MEXICO CITY – Earlier this month, Dwight Dyer and I published an article with Foreign Affairs that examined the efficacy of Los Zetas’ business model and noted the extent to which other criminal organizations in the hemisphere have begun to copy the gang’s ruthless tactics. The article ends with a reference to the gang’s expansion south from Mexico into much of Central America and cautions governments throughout the region about the threats of such an expansion. In fact, the Zetas’ role in Central America is itself a story—one that highlights the efficacy of the Zetas’ tactics and the impact of the gang’s presence.
Los Zetas’ presence in Central America dates back as far as 2008 when the group relied on remote areas of northern Guatemala to store weapons and narcotics. However, in recent years the group’s presence in the region has grown substantially in terms of geography, sophistication and objectives. A range of factors fuelled the expansion; perhaps none as dramatically as Mexico’s military-led cartel offensive. The National Security Strategy, as it was known, was implemented by the administration of former President Felipe Calderón and had the effect of pushing of traffickers, including Los Zetas, southward into Central America. After Calderón came to power in 2006, it became more hazardous for traffickers to transport narcotics from South America directly to Mexico, and an increasing share of the flow began to transit through Central America. Patterns in cocaine seizures illustrate this trend. According to the UNODC, between 2000 and 2005, the amount of cocaine seized in Central America was approximately the same as the amount confiscated in Mexico. By 2011, cocaine seized in Central America was 13 times greater than in Mexico.
Los Zetas saw in Central America the opportunity to gain more control over the whole drug transshipment process. By growing its presence outside of Mexico the group would be able to cut out middle-men and gain control over a trafficking corridor that links existing routes in Mexico to the source in South America. In the eyes of Los Zetas, Central America was particularly amenable to such an objective; porous land and maritime borders and favorable terrain make trafficking significantly easier than in Mexico. Weak internal institutions and the states’ limited ability to exercise full territorial control make northern Central America particularly susceptible, as do the limited rule of law and frequent political instability. A 2009 military coup d’état against former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya provided the perfect window of opportunity for cocaine traffickers.
Impact on Security
Los Zetas’ growing presence in Central America, as well as the region’s increased importance as a drug transshipment route more broadly, have severely degraded the security environment. The greatest problems are in northern Central America, which, according to official statistics, is now the most violent sub-region in the world. Honduras in 2012 had a murder rate of 85 per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice its rate of 35 in 2005. In Belize, the homicide rate in 2012 was 44 versus 29 in 2005 – a 52% increase. By comparison, the murder rate in the US in 2012 was 4.8 per 100,000.
Much of the violence stems from disputes between drug transportistas operating on behalf of Los Zetas and its main rival – Mexico’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization – the Sinaloa Cartel, which has a long-established control over trafficking routes in Central America. The transportistas are Central American groups that physically ship narcotics on behalf of either cartel. Unsurprisingly, the highest levels of violence have been recorded in areas with disputed trafficking routes. These include areas along the Guatemala-Honduras border, as well as the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras where murder rates near 130 per 100,000. The transportistas are often paid in narcotics, which fosters even greater local violence as low-level gangs compete to serve this larger domestic consumption market.
Disputes between transportistas acting on behalf of Los Zetas and rival groups have the potential to blossom into a full-blown proxy conflict. Such a conflict would mirror the long-standing and well-documented conflict between the two groups that exists in Mexico.
Guatemala has so far proven largely exempt from the violence. Despite having the largest permanent presence of Los Zetas operatives – several hundred according to most sources – the country’s murder rate has remained relatively stable, if high, in recent years. The main factor behind this is that Los Zetas’ main local ally, the Lorenzanas, and the Sinaloa Cartel’s ally, the Mendozas, mostly operate in distinct areas of the country. There is no guarantee this will continue to be the case. Many factors can cause trafficking routes to change shape and direction, resulting in more direct competition and greater levels of violence.
Relationships with Central American Street Gangs
In recent months, the US government and others international observers have been alarmed by Los Zetas’ relationship with youth street gangs (maras) in Central America. The roughly 55,000 maras in the region have long been a major source of violent crime. Territorial disputes between the rival MS-13 and Mara18 groups have fuelled violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in particular.
Accounts of Los Zetas’ relationship with the maras, particularly claims that the cartel has merged with MS-13, seem overblown. A merger is unlikely for three reasons. First, Los Zetas likely views the gang as too volatile and unreliable. Gang members lack organization, discipline and training; there have even been cases in Guatemala of maras being killed by drug cartels, often under suspicion of stealing narcotics. Second, maras’ loyalty is to their gang first and foremost, and not Los Zetas. Third, the maras lack of anonymity is likely viewed as a disadvantage by Los Zetas – they are visible, obvious, and frequently the easiest target for security officials.
However, the relationship should not be disregarded, and a loose alliance clearly exists between MS-13 and Los Zetas. MS-13 has in Central America what Los Zetas lacks: numbers. A relationship with MS-13 gives Los Zetas greater reach in the region, even if the gang is only reliable as low-level enforcers and protection for narcotics shipments. For the maras, long-restricted to low-level extortions and robberies, this offers a lucrative source of new revenue. Nevertheless, the fact that both Los Zetas and MS-13 have decentralized operating structures means that alliances are never made at the highest levels. Rather, they are formed by individual Los Zetas cells and MS-13 cliques. This means that alliances are likely to remain localized and limited in nature. It also ensures that agreements between the two groups are fluid, changing as members gain or lose prominence, become engaged in personal conflicts, or get a better offer that promises more profit or power.