By Scott Stewart and Tristan Reed
During the question-and-answer portion of our quarterly Mexico Security Monitor webinar, we were asked a question pertaining to the current status of Los Zetas. The question was something to the effect of: "Some Mexican media outlets and analysts claim that Los Zetas have been dismantled as an organization and are now little more than a 'ragtag operation.' Why do you disagree with that assessment?"
This question apparently came in response to our quarterly cartel report (an abbreviated version is available here), in which we wrote that despite the leadership losses suffered by Los Zetas, including the arrest of their leader, Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, there were no signs that other leaders were challenging the current leader and Miguel's brother, Omar Trevino Morales. We also wrote that we believed Los Zetas have maintained their operational capabilities in terms of drug smuggling and other criminal activity, and that they have retained the ability to defend their operations and to continue conducting offensive operations deep in their rivals' territory.
Because of the interest Los Zetas generate among our readers and clients, we thought it would be worthwhile to explain why we believe Los Zetas have not yet been dismantled.
Violence Brings Attention
When they first emerged on the scene in the early 1990s as the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas brought a new dynamic to the violence in Mexico. As deserters from Mexico's Special Air Mobile Forces Group, they introduced military tactics and weapons into the fight.
Although other cartels quickly followed suit and stood up their own enforcer groups comprised of former soldiers armed with military ordnance, like the Sinaloa Federation's Los Pelones, Los Zetas continued to generate much media and law enforcement attention. This was due not only to their background as special operations forces, but also to their penchant for gratuitous and overwhelming violence. Unlike other enforcer groups, which tended to operate in more confined geographic areas, the Gulf cartel deployed Los Zetas across Mexico and even into Central America. The group has also publicly taunted the government, such as via the audacious signs Los Zetas hung in Nuevo Laredo in 2008 offering better-paying jobs to the Mexican soldiers deployed to the city to counter them.
Los Zetas' violent nature was clearly on display after they split from the Gulf cartel in early 2010 and became an independent cartel organization. The group's involvement in high-profile incidents, such as the September 2010 killing of U.S. citizen David Hartley on Falcon Lake and the February 2011 attack on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that left one of the agents dead, also helped bring Los Zetas to the attention of the American government and public. This resulted in U.S. pressure on the Mexican government to act against Los Zetas. High-profile incidents such as the August 2010 San Fernando massacre, other large body dumps, attacks on media outlets and the killings of journalists also served to make Los Zetas public enemy No. 1 in Mexico's media and in the eyes of the Mexican government.
Both the Calderon and Pena Nieto administrations have specifically listed the group as a priority target. All this attention has impacted the organization. In addition to the arrests of several plaza bosses, the group also lost longtime leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano, who was killed by the Mexican military in October 2012, and his replacement, Miguel Trevino Morales, who was arrested in July 2013.
Los Zetas grew quickly after emerging as an independent cartel, rising to become the second-largest criminal organization in Mexico. But this rapid growth did not come without organizational challenges. In mid-2012, Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, a high-ranking Los Zetas leader operating in Zacatecas, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi states, split with the group and rejoined the Gulf cartel, which was in the middle of a heated fight against its former enforcer group for control of Mexico's northeast.
During 2012, we also saw repeated reports in the media that a war had erupted between Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales, but no evidence of such a split ever emerged. In retrospect, we learned that the transfer of leadership between Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales had occurred in an orderly manner several months prior to Lazcano Lazcano's death.
Misinformation and Disinformation
Over a year later we do not know if the inaccurate rumors of the Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales split were an incorrect understanding of the Velazquez Caballero defection (misinformation), or if they were a deliberate information operation conducted by the Mexican government or a rival cartel attempting to sow division among the ranks of Los Zetas (disinformation).
This situation highlights one of the big problems confronting those who track and analyze clandestine human networks such as terrorist groups or transnational criminal organizations like Los Zetas. In addition to disinformation and misinformation, there is simply much we do not and cannot know unless we have a source of information inside the organization. Even technical intelligence coverage of such organizations sometimes provides only a limited understanding of the exact structure of an organization and the members' intentions and motives.
It is also important to recognize that even in cases where inside information is available, rumors, disinformation and misinformation often run rampant inside organizations — particularly organizations composed of brutal, paranoid criminals. In retrospect, it appears that it took some time for Trevino Morales to become aware that Velazquez Caballero's organization had declared war on him because of the disinformation spread by that group. Thus, even if one had been able to ask Trevino Morales himself in March 2012 who was causing the violence in Nuevo Laredo, he would not have known.
But beyond disinformation, rumors, false presumptions and a lack of knowledge or awareness are common within all human networks, from corporate offices and military units to jihadist groups and criminal cartels. Analysts and collectors tend to want to accept everything a source provides as accurate if the source has good placement and access. They seldom want to recognize that despite good placement and access, the source may be biased, completely uninformed, sincerely misinformed or may have bought into a false, conspiratorial hallway rumor.
