For months, I have continued to ask a series of simple questions to contacts around Mexico and the US who I know retain a special interest in Los Zetas.
The primary question is: "do you think Los Zetas are strategizing to cut the country in half?" This question usually surfaces within a longer conversation about Zeta activity in Mexico and, most recently, in Guatemala, where the organization's effect on society has riveted local and international observers.
The first response to my question about Los Zetas in Mexico, however, is usually physical: a quixotic look, raised eyebrows, a frown. The question is open-ended; as intended, it sparks further discussion, and an informal interview ensues. The resulting information, carefully procured over months of discussion and interaction, has fused together into what is so far a loosely tethered theory I call, simply, The Zeta Cross (see map at bottom of post).
Since what we call in our book the "War in the North" began, Los Zetas have fought for control of Nuevo Laredo. I continue to believe that they, through Miguel Treviño's own special brand of barbarism, hold on to this plaza.
The next node to the south is Monterrey. As current events unfold, it remains clear that Los Zetas are still fighting for control of the plaza. (I will discuss Monterrey in detail in a separate post.)
If you trace a finger on a map down Mx Federal highway 54, the next major stop along the Zetas Cross is Zacatecas. This is the hub and where the vertical and horizontal lines meet.
Part of my theory, while focused on strategy, breaks down the management of the organization, as it plays out between El Lazca, considered Los Zetas number one, and Miguel Treviño, considered number two. Many of us agree that Treviño remains focused on the drug trafficking side of the Zetas business enterprise, while El Lazca remains focused on other business streams, especially extortion. I would argue that for the sake of their relationship, the men do communicate, engage in profit sharing like two Sr. partners in a professional services firm, and mostly stay out of one another's business. As such El Lazca, while on the move, has made the state - and city - of Zacatecas an important hub for Los Zetas activity across Mexico, whereas Treviño remains entrenched in Nuevo Laredo.
Recent activity in Zacatecas points to what appears to be a "better late than never" move by rival groups to construct a united front to block Zeta expansion south.
The united front against Los Zetas in Zacatecas looks a lot like what we saw in February 2010, when the Gulf Cartel, elements of the Sinaloa Federation, and the Familia Michoacana - as it was then known - grouped together to force Los Zetas out of Tamaulipas. Their offensive was largely successful, pushing Los Zetas into a tactical retreat, which I believe pulled their front lines back north to Nuevo Laredo and south to Tampico. Since then, Los Zetas have pushed back into Tamaulipas, but have yet to regain position in Matamoros.
In Zacatecas, the same sort of united front has formed, though I'm not sure if it will be as strong or as effective as the first "united cartels" joint venture. The united front in Zacatecas is made up of two splinter groups, still within their own start up phase, and the Gulf Cartel. According to my friends at the Excelsior, La Resistencia, El Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, and members of the Gulf Cartel are all pushing back against Los Zetas' expansion south from Zacatecas into Aguascalientes and Jalisco - namely Guadalajara. The line up is interesting: we have three disparate groups formed together under a loose alliance to fight against a single paramilitary organization. Gunmen on both sides are well-armed, poorly trained, and highly motivated by pay, reward of ascension within their organizations, and the promise of loot - the perfect recipe for a blood bath.
For a review of these splinter groups, check out InSight Crime's coverage of the atomization of Jalisco in the wake of Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel's death in mid-2010.
The battle lines in Zacatecas have been drawn and mapped, thanks again to Excelcior:
Now, moving south from Zacatecas, and assuming that Los Zetas have a good chance at breaking through the Resistencia-CJNG-CDG united front, Aguascalientes and Guadalajara are the next two stops on the route south. If Los Zetas capture control of Guadalajara, the hard part is over. It would be a matter of time, I would argue, before the organization forces south to capture the port at Manzanillo in Colima. I cannot overemphasize, however, the difficult task of capturing Guadalajara. Since the days of "El Padrino" who helped El Chapo - apart from the Arellano-Felix brothers and Amado Carrillo-Fuentes - get started, Guadalajara has been tightly held by Sinaloa Federation interests. Any Zeta offensive to take this city will be a long, nasty fight.
So, back to the question: "do you think Los Zetas are strategizing to cut the country in half?"
There is still no clear answer, but if Los Zetas push into Jalisco, it would make sense for them to complete the line by taking a Pacific port and completing the vertical division. A north-south corridor, from Nuevo Laredo to Manzanillo would afford Los Zetas several important elements:
1. A secure connection from a Pacific port to a US border crossing - ideal for drugs trafficking
2. Separate the Knights Templar from the US border and their friends in the Sinaloa Federation
3. Contain the Sinaloa Federation to the north of their line, where the Sierra Madres west of Durango form a natural barrier to keep them on the Pacific coast.
These points are all important, though number three is the most interesting. I believe that Los Zetas are the number two criminal organization in terms of staying power - a summation of their size, revenue generation, territorial control, and several other, minor details about training, force strength, and political penetration.
The number one group undoubtedly remains the Sinaloa Federation, which Los Zetas can only contain, not destroy. The Zetas Cross theory assumes that Los Zetas seeks to contain the Sinaloa Federation, while isolating the Knights Templar and the Gulf Cartel.
The east-west, horizontal line of the Zetas Cross completes that isolation. Stretching from Tampico, Tamaulipas, and passing west through Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosí (SLP), Zacatecas, and ending in Durango, the horizontal line of the Zetas Cross, if completed, isolates the operational hub of the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros from the rest of the country.
Currently, I would argue that when considering the points along this horizontal line, Los Zetas do not control Durango - traditionally a stronghold of the Sinaloa Federation. Part of the complication with pushing their forces into the city is the ongoing battle for complete control of the Torreón-Gomez Palacio plaza on the Durango-Coahuila border. Los Zetas continue to battle for control of that plaza. If they win that battle, we would almost certainly watch Los Zetas push their influence south into Durango, pressuring El Chapo's people from the north in Coahuila and from the south in Zacatecas.
Today, on 19 September 2011, I would argue that Los Zetas have completed approximately 60 % of this cross, give or take about 10 %. Most of the fighting between Los Zetas and the organization's rivals will undoubtedly be at the Zacatecas-Jalisco border. And if Los Zetas break this alliance, we'll see them push into Guadalajara - though not an operation likely initiated until after the Pan American games.
The recently announced Zeta alignment with rogue segments of the Milenio Cartel is interesting because it implies, at least, that Los Zetas have lured defectors to their ranks, possibly improving local knowledge, intelligence gathering, and recruiting capabilities from within rival organizations. This alliance, if true, also grants Los Zetas a small beachhead in Guadalajara, from where the group may be able to attack the united cartels from behind the battle lines drawn in southern Zacatecas…
I'll continue to report on The Zetas Cross as events unfold. As I learn more from colleagues on the ground, I'll focus on some of the points along the cross, including: Monterrey (Saltillo), Tampico, Ciudad Valles, SLP, Zacatecas (Fresnillo), Durango, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara, and Manzanillo.
Meanwhile, Guatemala hovers as an item of high interest. Reporting on this blog will ensue as we confirm rumors.
Zetas Cross map legend:
Yellow is Sinaloa Federation; Green, CDG; Blue, the Knights Templar