Zetas-La Linea Alliance May Alter Balance of Power in Mexico

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In the fickle and fluid place that is the Mexican underworld, the alleged union between the Zetas and La Linea may not be taken seriously at first, but a closer look reveals an alliance that could shift the balance of power in Mexico.

Earlier this week, the people of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, woke up to the news of the union, announced via some narco-graffiti signed by both groups. The message threatened Joaquin Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel operatives in the city:

Congratulations to the 42nd Military Zone for fighting “Chapo” [Guzman’s] people. In less than 15 days Parral will be ours. Sincerely, Linea and Zetas.

The facetious tone, as well as the military reference, is classic Zetas. The group’s core is made up of former Mexican Special Forces, and it has since fortified itself with military recruits stretching south into Guatemala. The Zetas started as a military arm of the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s, but definitively split from the organization in 2010.

For its part, the Gulf Cartel has since allied with its former rivals in the Sinaloa Cartel. The two groups joined forces with the Familia Michoacana to form the so-called “New Federation.” The federation’s goal, simply put, is to destroy the Zetas.

This may have just become slightly more difficult. The Zetas are already allied with former Sinaloa Cartel associates, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO). And they have been in contact with La Linea, possibly training its members, for months or even years, according to some intelligence officials.

The two groups have also been tied to criminal acts together, most notably the murder of Marisela Escobedo, a woman who became an activist after her daughter’s killer was freed despite confessing to the crime. (La Linea later accused the Sinaloa Cartel of the murder.)

The Zetas’ military background makes their potential alliance with La Linea more interesting. La Linea’s core is made up of former police from Juarez and other parts of Chihuahua state.

Although it is often described as the enforcement arm of the Juarez Cartel, La Linea has reportedly taken over the reins of the group from its long-time master of ceremonies, Vicente Carillo Fuentes, alias “El Viceroy.” The rumor is that Carrillo Fuentes, the brother of the legendary Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Señor de los Cielos,” who died in 1997, has retired.

Even if Carrillo is still active, the city has slipped from his fingers, with the Juarez Cartel spiraling into a homicidal tit-for-tat with the Sinaloa Cartel and their subsets that not even he might have fathomed.

What’s left may be a severely weakened organization. Mexican intelligence told InSight that La Linea is little more than a local gang that depends more and more on extortion and kidnapping to survive. The Zetas may offer soldiers to help La Linea in Juarez, in return for access to the city, or, more precisely, the Juarez Valley drug trafficking corridor.

The region’s access to both U.S. coastlines and the Midwest, its historic and busy crossing point with traffic moving in both directions, and, more recently, its burgeoning local drug consumption market, still make it one of crown jewels of the “plazas.” And an alliance with La Linea might help the Zetas relieve pressure on Nuevo Laredo/Piedras Negras corridor that they rely on for smuggling.

The fight for Juarez has been bloody and long. Since 2008, the city has topped the list of homicide figures as well as making gory headlines. The media seems to be keeping score, and last year many declared a winner: the Sinaloa Cartel.

But those reports seemed to have underestimated the staying power of the local organization whose political tentacles reach down to the state capital, which is also called Chihuahua, and beyond.

Hidalgo del Parral, for instance, is a critical juncture at the southern tip of the state. It’s part of a highway system that connects Chihuahua with the cities of Torreon, Durango, Mazatlan, and Culiacan, four crucial reception, storage, and staging points for the movement of illicit goods in any direction.

Durango, in particular, has long been one of the Juarez Cartel’s most important reception and staging points for drugs coming in from the southeast and the southwest. While the Sinaloa Cartel is said to wield power in the state, the recent discovery of 226 bodies in Durango signals that control of this area is far from settled.

This is part of what makes this alliance between the Zetas and La Linea so intriguing. The two groups do not seem to overlap much in territory. Their national purposes, however, do coincide, and may complement each other, similar to the way the Zetas and the BLO have been able to work in concert.

mexico_map_zetas_linea_bloThe Zetas (represented in red in the map to the left) control pieces of the east coast stretching down to the Yucatan. However, despite the group’s efforts in places such as the port of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan state, it has not been able to establish a firm base on the Pacific coast.

La Linea (turquoise), meanwhile, has its power base in Chihuahua and its connections to Colombian cocaine sources on the Pacific side.

Add the BLO (purple) to the mix, and there is a potent set of alliances that has reception and staging points up and down both coasts, as well as a formidable set of militias that can stealthily enter new territories and readily defend what they already possess (see map below).

What’s more, the BLO still has a presence in Sonora state, reaching up to the Arizona border.

Of course, the reality of these alliances is that they are much more fluid on the ground. Not only are they often marriages of convenience, they are likely regional or even hyper-local in nature, slaves to the dynamics of the areas they operate in, rather than to the whims of their leaders.

The willingness of these footsoldiers to obey these alliances that are imposed from the top down is a major question mark. Old wounds heal slowly, so turning a rivalry into a partnership can be difficult to implement throughout a long distribution chain.

Lastly, these organizations, even those under the same banner, are less top-down structures, and more like federations. Thus, maintaining these marriages of convenience can be difficult, if not impossible, over the long-term.

Still, the emergence of the Zetas-La Linea-BLO alliance is something to note. At the very least, it may level the playing field with the Sinaloa Cartel-Gulf Cartel-Familia Michoacana’s New Federation. At most, it will alter the whole balance of power in the country.

The map above illustrates the areas of influence of three Mexican criminal organizations: the Zetas (in red), the Juarez Cartel or La Linea (in turquoise), and the Beltran Leyva Organization (in purple). These groups have a loose alliance, which may serve their purposes as they do not seem to overlap on any great scale; they will have access to drugs coming up either coast and some major crossings along the Texas and Arizona borders. 

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