This means that analysts and investigators can usually only infer what is going on internally within a group, and in many cases the information used to draw those inferences is misleading — sometimes intentionally so. This applies not only to open-source press reporting and messages purportedly from the groups themselves, but also to the human and signals intelligence used by analysts and investigators with access to classified information. In fact, sometimes classified information can be detrimental to sound analysis when inaccurate classified reporting is given precedence over accurate open-source reporting simply because it is from a highly classified source, thus skewing the analytical process. For this reason, sensitive intelligence should never outweigh common sense and observation. Indeed, analysts should not hold any item of intelligence, whether from a contact or open-source media, above another — they must all be carefully evaluated.
While analysts may not know for certain what is happening inside an organized crime group, or what the dynamic is between groups like the Trevino Morales and Velazquez Caballero families, taking a holistic approach and correctly using available intelligence can allow them to form hypotheses. Those hypotheses must then be refuted or confirmed based on whether they conform to observable behavior of the groups and their members. In the case of Mexican cartels, internal shifts such as leadership losses, new strategies or tactics, new campaigns, new alliances, new rivalries and new operations are often manifested into quantifiable and irrefutable occurrences. These observable occurrences can include things such as shifts in drug routes, upticks in overall violent crime such as homicides and robberies, arrests of individuals with credible reported affiliations in new places, and so on. Hypotheses can be validated or invalidated based upon such observable indicators.
In the case of Los Zetas, observable events have repeatedly contradicted the reports that began in 2010 describing the downfall of Los Zetas. If the capabilities of Los Zetas had really begun to decline in 2010, we would not have seen them expand so rapidly in 2011, both in Mexico and internationally. Observing Los Zetas conducting body dumps in Culiacan and Guadalajara during 2011 and 2012 contradicted the idea that El Chapo and the Mexican government had crippled Los Zetas.
Current Hypotheses Regarding Los Zetas
With that in mind then, let's consider some of the hypotheses we are currently working off of regarding Los Zetas.
First, while we mentioned above that Los Zetas historically have been flashy and violent, we believe there has been a noticeable difference in the group's behavior after Miguel Trevino Morales assumed control. Since then, the group appears to have adopted a lower profile, with far fewer high-profile acts of violence and public displays of bodies and narcomantas. This is not to say that the group is any less violent, but with no indicators suggesting the group has weakened, it appears they have made a conscious decision to attempt to lower their press and public profile in hopes of reducing government pressure on them. Of course, it is also possible that some observers could interpret this lower profile as weakness, but such an assumption is not supported by what we can observe happening in Los Zetas' home base.
We operate under the assumption that a quiet plaza is a productive plaza. In other words, the less violence there is in a high-volume drug-trafficking corridor, the better that is for the business of the organized crime group that controls it. A lack of violence in a plaza is also a sign that it is under the uncontested control of a particular organization. Historically, we have seen large fights for the control of lucrative plazas such as Tijuana and Juarez, and when the Sinaloa Federation believed the Gulf cartel was weakened following the arrest of then-Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003, it attempted to take control of Nuevo Laredo and a major war erupted between the two cartels in 2004.
In the case of Los Zetas, we have hypothesized that if the organization had indeed been weakened, the other cartels would be aware of the weakness and would make a push to grab the lucrative Nuevo Laredo plaza as Sinaloa did in 2004. Nuevo Laredo is the busiest cargo crossing from the United States to Mexico, and that heavy flow of traffic permits a large flow of contraband cargo to be hidden alongside legitimate goods. But since the death of Lazcano Lazcano and the capture of Trevino Morales, we have not seen a war break out for control of the city. Therefore, based on the lack of observable violence in Nuevo Laredo, we can conclude that Los Zetas remain in control of that plaza and that contraband continues to flow through it. It is also worth noting that Los Zetas' rivals, including their biggest competitor, the Sinaloa Federation, have been hit hard by attrition. In fact, the organization that was sent to Nuevo Laredo to wrest it from Gulf cartel control in 2004, the Beltran Leyva Organization, has split away from Sinaloa and some of its remnants are currently fighting with Los Zetas against Sinaloa.
If Los Zetas were significantly weakened, we also assume we would see another organization attempt to take control of Monterrey, a major transportation hub in northeastern Mexico. The same transportation infrastructure that makes it a major industrial center also makes it a major hub for illicit trade. If a rival cartel could seize control of Monterrey, it could impact the flow of Los Zetas contraband through Nuevo Laredo. There has recently been a minor spike of violence in Monterrey, but we have not seen a dramatic escalation of violence that would indicate a significant new struggle for control there. The current level of violence in Monterrey is much lower than it was in 2010 and 2011, when Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel battled for control of the city following the split between the two organizations.
Like all criminal enterprises, law enforcement efforts, infighting, power struggles and plain old greed will eventually weaken, if not destroy, Los Zetas. But that has not yet happened, and Los Zetas remain a powerful organization engaged in a diverse range of criminal activities across a large portion of Mexico — and the globe.