Northern Mexico’s drug war continues to claim victims, with more than 360 bodies discovered in mass graves just last week. In a separate incident, 13 people were killed in a shootout between Mexican marines and members of the Las Zetas drug cartel.
Meanwhile, Mexico City announced that it has begun extradition proceedings against the Las Zetas cell leader accused in the February slaying of a U.S. federal agent. It plans to send the cartel leader to the United States for trial.
The situation in Northern Mexico is devolving into chaos as unstructured, criminal cartels of thugs fight for control of the lucrative Northern Mexico drug route into the United States. The Mexican government is powerless to end the violence, which continues to escalate and creep toward the U.S. border. Overpowered authorities basically have abandoned the area, recognizing their inability to restore any sort of order to the area.
Extraditing the Zetas ringleader to the United States could provide another excuse for the bellicose gangs to attack government targets.
More than 40,000 people have died in drug violence in Mexico since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. Calderon has deployed 50,000 troops in an effort to quell the violence, with virtually no success.
The situation now includes almost daily skirmishes between rival drug cartels and between cartels and authorities, including shootouts, grenade attacks, and kidnappings. Armed groups from all sides roam the streets of many northern Mexico towns, making them unsafe for residents.
The bulk of the violence stems from fighting between the Las Zetas and Gulf cartels, which are vying for preeminence in the north. The influence of the two cartels has risen dramatically in recent years as old-style cartels, such as the Sinaloa cartel, have weakened.
Las Zetas previously was the armed guard of the Gulf cartel, but broke off after internal divisions. Unlike traditional cartels, Las Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have little hierarchy or organizational structure, and no internal code. For example, they kill women and children, who historically have been off limits to the cartels. Both cartels are heavily involved not only in narcotics trafficking but also in human trafficking, piracy, and petroleum theft.
Violence is likely to escalate as the two organizations use every means necessary to win control and primacy. The lack of an organizational hierarchy and structure in the “new” cartels means there are no constraints on the rampant violence.
Despite Calderon’s promise for more troops to fight the violence, it is unlikely that the government can mount a serious operation against the cartels in Northern Mexico. The government could win an armed conflict with the cartels with only a full military commitment backed by foreign troops, which is highly unlikely at this point.
Instead, the government may opt for the lesser of two evils and make an accommodation with the Sinaloa cartel to strengthen that group against the rouge cartels. In 2009, the Mexican Federal Police reportedly helped the Sinaloa cartel take control of the Juarez Valley and destroy the Juarez Cartel in an effort to restore order.
Such an arrangement would fuel short-term violence but undercut the smaller cartels over time, leading to a sort of stability in the north. It also would give the Sinaloa carte blanche to operate in the north and to conduct cross-border operations into the United States, jeopardizing US counter narcotics efforts and officers in the region.
Lisa M. Ruth, a former CIA analyst and officer, is managing partner of C2 Research, a boutique research and analysis firm in West Palm Beach, Fla., and is vice president at CTC International Group Inc., a private intelligence firm.
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