As the co-author of a book on Los Zetas, I can't ignore the recent news of El Lazca's death. So I've agreed to prepare a piece for the CTC Sentinel on what all this means for Los Zetas. But it will take some time to get there analytically. I'm told I have until next Wednesday. So here's a start:
I returned to a piece I wrote on the Mexican criminal system in 2006, "The Reality of a Mexican Mega Cartel." Re-reading it this morning, two important points jumped out at me.
First: we're closer to that reality today than we were in 2006.
Second: Nuevo Laredo is the only major border crossing that El Chapo does not access directly or through partnerships with the Tijuana or Gulf Cartels.
A passage at the end of the 2006 report jumped out at me this morning. I want to share it here and conclude with some comments below:
The combination of one Mega Cartel that controls the whole border and a government that is unable to deal with its own security problems is a potential reality that may develop in the near future.
The reality of one, consolidated drug smuggling organization in Mexico is a scenario in which less time is spent on fighting rival groups and more time is focused on the business of drug trafficking.
An accurate observation is that US and Mexican authorities would be able to focus on one organization, leading to a rapid breakdown of the Mega Cartel’s operations. However, the leader of such an organization, whether it be Cardenas or Guzman, has a long history of dealing with law enforcement on both sides of the border. As analysts have pointed out, it could take many years for a Mega Cartel to be completely deconstructed by US and Mexican authorities.
During that time the revenue earned by illicit trafficking of drugs would continue to support the survival of an organization that directly undermines the power of the Mexican government as an effective security force.
Fast forward to 2012. We're now at the end of the Calderon administration and the present criminal system looks like a reality primed for one mega cartel and around two dozen smaller, "tier-two" groups such as Los Aztecas in Juarez, the CJNG in Guadalajara, and La Barredora in Acapulco - check out our Criminal Environment reports for a more detailed discussion of tier one, two, and three criminal groups in Mexico.
Yes, I'm thinking of what does Los Zetas look like as a tier two group. The organization is not there yet, but I believe that it's headed in that direction, especially if additional pressure on the Treviño brothers in Nuevo Laredo leads to the death/arrest of one or both of them. Pressure we've already seen stated by the DEA in the US and the Knights Templar in Mexico.
With Los Zetas as a tier-two group, or out of the way, the Sinaloa Federation reigns supreme in the criminal system; a reality that I think would be a comfortable accommodation target for any government interested in violence reduction - a noted policy goal for the incoming PRI administration.
After all, El Chapo doesn't need to be violent to traffic drugs. As a "partner" he could even help quell any would be scuffle between tier-two groups in the same city, such as Acapulco, Guadalajara, and possibly Monterrey in 2013, as the remnants of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fight over supremacy at the local level. Fighting fire with fire is effective, and has precedent in Colombia, where "Los Pepes" formed to help the Colombian gov't and the DEA take out Pablo Escobar, only to later form the now defunct Cali Cartel.
The argument presented to me in 2006 against the existence of one mega cartel assumed that such a large organization cannot exist in the Mexican criminal system where there are several warring organizations. Six years of atomization has changed all that. If Los Zetas have been significantly weakened, and I believe they will be, then we have to look at a landscape where El Chapo and his organization sits a head above the rest in terms of operational capability, revenue generation, and - most importantly - government relations, whether by corruption or design.
So what does El Lazca's death mean? I'm still not entirely sure, but I'm beginning to think of it as a cascading moment when the Mexican criminal system made the final pass from an oligarchical style of black market governance, with several "tier-one" groups seeking violent means for accommodation, to a monarchy where El Chapo is king and the rest seek his favor.