Mexico Security Memo: A Prison Break and Cartel Alliance

3 MINS READSep 26, 2012 | 10:03 GMT

Los Zetas Prison Escape

On Sept. 17, 131 prisoners escaped the Cereso prison in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, through one of the prison entrances and through a tunnel that the inmates dug. The prison held approximately 730 prisoners before the escape. According to Coahuila state authorities, Los Zetas planned the escape in order to refill their ranks with gunmen. The authorities presumably came to this conclusion during the investigation and following arrests, and several details of the escape seem to confirm this assessment. A responding SWAT team was ambushed en route to the prison from Zaragoza, Chihuahua state, and buses were stolen to transport the escaped prisoners, who were immediately armed. It is unclear whether responsibility lies with Los Zetas or with the dissident Los Zetas plaza boss Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero. This sudden surge of cartel gunmen likely will increase violence in Coahuila state and Mexico's northeast in the short term.

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Some of the escaped prisoners immediately assumed roles as cartel gunmen. A day after the prison break, Mexican authorities arrested two of the escapees following a shootout in Piedras Negras. The arrested individuals were carrying two AK-47 assault rifles, three AR-15 assault rifles, a grenade launcher and ballistic vests, indicating their recruitment as gunmen for organized crime. On Sept. 20, Coahuila state Public Security Department head Jorge Luis Moran said that Los Zetas intended for some of the escaped prisoners to fight in Tamaulipas state. If true, then the prison escape in Piedras Negras could affect security outside of Coahuila state.

Trevino Versus Velazquez, Knights Templar and the Gulf Cartel

Over the last week, narcomantas were posted in several areas of Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas states, denouncing Los Zetas' top leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales and reaffirming an alliance of the Gulf cartel, the Knights Templar and Velazquez. While the banners emphasize a focus on the ostensibly attributed authors, a Knights Templar and Gulf cartel alliance is not new, nor is either group's conflict with Los Zetas. However, if actions follow the narcomantas' rhetoric, a nationwide conflict between the publicized alliance and Los Zetas may result, increasing violence in all the states where the messages were found.

This indicates an increased focus within the alliance in combating Los Zetas, and while reasons for this focus are unclear, Velazquez's recent separation from Los Zetas and alignment with the Gulf cartel may be contributing factors. Velazquez has strongholds in San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas states, operates in Coahuila and Guanajuato states, and is a valuable ally for the Gulf cartel and the Knights Templar. This new alignment with Velazquez could provide significant benefits for the Knights Templar and the Gulf cartel during their continued conflict with Los Zetas. For example, the alliance's geographical areas of operations surround more of Los Zetas' territory than any individual alliance member's territory. Should the narcomantas represent a bolstered campaign against Los Zetas, additional violence likely will ensue. But unlike the regionally isolated conflicts between Los Zetas and the alliance members in the past, the addition of Velazquez and the placement of the most recent narcomantas suggest violence could spread to a national level.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit

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