The Mexican drug war is not often a repository of good news. But in the past two weeks, teams of commandos south of the border have captured or killed three leaders of the infamously brutal Zetas cartel. The latest may just be the godfather, Zetas founder Heriberto Lazcano, a.k.a. “The Executioner,” who was reportedly just killed by Mexican authorities.
The two captured leaders are "Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, “The Squirrel,” and “Ivan Velazquez Caballero, “El Taliban.” Given that Mexican authorities have only taken out 20 leaders total in the past couple of decades they’ve spent fighting against the cartels, three in two weeks is a big deal. So what gives? Are the cartels falling apart? Is the drug war finally winding down? Did Mexican police finally outgun the drug runners? Can we go on vacation in Ciudad Juarez again? Not so fast.
There are a couple of likely explanations behind the Mexican government’s recent success at hauling in drug lords. If you asked the Mexican government, it would probably point to a concerted crackdown on cartels this year — specifically, the Zetas. With only a few weeks left in office, President Felipe Calderón is making an attempt as being remembered as the president who didn’t give up on the drug war, or at least left Mexico a safer place than it was when he took office in 2006. It’s been an uphill battle, however. The Mexican military has arrested over ten thousand people with connections to the drug cartels in the past six years, but the cartels have killed many multiples of that number in the same time period. Some estimates put the total death toll since Calderón took office north of 100,000.
After a rash of horrifically violent attacks on civilians last year, including reports of Central American tourists being forced to fight to the death, the government renewed its offensive. Calderón enlisted the Mexican Navy to fight the cartels and received an unspecified amount of assistance from the United States. These marine forces were trained by U.S. Navy SEALs, part of the almost $500 million a year the U.S. spends helping to fight the drug war. But that funding isn’t new, and isn’t the sole reason for the recent blows to the Zetas.
Commandos with guns help, but the Zetas cartel is largely made up of former commandos with more guns. A more likely explanation behind how the Mexican Navy has been so successful bagging Zetas leaders lately involves a rift within the Zetas themselves. Earlier this year — it’s unclear exactly when — the number two Zetas leader Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales staged a coup, stealing control of the cartel from Lazcano. The cartel split, with some foot soldiers defecting to Trevino’s faction and others remaining loyal to Lazcano. Then things got messy. After Lazcano tried to seize new territory in Mexico’s interior, Trevino hit back, eventually dumping 14 bodies at a gas station in San Luis Potosi. Another faction of men broke off and joined forces with rival gangs, the Gulf Cartel and the Knights Templar. The new faction declared war on the Zetas, Trevino specifically. It’s been a constant struggle for power since then.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the Zetas’ in-fighting served as a useful distraction for the Mexican Navy to intensify its efforts to take down the cartel leaders. One question we have to ask, though, is whether authorities are taking down active leaders or simply men that have been cast aside by the new generation of Zetas drug lords. It’s difficult to tell, since the cartels don’t exactly broadcast the changes on their roster. Typically, you know a leader’s fallen out of favor when his body turns up in the middle of the town square.
Let’s not get too negative, though. It’s really good that Mexican authorities are going after drug lords and actually catching a few! You’re still probably better off taking your next vacation somewhere that’s not northern Mexico. Need we remind you of the time the cartels forced the tourists to fight to the death?