Factional fighting breaks out in Los Zetas, Mexico's largest crime gang

If Los Zetas breaks apart, Mexico's drug-related violence may get worse

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 4:17am


Mexico's largest crime group, Los Zetas, seems to be splintering into two rival factions locked in occasional open warfare with each other, experts say.

The factions are tussling for control of the central states of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi and are fighting each other in parts of the Yucatan Peninsula.

What sparked the rift is unclear, but signs of the apparent split have come in public banners left at crime scenes, replete with accusations of betrayal and treason between factions led by the two top leaders, Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Angel Trevino.

"We're looking at a turning point for them," said Samuel Logan, a security analyst who co-wrote a book on the Zetas that was released this year. "We're at the beginning of the public stage of the split, but it's been developing for a while."

A fracturing of Los Zetas could force a violent realignment of Mexico's drug-trafficking gangs and would probably create challenges for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who promised to address soaring homicides after his inauguration on December 1.

One of the latest signs of turmoil came on August 9, when authorities found a Mercedes-Benz truck bearing 14 bodies on the outskirts of the city of San Luis Potosi, a mining and industrial hub that's the capital of the state of the same name.

Known for extreme brutality, the group is thought to be active in at least half of Mexico's 31 states and Mexico City, as well as throughout Central America. "The Zetas have expanded rapidly in recent years, and they might have hit a wall," said Alejandro Hope, a former official in the national intelligence agency CISEN.

He cautioned that reports of a rift within the Zetas could be part of a government "psy ops" campaign to inject paranoia into the gang. As to the extent of a split, "we don't really know yet".

Other crime groups are taking note - and sides - in the dispute.

The Knights Templar, a long-time enemy of Los Zetas with a strong presence in Michoacan state, hung banners across the state on Friday belittling Trevino as a "terrorist" and a "military objective" of their group.

Heavy violence linked to Los Zetas has sprung up in central Mexico, leading President Felipe Calderon last week to order the deployment of some 15,000 additional federal police and soldiers to the states of Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Analysts said a splintering of Los Zetas could lead to an uptick in violence as lower-level gangsters sought to snatch turf, smuggling corridors and crime activity.

"When organised-crime groups divide, these divisions are often very violent," said Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics, a Mexico City research centre.