MS Risk Blog

Capture of Los Zetas Cartel’s Kingpin & Evolution of the Security Situation in Mexico

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Mexican security forces arrested on March 4 the leader of Los Zetas drug cartel. This is the second important capture of a kingpin this month in a boost by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s effort to fight organized crime. Omar Treviño Morales alias “Z-42”, brother of arrested ex-Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño, was caught by Mexican federal police officers and soldiers in the city of Monterrey.

His capture happened just a few days after the arrest of the leader of the Knights Templar cartel called Servando Gomez who was the most wanted cartel leader in Mexico. Los Zetas cartel have been blamed for many of the atrocities carried out by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in a wave of violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2007. Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) said: “Omar Treviño was the heir to all the Zetas who were going down.” Indeed, the cartel has been weakened by the killing of former boss Heriberto Lazcano in 2012 and the subsequent capture of Miguel Angel Treviño in 2013. The U.S., which claims that Omar Treviño Morales is responsible for numerous kidnappings and murders as well as cocaine smuggling, had offered up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

Among the most infamous incidents pinned on Los Zetas are an arson attack on a Monterrey Casino in 2011 that killed 52 people, the massacres of dozens of migrant workers, and the dumping of 49 decapitated bodies near Monterrey in 2012. Los Zetas cartel originally founded by army deserters, controls several Mexican states mainly located in the north and south-eastern part of the country (as presented in the map below) and are considered as one of the most powerful cartel of Mexico.

This series of arrest happen in an attempt by PRI President Peña Nieto to improving security in northern Mexico, both to improve the quality of life for residents, and to help pave the way for the entrance of new investments in oil and gas. In addition to conducting several capture of senior Zetas leaders, police forces in the state of Nuevo Leon have succeeded in drastically reducing crime rates in the city of Monterrey. However, security issues continue to be a major cause for concern in another Zetas stronghold, the state of Tamaulipas.

In the state of Nuevo Leon, the creation of a new highly professional police force unit named the Fuerza Civil, has helped reducing the number of homicides. The capture of major drug kingpins is important, but it needs to be part of a broader, locally-focused security strategy. Generally, Mexico’s murder rate is falling but more needs to be done, and particularly when considering the violence-plagued states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas.

Those states are wrapped in a political-military conflict between numerous illegal armed groups that favour a spiral of security deterioration. The recent advance of the armed self-defense forces has accelerated this dynamic. The risk of an escalation in violence is latent as more actors enter in the complex issue of the drug war. Besides, as stated before, the capture of drug kingpins is certainly efficient in weakening the cartels but only on a short-term period. Los Zetas cartel are not just violent because their leaders are, they follow an economic model that relies on controlling territory by adopting a violent way. Within that territory, they extract rents from other criminal actors and move only a limited amount of illegal goods via their own networks. Thus, without that territory, they have no rent. Los Zetas’ model depends on their ability to be more violent and powerful than their competitors, so they can extract this rent.

On the overall, the arrests of drug kingpins has provoked internal conflicts within the different cartels that lost control capabilities and resulted in them being splintered into smaller criminal organizations. Those smaller organizations pose a direct challenge to Mexico’s domestic security because they will be in competition for turf and network control. Therefore, in spite of those publicized arrests, is it unlikely that the security situation in Mexico and especially in the states of Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Michoacán will be improved in the short-term. There is a need to improve Mexico’s security apparatus, which involves removing the incentives that drive drugs cartels to violence.

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