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Aug 27, 2010 | 13:23 GMT

5 mins read

Mexico: Revelations From 72 Migrants' Deaths

STR/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Mexican military discovered the bodies of 72 men and women in an abandoned building on a ranch 22 kilometers (14 miles) outside of San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, the evening of Aug. 24. A man suffering from gunshot wounds notified Mexican marines manning a roadside checkpoint near the abandoned ranch building of the location of the bodies and what had happened to him. The Ecuadorian migrant said he was on a truck with 72 other migrants (58 men and 14 women) from Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala traveling toward the U.S.-Mexico border when members of Los Zetas intercepted the vehicle. The immigrants were taken to the abandoned ranch building and asked if they wanted to work for Los Zetas as hit men for the group or as cooks and maids. The migrants were promptly shot in the back of the head when they refused. The Ecuadorian man survived because when he was shot the bullet entered his neck and exited through his jaw. He played dead, managed to escape and stumbled to the marine checkpoint. The Mexican marines initially believed the injured man was part of an elaborate setup for an ambush. However, after a reconnaissance flight over the area drew ground fire, the Mexican marines mounted an operation and raided the location. One marine and three members of Los Zetas were killed in the subsequent firefight. While still an incredibly potent and powerful organization, this incident is indicative of the current and seemingly desperate state of Los Zetas in terms of manpower and human resources. The incident has also brought renewed attention to Los Zetas' human-smuggling operations and provides an opportunity to examine the success of the group's expanding enterprises despite the organization's losing control over its home territory. The Los Zetas organization has been locked in a battle for control of the northeastern Mexico trafficking corridor with an alliance of its rivals, the New Federation (Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Federation and La Familia Michoacana). The organization also been the target of several Mexican military and law enforcement operations that have decimated the senior leadership and operational capability of the organization over the past several months. When fighting between the Zetas and the New Federation broke out in the first few months of 2010, several open-source reports indicated the group had called in a tremendous number of operatives from other regions of Mexico to act as reinforcements. Soon after, reports began to emerge of Central American gang members (who work with Los Zetas in their home countries) being called upon by the Los Zetas organization to aid in the fight in northeastern Mexico, indicating a significant lack of manpower. This latest incident shows a continued desperation for manpower and ability to put boots on the ground to defend Los Zetas' home territory. Additionally, news of the deaths of nearly all those that refused to work for the Zetas will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the migrant community and could, perhaps, influence others if and when they encounter Los Zetas on their journey to the United States. (click here to enlarge image) Los Zetas members have been involved in the human smuggling trade for several years now. The organization carries tremendous influence throughout the east coast of Mexico from its southern to northern borders. The organization's area of influence not only lies along traditional migrant routes from Central and South America but also serves as one of the main overland drug trafficking routes to the United States from the Andean region of South America. Los Zetas' human-smuggling operations have been a point of contention with other drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and, to a limited extent, an element of the current conflict taking place in northeastern Mexico. Organizations like the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf cartel have expressed their "displeasure" with Los Zetas' level of involvement in the human-smuggling business as it reportedly disgraces the prestige of the drug-trafficking business. While these other organizations can be linked to human smuggling in some fashion, it is not an integral part of their operations as they focus nearly all their efforts on trafficking drugs. However, Los Zetas' inroads into the human-smuggling arena have proved to be profitable and have helped the group become a truly international trafficking organization. The Los Zetas organization has been known to collect $2,000 to $10,000 per migrant (depending on nationality), making human smuggling an extremely lucrative business. Additionally, with the steady flow of migrants coming from Central and South America, Los Zetas members have been able to forge relationships with other criminal groups in these countries. This has helped the group expand its human smuggling operations as well as its influence in the drug trafficking realm while gaining greater control of the drug supply chain. While the Los Zetas organization has been able to successfully expand its influence and operations deeper into Central and South America due in large part to heavy involvement in human-smuggling operations, the incident in Tamaulipas state and the ultimatums that these 73 immigrants were presented with shows a certain level of desperation within the group. This desperation is perhaps an indicator of the current status of the Los Zetas organization in the broader war with the New Federation and its allies for control of northeastern Mexico.

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