Mexico takes fight to Zeta drug gang
This is interesting as the Army has now esentially admitted they are at war. Not just police operations, but targeting some groups for military destruction. A sad, but needed, escalation in Mexico.
By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News
MEXICO CITY – Thousands of soldiers and federal police have mounted a new operation along the Mexico-Texas border designed to break up cells of the Zetas paramilitary drug gang, with two bloody firefights just this week, in what Mexican and U.S. officials are calling a new strategy in the drug fight.
The plan of attack for the new year goes beyond patrolling streets in border towns such as Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa to actively tracking down Zeta cells in their safe houses, such as an operation Monday that left three heavily armed Zetas dead, said Patricio Patiño Arias, the deputy minister for intelligence and strategy at Mexico's Public Security Ministry.
KRISTEN LUCE/ The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)
Earlier this week, two federal agents were killed after a shootout with drug suspects in Reynosa, Mexico. "Since the first of January we have changed our operations," Mr. Patiño Arias told reporters. "It's no longer just patrolling, but rather a direct fight, a direct fight against specific objects, against specific targets that has grown out of important intelligence work."
One U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Mexican government appears to be seeking a direct confrontation with the Zetas, many of whom are former military officers or police.
"They [authorities] realize that putting out small fires isn't going to help them very much," said the official, who is not allowed to speak for attribution. "They're now entering the gates of hell as they try to dismantle the organization by targeting the key figures."
Among the targets: Heriberto Lazcano, the alleged leader of the Zetas. He is believed to be hiding somewhere in the Tampico area – the same Gulf Coast city where authorities seized 11 tons of cocaine after an October shootout between soldiers and Zetas.
Another target is Miguel Treviño, who is believed to work for Mr. Lazcano and to control the corridor that runs from Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border to the industrial city of Monterrey in the neighboring state of Nuevo León, officials said.
"The Mexican government is being much more deliberate; the targets they're going after are that much more sharp," the U.S. official said. "I think they're getting some good intelligence, and that's making all the difference."
Minute of silence
On Wednesday, President Felipe Calderón met with police chiefs from around the country and held a minute of silence for the hundreds of police and soldiers who have become casualties in the drug fight, including two killed in a shootout Tuesday in Reynosa.
"There have already been a lot of federal, state and municipal police, soldiers and marines who have lost their lives, especially in the last year, to guarantee the security of Mexicans," Mr. Calderón said. "It hasn't been easy, and there is much more to do."
Mr. Patiño Arias said the men killed and captured in Rio Bravo on Monday were part of a Zeta cell that reported to Mr. Lazcano, a former army officer.
Two men from Detroit and one from Texas were among those arrested in Monday's shootout in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas. The state is home base for the Gulf cartel, which uses the Zetas as its enforcement arm.
The Monitor newspaper of McAllen, Texas, reported that relatives of the man from Texas, identified as Esteban Valdez de los Santos of Pharr, say he was an innocent bystander. And they're working to get him released from a Mexico City prison.
That shootout came after federal police and soldiers followed an SUV that had run a roadblock and holed up in a safe house in front of the town's police station. Ten soldiers and police were injured by fragmentation grenades, but none seriously.
Mr. Patiño Arias said the type of armament used by the Zetas, including rocket launchers used to penetrate armored vehicles, has raised violence "to a new level."
This week's seizure of high-powered machine guns, grenade launchers and sniper rifles shows how easy it is for organized crime to obtain weapons on the U.S. side of the border and how the drug war is becoming an increasing military-style fight, he said.
Indeed, there are more soldiers in Tamaulipas than there are federal police, who number 1,100 officers.
"We are working closely with the armed forces," Mr. Patiño Arias said. "There are 2,300 troops, and they are redeployed at highway checkpoints and urban checkpoints in order to have a presence throughout the state. There is air power in Tamaulipas – planes, helicopters."
A senior U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said government pressure on the Zetas may be forcing them to breach a reported "truce" among cartel leaders, who reportedly had agreed to lie low and reduce violence. That worked for part of the summer and fall.
The Gulf cartel has been in a fierce turf war with the Sinaloa cartel, based in the northern state with the same name.
"The reason violence is increasing boils down to increased pressure on the cartels," the official said. "For now, the cartels may have a truce, but with pressure on them increasing, the usual response is to kick up the violence, especially against government law enforcement,"
The new year's wave of violence comes after a year in which a record 2,500 people were killed as part of the drug fight, mostly cartel gunmen and police. The killings also included four journalists, nearly a dozen musicians and the former mayor of Rio Bravo.
It also comes as the U.S. Congress considers $500 million in aid this year to Mexico for expensive equipment needed in the drug battle, such as helicopters and scanners.
That proposed first installment is part of the three-year, $1.4 billion Merida Initiative – named for the southern Mexico city where Mr. Calderón and President Bush announced a new framework in the drug fight that includes more direct U.S. financial help.
On the offense
Jorge Chabat, a Mexican commentator who closely follows the drug war, said the Rio Bravo operation did in fact suggest that government forces are targeting the Zetas with more precision and moving from "defense to offense."
"If this is for real, then it is a step in the right direction, although it will bring more violence in the short term," Mr. Chabat said. "I have the impression that they [authorities] are moving into a new phase in which they are not just defending themselves, but attacking as well."
Inevitably, however, the narcos are sure to fight back, as occurred already this week.
After the firefight in the streets of Rio Bravo, a group of gunmen in nearby Reynosa fired at three federal police officers after a car chase Tuesday, killing two of them.
Mexican media speculated the killings were an ambush and revenge for the deaths of the three Zetas a day earlier.
According to media accounts, 24 people have been killed so far this year in drug-related violence. They include the former mayor of La Huacana in the central state of Michoacán, four police officers and the assistant to a musical group. All bore the marks of gangland violence.
Staff writer Alfredo Corchado and news assistant Javier García contributed to this report.
WHO ARE THE ZETAS?
The Zetas were created by a group of highly trained military deserters to work as gunmen for the Gulf drug cartel. The group, first concentrated along Mexico's border with Texas, has made inroads in Acapulco, Monterrey, Veracruz and elsewhere in Mexico, and has extended its reach into U.S. cities, including Laredo and Dallas. Authorities say the Zetas continue to recruit from military and police forces and have made alliances with U.S. and Central American gangs.
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