility [for them]. And in the banner in Nuevo Leon — pay attention — it says “Golfas,” check everything that we have hung, and it says “Golfas.”

We invite you to do your job and not to solve [the case] without investigating, and like idiots just to get rid of the responsibility. Because you solved it, the problem was the Zetas. How many detainees do you have who say they are Zetas, who you say killed them. You don’t have any, nor will you, because it wasn’t us. We ask THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO INVESTIGATE THINGS.

Federal prosecutors have not taken on the case, which is in the hands of the Nuevo Leon state authorities.

In response to this apparent Zetas communique, the Nuevo Leon officials denied blaming the group for the murders. Domene, the security spokesman named in the banner, said he had not accused anyone directly but only noted the presence of a narcomanta at the scene signed in the name of the Zetas, threatening their enemies.

The new message muddies the issue, suggesting the Nuevo Leon killings could be more complicated than previously thought. After the bodies were found, one theory suggested that the victims might be members of the Gulf or Sinaloa Cartels — who have formed a loose alliance against the Zetas — killed by that group in revenge for a previous massacre. The killing is still most likely part of that feud, but it now seems there may be a more complex backstory.

There are several factors that lend credibility to the Zetas’ claim. First, It would be out of character for the group to disclaim a mass killing that they did in fact commit. They have not tried to distance themselves from other such atrocities. For example, as the banner points out, the Zetas are happy to take responsibility for the 18 dismembered bodies found on a highway in Jalisco earlier this month.

Second, there is precedent for the Zetas trying to manage their public relations after other groups apparently worked to smear their name. In December, banners challenging the federal government and the US, signed in the name of the Zetas, were hung in Nuevo Laredo. Days later, more banners in the group’s name appeared, contradicting the message of the first set. “The last thing we want is to have problems with any government,” they declared, “neither Mexico nor much less with the US.” In that case, one plausible theory is that the first set of banners were hung by a rival group, perhaps the Gulf, in the hopes of provoking the federal government or the US to take strong action against the Zetas.

Thirdly, as the narco-banner suggests, if the Zetas were trying to threaten the Gulf Cartel they would most likely leave bodies in Gulf territory — say in Reynosa, less than 200 km up the road from Cadereyta, where the bodies were found. Dumping bodies in territory controlled by the Zetas, which the message claims Cadereyta is, looks more like the work of a rival group.

If the banners’ claim is true, and another faction left the bodies in an attempt to pass them off as Zetas victims, this could be a very extreme case of “heating up the plaza,” narco-speak for when a criminal gang commits acts of violence in another group’s territory in order to attract the attention of the federal government, to damage the dominant group there. The 49 bodies have certainly achieved this, catching the eye of the federal government, weeks before the July 1 presidential election, and of the world media.

If the victims are not dead Gulf and Sinaloa members, who are they? If one of those groups sought to turn up the heat by feigning a Zetas massacre of rival gangsters, they would need to find easily accessible victims. The most obvious answer would be migrants, traveling in groups up through Mexico to the US border, who are vulnerable, without contacts, and generally in the hands of people paying taxes to the local criminal powers.

This theory is supported by statements from the local government. In their press conference, Nuevo Leon authorities said they did not think the dead were from the state, as there had not been reports of large number of people going missing in recent days. They mentioned that the victims could be migrants from Central America. In addition, the location where the bodies were found on the highway between Monterrey (Nuevo Leon) and Reynosa (Tamaulipas), is close to one of the main routes for migrants traveling through Mexico up to the US border, and lies directly in one of the “hotspots” for attacks on migrants as mapped by InSight Crime. This makes the migrant theory seem plausible.

The authorities seem to be acting on this — Domene told press Wednesday that he was waiting for the Salvadoran government to send a request for identification of the bodies.

The extreme mutilation of the corpses also backs the migrant theory. While decapitation and mutilation of victims is fairly commonplace in murders carried out by Mexican criminal groups, the systematic removal of head, hands and feet from all victims suggests that the killers were very concerned to stop the identities of their victims being known. This could be because, if they were quickly identified as a group of Central Americans, the killings would lose their power to intimidate rivals.

Following the discovery of the banners, the story becomes still more complicated. On Tuesday, an anonymous YouTube user posted a video which appears to show the unloading of the mutilated bodies from a truck onto the highway in Nuevo Leon, according to Blog del Narco. It starts with a message saying

This is for the the Golfos[Gulf Cartel members] Chapos, Marines, Huachos and governments, nobody is going to be able to make us do anything, they are going to be attacked. Sincerely, Loco, Z-40 and Comandante Lazcano.

This is, presumably, the message left at the scene, found by authorities, which the Zetas protested was not in their style because it called Gulf members “Golfos” and not “Las Golfas.”

The video then has some gruesome shots in which the camera pans over the dead bodies, before showing a group of men unloading the bodies from the truck, using long poles to shove them onto the ground.

The banners and the video do not make the events in Nuevo Leon any clearer, but both point to a wave of extreme violence in Mexico, with carefully choreographed killings aimed not at getting rid of unwanted rivals, but at getting the attention of the government and the media.

Image, above, shows graffiti on a wall close to where the bodies were found.

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