Zetas: We are not Terrorists, Nor Guerrillas

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A series of public messages seemingly hung by the Zetas in the border town of Nuevo Laredo deny that the group has any plans to confront the Mexican or US governments.

As Borderland Beat reports, the banners, or “narcomantas,” appeared on Monday morning in at least 10  different spots around the city, signed with the name of Zetas boss Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z-40.” The messages’ first paragraph declares:

We do not govern this country, nor do we have a regime; we are not terrorists or guerrillas. We concentrate on our work and the last thing we want is to have problems with any government, neither Mexico nor much less with the US.

The message went on to distance both Treviño and the Zetas from a recently uncovered alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, as well as an August attack in a Monterrey casino that killed more than 50 people. A Zetas cell has been linked to the latter incident, while the assassination plot, according to US authorities, revolved around an alleged Irani agent contracting members of the Zetas to murder the diplomat in Washington, DC.

The most recent narcomantas contradicted a series of messages left in Nuevo Laredo earlier this month, in which someone writing in Treviño’s name openly challenged the governments of the US and Mexico. As that message’s authors wrote:

Not the army, not the marines nor the security and anti-drug agencies of the United States government can resist us. Mexico lives and will continue under the regime of the Zetas. Let it be clear that we are in control here and although the federal government controls other cartels, they cannot take our plazas.

This episode raises a couple of points about the current state of the Zetas. One is that the group seems to be suffering a significant amount of organizational deterioration. This is clearly demonstrated by the disdain with which the latest banners refer to the Monterrey attackers; Treviño refers to them as having “chicken brains” and emphasizes repeatedly that the attack was not ordered from above.

This conclusion is supported by the contradictory messages appearing in the same, Zeta-controlled city just weeks before. There are two possible explanations for this: either Treviño’s subordinates felt  comfortable issuing a challenge in his name and without his consent, or a rival group infiltrated a Zeta stronghold and managed to hang a handful of narcomantas around town without them knowing. Neither possibility would seem to reflect a finely tuned operation humming perfectly.

As InSight Crime has noted, this follows a pattern for the Zetas: as in the attack on ICE agent Jaime Zapata, and the massacres of migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, lower-level commanders are capable of spectacular provocations that clearly go against the interest of the group as a whole, with the nominal leaders — Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano — unable to prevent such incidents. This paints a picture of the Zetas as a group that, as terrifying as it remains, is structurally chaotic and only stumbling along.

Assuming the banners are legitimate, they indicate that the Zetas do not represent as much of a threat to the Mexican state as is often argued. More than any other gang, analysts point to the Zetas as evidence of the national security threat presented by organized crime in Mexico, or even as proof of an insurgency. However, Treviño’s comments suggest that the group recognizes its weakness relative to the Mexican and US governments, and has no interest in replacing the state. While capable of significant mayhem, and interested in co-opting law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, gangs like the Zetas fundamentally have narrower goals than groups traditionally defined as insurgents.

Even if the Zetas have long been disinclined to challenge the state, the new willingness to proclaim this outright suggests that years of government pressure have begun to weigh on the group. The US government ramped up its pressure on the Zetas following the Zapata killing in February, and an executive order granted the Treasury Department greater powers to crack down on Zeta financing this summer. Mexico’s federal government, which has long treated the Zetas as one of the chief criminal threats in the nation, formally named them as a priority this summer, according to the Dallas Morning News.

While Treviño and Lazcano remain on the loose, many of the group’s highest ranking members have been either killed or detained, with several captured since the two governments declared the group a priority. Jesus Enrique Rejon, alias “El Mamito,” a founding member of the Zetas and its third-in-command, according to the government, was arrested outside Mexico City this summer. Another alleged founding member of the Zetas, Raul Lucio Hernandez Lechuga, was arrested this week. Lower ranking commanders in the gang, including more than a dozen of those connected with the Monterrey casino fire, have regularly been nabbed. This pressure is likely a cause of the organizational disarray; chains of command become frayed with so much turnover.

This is not to forecast the imminent demise of the Zetas. Their recent incursions into Jalisco and Sinaloa suggest that they will continue to be a force in the Mexican underworld — and a destabilizing, expansionary force at that — for a time to come. However, Treviño’s messages show that the group’s power is limited, and is not immune from government pressure.

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