|Alleged paramilitary leader Alfredo Carmona (third from right) was arrested in October [Reuters]
Mexico's security forces are hailing the capture of "El Chabelo", a high-ranking Zetas cartel boss, as a victory in the battle against drug violence. But The Zetas - one of Mexico's most violent gangs - are also facing fire from a self-described vigilante group calling themselves the "mata Zetas", or Zetas killers.
Alleged vigilantes with apparent links to cartels have been implicated in at least 67 murders in the past several weeks, in which mutilated bodies were strewn across a highway underpass and stuffed in shuttered houses around Veracruz state. Some analysts worry that Mexico's drug violence is transcending levels normally associated with gang turf wars.
"If you look at the tactics cartels are using, they resemble paramilitaries or insurgent groups rather than just criminal gangs," said Ted Carpenter, Mexico analyst for the right-wing Cato Institute in Washington DC. The line between a criminal conspiracy and a direct challenge to the authority of the Mexican state has become blurry, he said.
The upstart "mata Zetas" laid out their apparent aims in a YouTube video posted in late September, promising to fight the ultra-violent Zetas cartel, who control much of Veracruz. Calling themselves the "paramilitary arm of the people", the mata Zetas say their "only objective" is to destroy the Zetas cartel. Police arrested Alredo Carmona, or "El Capi", a suspected mata Zetas leader on October 6.
They don't want to fight state security forces, they said, but called on "the functionaries and authorities who support the Zetas to stop doing so", in a digital communique read by men wearing balaclavas and toting machine guns. "We are anonymous warriors, faceless, but proudly Mexican."
Colombia to Mexico
The trend of well-armed men posing for macabre propaganda videos and making pseudo-political statements echoes the dark days of Colombia's narco-conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mexican security forces parade captured mata Zetas
"As a phenomenon, I am actually surprised that paramilitaries are not rising up faster," said Walter Mackay, a former Canadian police officer who has trained Mexican security forces and now studies drug violence. "Communities simply cannot rely on the government to protect them."
Violence has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on cartels.
Former members of the Colombian army's special forces have been training the Zetas, Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper reported Sunday.
"The public's understanding of a paramilitary, it seems, is from the war in Guatemala or Colombia [where paramilitary forces] were backed and supported by powerful local interests," including ranchers and industrialists, Mackay told Al Jazeera. "The question is still murky in Mexico," he said - noting that accurate information on the Mata Zetas is impossible to attain.
Other analysts think paramilitarisation in Veracruz might just be a ruse. "It is too early to tell what is happening with mata Zetas," Carpenter told Al Jazeera. They could be vigilantes, or they could be muscle for an opposing cartel trying to roust the Zetas from their stronghold, he said.
Beginning in September, the mata Zetas, also known as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, formed a partnership with the Gulf cartel, La Resistencia and the Sinaloa cartel to take on the Zetas, Proceso magazine reported.
"As far as I know, the mata Zetas are hired guns fighting for the highest bidder," George Grayson, a drug war expert at the College of William and Mary, told Al Jazeera. "It seems like El Chapo [Joaquin Guzman, the billionaire leader of the Sinaloa cartel], is the highest bidder."
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, Guzman - who has a $5m bounty on his head from the US government - is now the world's most wanted fugitive, according to Forbes magazine.
Broader cartel objectives
The acquisition of money, of course, is the basic rationale for drug dealing and the violence that comes with it. But intense turf wars, headless bodies on the streets and public anger usually aren't great for business. Carpenter thinks there is something more sinister developing than just the hustle for illicit wealth.
"There are early indications of cartels trying to seek territorial control for broader purposes, not just maximising profits," Carpenter said. "The Sinaloa cartel is building community centres - in terms of raw profit seeking, it is an interesting activity. The Zetas , whose leaders received US Special Forces training in Fort Bragg, look to me like they have a shadow military agenda."
Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's public safety secretary, has compared media appearances and public violence from cartels and vigilantes to methods used by al-Qaeda.
But most drug analysts see greater parallels with Colombia, during the heady, cocaine-fuelled crime wave inspired by Pablo Escobar - rather than the Middle East.
Colombian authorities, with backing from right-wing paramilitary groups funded by landowners and business elites, eventually smashed Escobar's Medellin cartel and its rival Cali cartel in the 1990s, fragmenting Colombia's drug trade and allowing Mexican gangs to become the dominant suppliers to the US.
"The change didn’t occur in Colombia until the cartels started using terrorism," Grayson said. "Once they began bombing shopping centres and movie theatres, the elite began to realise they had a stake in fighting organised crime. That may have occurred in Monterrey or Matamoros, but it really hasn’t occurred in [much of elite] Mexico."
Monterrey, Mexico's commercial capital and wealthiest city, has seen a rash of recent violence, including an attack by gunmen at a casino which killed more than 50 people in August.
Gang takes 'justice' into own hands
Unlike other parts of Mexico, traditional paramilitaries funded by the elite have been operating in Monterrey. Mauricio Fernandez Gomez, mayor of a wealthy Monterrey suburb, who is "as rich as he is eccentric" according to Grayson, reportedly had his own private hit squad, to keep the peace in his area.
"After a tape recording of him [Gomez] talking to the Beltran-Levy cartel came out, he won the election anyway, because people want tough leaders," Grayson said.
The emergence of the mata Zetas and similar organisations has not been confined to Monterrey. "Two cartels [have] already displayed something in terms of a vague ideological agenda," Carpenter said. Before its fragmentation, La Familia in Michoacán espoused a "quasi-religious element ... and a strident populism against the Catholic establishment and oligarchs in Mexico City", he said.
That cartel claimed to protect average people from other gangsters, but began fracturing in 2006 and even offered to disband in 2009 and 2010 if the Mexican government offered them protection.
In June, police arrested the alleged leader of La Familia, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas - also known as "El Chango" or "The Monkey". The Knights Templar, former Famila members, are still at large and have formed a separate, politically minded gang.
"To the society of Michoacán we inform you that from today we will be working here on the altruistic activities that were previously performed by the Familia," the Knights Templar announced via banner advertisements in March.
"Our commitment to society will be: to safeguard order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, extortion; and to shield the state from possible rival intrusions," the banners said. The irony, of course, is that these actions present a direct challenge to public order.
To defend themselves, some elites are - in isolated cases - following Gomez’s example and making deals with cartels. This, however, seems to be rare. Most corporate or political honchos simply hire private security. "Any corporation of any size is going to have its own security force," Grayson said. "I don't see them taking the offensive."
But this too could change. As the military spawned the Zetas, it is possible that private security companies could morph into formalised paramilitaries, working for the same wealthy individuals who hired them in uniform, but with the ability to kill as they see fit. There is, however, no serious evidence of this happening so far. Like everything involving drug violence, the situation is murky.
Corruption blurs lines between security forces and cartels. Personal vendettas and business deals muddy links between paramilitaries and gangs. Politicians and narco-bosses often live in the same neighbourhoods and, in some cases, share the same security.
The drug war and debates on the rise of paramilitaries "is like the question of Republic versus Empire in US foreign policy," Carpenter said. "When do you cross that line? It isn't clear."
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