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Dec 1, 2011 | 13:08 GMT

11 mins read

Mexico Security Memo: Los Zetas Strike in Sinaloa Territory


Body Dumps in Western Mexico

Twenty-four bodies were found Nov. 23 in Culiacan, the capital of western Mexico's Sinaloa state. The next day, 26 bodies were discovered in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, about 610 kilometers (380 miles) away, along with a narcomanta signed by Los Zetas saying the Zetas were in Jalisco state and would not leave. They claimed that the Sinaloa Federation and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) — a group believed to have been behind the killing of 35 Zetas in Veracruz in September — worked with the governments in Jalisco and Sinaloa as well as with the United States, which, they said, was the cause for the low levels of violence in those areas. "Open your eyes, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel are history. They can't even control their plazas," the narcomanta read.

Jalisco and Sinaloa states are Sinaloa Federation territory, and Guadalajara is a key stronghold of CJNG. (Recent signs indicate the CJNG may have struck an alliance with the Sinaloa Federation.) While the presence of Los Zetas has been confirmed in several western Mexican states, these two recent incidents appear to be part of a major move into Sinaloa territory by the Zetas. If Los Zetas are in fact bringing the fight to Sinaloa turf, then territory that previously had been relatively stable, including the entire northwest of Mexico, is likely in for a significant spike in violence.

Very few details about the incident in Culiacan have been released, but 19 of the victims from Guadalajara have been identified. Most of the known victims were males in their 20s who were employed in a wide variety of professions. A few of the identified victims had criminal records, thus making their possible connection to organized crime more likely. But the absence of a history of crime does not preclude the other victims from having been involved in low-level organized crime. They could have worked for the cartels as lookouts ("halcones"), support personnel or suppliers. Of course, it is also possible that the victims were not working for Sinaloa, but this is unlikely considering that there is no evidence of Zetas killing random innocents to serve as bodies in their messages to rival cartels.

Although violence is not new to Mexico's Pacific coastal states, these mass killings are highly significant — and not only because of the number of victims involved. First, if the bodies were indeed rival cartel members, such an operation by the Zetas would have taken a considerable amount of time to carry out. The Zetas had to set up logistics and security, insert personnel and/or buy the loyalty and silence of local residents, and set up a secure location to hold the victims for several days — a number of the identified victims in the Guadalajara mass killing went missing as early as Nov. 21, but, according to media reports, all were killed on Nov. 24, indicating the Zetas had the capacity to hold the victims for at least three days. Additionally, several weeks or even months of surveillance would have to be conducted to identify all of the targets (assuming the victims were actually involved with the cartels).

What this means is that Los Zetas, perhaps with their allies in the Milenio cartel, may have demonstrated the intent and capability to strike Sinaloa and CJNG assets in the heart of those cartels' territories. More violence in the Pacific coastal states, as well as reprisal attacks directed at the Zetas in their areas of control, can thus be expected.

Houston Shooting

On the afternoon of Nov. 21, an unknown number of individuals in three SUVs "cut off" a tractor-trailer transporting about 136 kilograms (300 pounds) of marijuana in north Houston, Texas. The suspects shot and killed the driver of the truck, who happened to be a confidential informant working with police as part of a controlled delivery operation, before engaging in a gunbattle with the plainclothes officers who had been shadowing the truck. Though not yet confirmed, sources indicate the tractor-trailer and its contraband cargo came from the Mexican border, probably the Lower Rio Grande Valley area, but possibly from the Laredo area.

Two of the SUVs escaped the scene while the third — a stolen Lincoln Navigator, according to unconfirmed information from a Stratfor source — stayed behind. Four suspects claiming to be members of Los Zetas were arrested. Very little additional information is available on the suspects, though it is known that one is from Rio Bravo, Texas, a town south of Laredo, Texas, and that three of them who are believed to be Mexican nationals requested Mexican consular services.

The case is curious to say the least. Mexican cartels are known to operate in the United States, but they tend to be discreet and do not often involve themselves in daytime shootings in heavily populated areas of U.S. cities. The two most obvious explanations for this case are that it was a botched load theft or a hit on the driver. After considering the available facts of the case, it is still unclear which explanation is true.

Before going into the details of the Nov. 21 incident, an explanation of controlled deliveries is warranted. A controlled delivery is an operation conducted by law enforcement — usually initiated by state or federal law enforcement — in which contraband is allowed to be delivered to its intended recipient with preplaced surveillance and plainclothes officers shadowing the delivery vehicle. When the transaction has been initiated, law enforcement personnel activate and attempt to capture all criminal parties involved in the delivery. Sometimes the individual delivering the contraband has been persuaded to cooperate, but sometimes the delivery is allowed to run its course without the driver's knowledge.

The size or type of contraband involved, its destination or the identities of the people or organization expected to receive the shipment determine whether a controlled delivery is conducted. The contraband must be easily accessible for a controlled delivery to be possible; law enforcement must be able to swiftly find the load without compromising the concealment method. If removal of the contraband from its load vehicle requires destruction of the concealment location — for instance, if the contraband was welded or sealed into the structure of the vehicle — then a controlled delivery will be difficult or impossible to execute because of the obvious damage done when the narcotics were accessed by law enforcement.

Based on available photographic and video evidence of the Houston incident, it appears the tractor-trailer came to a rest at the entrance to a subdivision. It is unclear if this was the destination or if the driver was forced off its route by the gunmen.

