Police arrested five men yesterday supposedly responsible for the massacre of 52 people at a Monterrey casino last week. The five suspects admitted they were members of Los Zetas, one of the most violent and brutal drug cartels in Mexico. Authorities released video footage of the perpetrators filling cans at a gas station minutes before the attack. The governor of Nuevo Laredo, Rodrio Medina, said that the Zetas were most likely extorting the casino, providing motive for the brutal display of violence.
The los Zetas drug cartel is the most powerful and brutally violent organized crime groups in Mexico, with their strongholds spreading further and further southward into Central America (InSight). In 1997, los Zetas began their operation under the recruitment of the Gulf Cartel chief, Osiel Cardenas. The original 31 members were former Mexican Special Forces deserters, heavily trained in ambushes, marksmanship, intelligence, intimidation, and other military techniques (Borderland Beat). After Cardenas was arrested in 2003 by Mexican authorities, los Zetas took over operations for themselves, ‘eliminating’ several Gulf Cartel lieutenants and working their way to the top of the chain of command. Now, the group has expanded from 31 to somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 members, including former local, state, and federal security officers, as well as ex-Kaibilies (the Guatemalan Special Forces) (InSight, Borderland Beat). The Kabiles are the special operations forces of Guatemala known for their intense and ruthless training in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. Los Zetas use their ability offer much higher compensation and benefits to military deserters as leverage to recruit technically trained and skilled fighters.
The Zetas’ rise to power has established a new precedent within the world of organized crime throughout Mexico and Central America. Prior to the paramilitary strategies and operations of los Zetas, most drug cartels were composed of ‘thugs’, gang members or toughened criminals who had access to drugs and smuggled arms (Borderland Beat). As Hal Brands puts it, the “combination of massive firepower with expertise in infantry squad tactics, complex assaults, and other military techniques [resulted in a] qualitative escalation of the intensity of drug-related violence” (Borderland Beat). Not only do the Zetas know how to fight, but they have the resources to orchestrate complex attacks, infiltrate police stations, and ambush government convoys, among other strategic military actions. They have a military-grade arsenal of AK-47’s, shoulder-fired missiles, armor-piercing ammunition, fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and even helicopters. Zetas members are trained in prolonged torture and execution, frequently employing such tactics as decapitation, immolation, strangulation, castration, and immersion in toxic substances.
- Police discovered seven bodies of individuals who had gone missing earlier this month buried near the northern border of Mexico and five skulls near the border city of Juarez. The seven bodies appeared to be strangled to death, one shot in the head, and all with their hands tied behind their backs. Mass graves are becoming more and more common in Mexico as drug violence escalates.
- After criticizing the Venezuelan government for the way it handled recent armed uprisings at two prisons, the director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, Humberto Prado has received numerous anonymous threats. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, called for protections of the activist, arguing that ‘the government should ensure that defenders can do their job without fear of reprisals.’ According to In Sight Crime, attempts at reform of the prison system have failed, as 13 inmates have died and 62 have been wounded since the new prison minister took office.
- After an order which prevented the Venezuelan newspaper, 6to Poder, from publishing after openly criticizing Chavez’ government, a judged ruled that the ban be lifted. While the decision allows the newspaper to continue publishing, it bars 6to Poder from publishing insulting text or images against women or public officials.
- Drug traffickers are being forced to seek new markets in the northeastern region of Brazil, as their traditional markets experience dramatic economic growth. The states of Bahia and Alagoas have proven to be particularly vulnerable to the violence, with murders growing by 430% in Bahia and the arrival of crack-cocaine only making matters worse.
- The once-powerful Familia Michoacana drug gang has lost its near-monopoly of the methamphetamine trade, paving the way for the Sinaloa Cartel to take over the market. In Sight Crime refers to the shift as a clear example of the ‘balloon effect,’ in which one government blow against one organized crime group simply creates room for another one to take its place. July has seen record seizures of illegal shipments of chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, methamphetamine included.
- Mauricio Cardenas, a senior fellow from Brookings, discusses Latin America as a viable market with many new and growing economic opportunities, as well as ongoing problems, such as the drug war in Mexico. Listen to the podcast here.
- In a US-funded program during the 1940’s designed to study the effects of penicillin, researchers infected hundred of Guatemalan prisoners, psychiatric patients and sex workers with syphilis and gonorrhea, none of whom were informed of the procedure. President Obama set up a commission to investigate the program after the research was discovered last year, which will publish its first report next month outlining the historical facts of the case. So far, the commission has declared the project an ‘institutional failure’ and a ‘shameful piece of medical history.’
- Many small businesses, shop owners, bus drivers, and street vendors are being forced to make weekly payments to gangs in Medellin, Colombia adding up to a large sum of profits. The payments can be as small as 20,000 pesos (about $10) a week, making the extortion difficult to crack down on.
- An increase in cyber crime and information trafficking in Latin America has shown a dramatic increase in 2011, with greater media coverage of government surveillance, wiretapping, hacked e-mails, and legislative debates over privacy issues.
- Contrary to fears of a mass exodus of Mexican refugees fleeing the drug war, it appears that those (legally) immigrating into the U.S. are actually middle and upper class Mexican families. The influx has been warmly welcomed by border towns benefiting from the economic boost and increased investments.