The Lethal Spread of Mexico’s Los Zetas*
By Benedict Hayes
Torture, decapitation and massacres: these are some of the trademarks of Los Zetas, the Mexican drug-trafficking organisation. As organised crime spreads in Latin America, so will gruesome violence.
The Salvadorian defence minister, General David Munguía Payés, has publicly stated that Los Zetas was operating within his country. About 35,000 have died in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared war on organised crime in 2006. Payés’s announcement recognised that the extreme levels of violence being witnessed in Mexico might spread to the country’s southern neighbours and beyond.
Most Violent Areas in the World
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala now constitute the most violent area in the world outside war zones. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest murder rates and Guatemala has more than 40 murders a week in the capital alone. While Mexico attracts the majority of media headlines, the situation further south is just as critical.
The recent increase in violence in Guatemala and the admission of Los Zetas’ presence in El Salvador indicate that the gang is attempting to expand throughout central America. It seeks to develop relationships with maras (youth gangs) as well as members of local law enforcement and the military throughout the region. It largely operates without fear, openly threatening to carry out high-level assassinations of public figures, including the Guatemalan president, Álvaro Colom.
During the cold war, central America was an important geopolitical area. After prolonged civil wars El Salvador and Guatemala signed peace accords and underwent processes of democratisation in the 1990s. Nevertheless, poverty, unemployment, easy access to weapons and drug trafficking have undermined this positive progress. Meanwhile, the US has focused its post-9/11 foreign policy on the Middle East, and the phenomenon of organised crime in the western hemisphere has become relatively ignored.
Combating Los Zetas
The potential combination of Los Zetas – which has been known to leave severed heads in front of the Guatemalan Congress to intimidate officials – with the maras is a major cause for concern. Increasingly in Mexico and central America, the state is losing territory and its grasp on the rule of law.
The mano dura (iron fist) policy of zero tolerance implemented by a number of central American governments has so far brought poor results. This approach has failed to reduce crime and delinquency levels, or to disband or control the gangs. Instead, these governments have seen a transformation in the customary gang behaviour, with mara territoriality reinforced, not diminished. The governments most afflicted by social violence in the region are viewed as the weakest and most corrupt, enabling drug-trafficking organisations (DTOs) to extend their control by infiltrating the state and its military and justice system. In a recently released WikiLeak cable, the US ambassador to Guatemala highlighted police corruption as endemic and stated that organised crime was not recognised as a problem in certain local governmental positions.
Los Zetas, which includes many former members of the Mexican special forces, is an extremely sophisticated, well-armed and brutal organisation. Its expansion has to be met efficiently and decisively, but countering the emerging phenomenon of links between traffickers and mara with just a mano dura combat approach will not work. A state of siege has been declared in parts of Guatemala, which permits the military to detain suspects without charge and disperse large crowds. In a country with such a dark human rights record, many observers are now concerned.
The problem must instead be tackled in a holistic manner. The announcement of a regional taskforce is an important step towards a collective solution to a collective problem, but much more needs to be done. Judicial and police reforms are crucial in order to strengthen the weak systems of El Salvador and Guatemala. The violence of the maras must also be understood as a social issue requiring an approach based on social prevention – development aid to decrease regional inequality is vital.
The role of the US is also critical. It must now seek to actively engage with its central American counterparts; it is no longer acceptable for Washington to simply observe. Only a truly multilateral approach will work.