One possible theory for the ambush is that the gunmen intended to steal the load. If the above details are correct, the assailants may have decided to shoot the driver when he resisted or when law enforcement personnel showed up. (As an aside, 136 kilograms of marijuana is probably not worth the effort invested by the attackers. However, they may have received faulty information regarding the load quantity or drug type that led them to attempt the theft in spite of the immense risks.)

Another possible explanation is that the attackers were simply targeting the driver. However, given the long history of how Los Zetas handle individuals who betray them, this seems unlikely. In the United States the Zetas typically will abduct the victim and dispose of him or her quietly, rather than chase them down and kill them in public outside a subdivision. But in either scenario, the gunmen likely were unaware of the presence of undercover law enforcement personnel. When law enforcement officers unexpectedly entered the picture immediately after the ambush, it very likely turned an intended strong-arm action into the deadly gunfight it became.

As for whom the marijuana load belonged to, that may be ascertainable once it is clear where the load originated. For instance, if the shipment crossed the border through Nuevo Laredo — a Zetas stronghold — it likely belongs to them. If the marijuana entered the United States via ports of entry at Reynosa or Matamoros, however, that would indicate that it belonged to either the Gulf or Sinaloa cartels. Determining who owned the load of marijuana will help determine if the attack was an attempted theft of a rival group's load or the elimination of an asset who had been compromised.

Nov. 15

  • In Fresnillo, Zacatecas state, a confrontation between the military and gunmen left approximately 20 individuals dead. It is unclear how many of those casualties were suffered on each side. The confrontation was the result of a military operation that led to roughly 20 arrests.
  • Mexican authorities seized approximately 1.5 metric tons of marijuana in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state.
  • Gunmen in two vehicles fired on the El Siglo de Torreon newspaper building in Torreon, Coahuila state. The gunmen left one of the vehicles burning in front of the building.
  • Gunmen murdered a bouncer of a bar in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state. The gunmen left a narcomanta, but its contents have not been disclosed.
  • The Mexican military arrested Alfredo Aleman Narvaez, also known as "El Comandante Aleman," at a ranch in Fresnillo, Zacatecas state. Aleman Narvaez was a Zetas plaza boss in Zacatecas.

Nov. 16

  • Gunmen murdered a federal prosecutor in Torreon, Coahuila state, as he was leaving his residence.
  • A narcomanta was posted on the wall of a kindergarten in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua state. The banner said police were protecting cartels in the region and accused a recently killed criminal leader of belonging to the New Juarez cartel.
  • The Mexican military seized 970 kilograms of clorazepate monopotassium, a precursor chemical used to produce heroin, at a loading zone of a train station in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state.

Nov. 17

  • Mexican soldiers uncovered a drug lab in Culiacan, Sinaloa state. Soldiers seized 746 kilograms of solid methamphetamine, 953 liters (252 gallons) of liquid methamphetamine and various precursor chemicals.
  • Three Gulf cartel operators, including a plaza leader, were arrested in Cuernavaca, Morelos state.

Nov. 18

  • Gunmen attacked the director of police operations for Guadalajara outside his residence in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. The director survived the attack but his bodyguards reportedly sustained injuries.
  • The bodies of four individuals were recovered from a parked vehicle in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico state. All four bodies had suffered gunshot wounds and had plastic bags over their heads.
  • A narcomanta was left with the bodies of 13 decapitated dogs in Iguala, Guerrero state. The message stated that traitors would find a similar fate as the dogs.

Nov. 19

  • The director of the State Investigation Agency of Nayarit was unharmed when gunmen attacked him as he traveled along a highway in El Refilon, Nayarit state.
  • A narcomanta signed by the Matazetas was left with three bodies in Boca del Rio, Veracruz state. The message identified the bodies as Los Zetas members.
  • A Los Zetas communication hub was dismantled at a residence in Torreon, Coahuila state.

Nov. 21

  • Mexican authorities arrested a Public Security Secretariat officer in Pachuca, Hidalgo state, for allegedly recruiting fellow officers to work for Los Zetas.

Nov. 22

  • Mexican soldiers seized more than $15 million from a vehicle in Tijuana, Baja California state. The money is believed to belong to the Sinaloa cartel.
  • A tunnel connecting a residence in Nogales, Sonora state, with a residence in Nogales, Ariz., was discovered.
  • Three police officers were found executed in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state.

Nov. 23

  • Twenty-four individuals were executed in various areas of Culiacan, Sinaloa state. At least nine of the bodies had been burned.
  • Mexican authorities announced the arrests of 20 members of La Familia Michoacana, including Jose Edgardo Lemus Barcenas, also known as "El Culebra," a La Familia plaza boss operating around Toluca, Mexico state.

Nov. 24

  • The bodies of 26 individuals were recovered from vehicles in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. A message signed by Los Zetas was left with the bodies. It said the Sinaloa cartel could not protect its own territory and works for Americans.
  • Mexican authorities seized roughly 246 kilograms of solid methamphetamine, 176 liters of chemical methamphetamine and precursor chemicals in Culiacan, Sinaloa state.

Nov. 26

  • Mexican authorities arrested Francisco Javier Marquez de la Rosa, also known as "El Pancho," a distribution leader for Los Zetas, in Torreon, Coahuila state.

Nov. 27

  • A narcomanta was left with a dismembered male body in Taxco, Guerrero state. The message — signed by "El Fantasma and El Chiquilin, the arm of La Empresa" — warned potential traitors that a similar fate awaited them.

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