Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages
The news just gets grimmer in Mexico as the drug war nears the end of its fifth year and claims more and more innocent lives. On Thursday, gunmen burst into a casino in the northern city of Monterrey and set fire to the place, killing more than 50 people, Ken Ellingwood reports in The Times.
The attack was described by the federal government as an act of terror. President Felipe Calderon has ordered three days of national mourning, but no official decree was needed to observe a palpable sense of gloom among ordinary citizens on Friday morning even here in Mexico City, far from Monterrey.
In Mexico's current armed conflict, when a night-life or entertainment establishment is attacked, authorities assume an extortion deal gone wrong. A business owner refuses to pay a hefty "tax" to an organized crime group, or is being extorted by more than one group, a deal frays, and eventually, innocent lives are lost. In other instances, a business might be attacked out of sheer competition between cartels.
In the past year, Monterrey has seen such attacks more than its people probably care to count. In early July, more than 20 people were killed when gunmen assaulted a crowded bar in downtown Monterrey on a Friday night. The hitmen even killed the hot-dog vendor outside.
The violence in Monterrey is presumed to be a result of the localized war between the two major cartels that seek control over Mexico's wealthiest city -- the Gulf cartel and their former armed wing, the Zetas -- which were founded by ex-members of an elite Mexican military unit.
The Zetas in particular are known for their brutal attack techniques, so much so that late last month a new self-described cartel announced its debut with the online video: the Mata Zetas, or "Zeta Killers."
The Spanish-language video link shows a group of men in flack jackets, hooded masks or helmets, and holding high-powered military-grade assault rifles. They stand in silence as a voice-over announces the group's fight against "these filthy Zetas" in the state of Veracruz. The image achieves its goal, striking fear in the observer. The group looks fierce, cold-blooded and trained.
The Mata Zetas identify themselves as a subgroup of the so-called Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. If that's the first time you've heard of that cartel, you're likely not alone. Even journalists these days have trouble keeping track of all the organized-crime groups.
As Mexico's military and federal police seek to arrest or take out top cartel figures, the drug groups inevitably splinter in the subsequent power vacuums, and new self-described "cartels" are formed, although it is practically impossible to know how large or organized the new groups can be. Out of those, subgroups branch out, often seeking to claim new territory or "clean up" against a rival. Since last year, for example, three new cartels have emerged in the battle over the southern port and resort city of Acapulco.
In the western state of Michoacan, a new cartel giving itself the medieval name of Knights Templar has begun terrorizing communities there. That group is said to have splintered off from the fearsome La Familia. As Tracy Wilkinson reported in The Times, the June arrest of the reigning La Familia leader ensures only one thing: "Removing the top capos, which is Calderon's stated strategy, provokes violent power struggles as potential successors compete for their share of the ever-lucrative drug trade."
Yet the U.S. and Mexico governments argue the fight against Mexico's transnational organized crime groups must continue, despite more than 40,000 dead in Mexico alone.
How many more new cartels can form before the conflict runs its course?
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Image: Screen-grab of video announcing the formation of the so-called 'Zeta Killers.' Via YouTube