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Mexico's Drug War: Los Zetas Lose Their Leader and Community Police Proliferate

Editor's Note: This Security Weekly assesses the most significant cartel-related developments of the second quarter of 2013 and provides Cartels 2013-Sinaloa-Zeta-edited blog main horizontalupdated profiles of Mexico's powerful criminal cartels, as well as a forecast for the rest of this year. It's the executive summary of a more detailed report available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service.

Mexican authorities arrested Los Zetas' top leader, Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, roughly 27 kilometers (17 miles) southwest of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, on July 15. Trevino's is the most significant capture in Mexico's drug war in recent years. The fate of Los Zetas and the response of Los Zetas' rivals has accordingly become uncertain moving into the third quarter. Indicators will emerge during the third quarter providing clarity on what to expect for security and cartel operations throughout Mexico.

Beyond the Trevino arrest, the second quarter also saw continued expansion of community-organized militias, commonly referred to as self-defense groups or community police, a trend we identified in the 2013 first quarter update. In Michoacan state, militia activity was so pronounced that Mexico City deployed the military and federal police to reassert government authority. The proliferation of these groups increasingly affects not just the Mexican government's strategy for combatting crime and violence, but also the strategies of Mexico's transnational criminal organizations.

Los Zetas

It is too early to gauge the extent to which Trevino's arrest will impact Los Zetas' operations. Whether a Los Zetas member is capable of filling the leadership vacuum will determine the impact. In the meantime, each of Los Zetas' rivals will likely revise their current strategies in fighting Los Zetas depending on their respective geographic reach and perceptions of Los Zetas' moment of weakness in the wake of the loss of their leader.

One reason behind Los Zetas' success has been the group's ability to replace its leadership, even its most senior leaders, relatively easily. Trevino himself succeeded former leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano sometime during 2012 -- albeit prior to Lazcano's death during a military operation in October 2012 -- without any noticeable internal strife, a rare occurrence among Mexican criminal groups.

This ability stems from founders' military pedigree. Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy based on merit rather than familial connections. Unlike his predecessor, Trevino did not have a military background, so it is possible that the group's culture has changed somewhat, dulling its facility for smooth leadership transitions.

It is unclear who will try to keep the group together. Trevino's brother, Omar "Z-42" Trevino, will likely continue to maintain his role in criminal operations. His position was significantly boosted by his brother's ascent to the top spot, but it remains to be seen whether he has the capability or respect within the organization to replace his brother.

Violence will likely follow Trevino's capture in some parts of Mexico. The location and the scale of that violence depends on how resilient Los Zetas and its component cells are as rivals move to capitalize on what they see as a moment weakness.

Another potential impact of the arrest of Trevino will fall on Los Zetas' national strategy. The group has boasted cohesive network spanning more than half of Mexico, from which it has planned assaults on the territories of rivals such as the Sinaloa Federation. This was on display in Sinaloa state via a strategy that depended on coordination with the remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization, which maintain a substantial presence in Sinaloa, and on Los Zetas' ability to stage gunmen and operations outside Sinaloa state. If Los Zetas cannot maintain the same level of cohesion as a whole, such strategies may dissolve.

In the third quarter, several indicators will reveal the impact Trevino's has on Mexican security and on Los Zetas' continued viability. These include shifts in violence within Zetas territories such as Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Coahuila, Veracruz, Hidalgo and Tabasco states. Another indicator likely to emerge during the third quarter will be information operations campaigns by Los Zetas' rivals. While cartel propaganda, most commonly seen in narcomantas, is often disinformation, the messages' topics often demonstrate the priorities of the cartel behind the narcomanta.

'Community Police'

Vigilantism and non-government militias have long been seen throughout Mexico. The phenomenon of community police goes back at least to 1995, by which time an institutionalized collective of militias, the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities, had a well established presence in parts of Guerrero state. Self-defense groups began to expand into communities throughout Guerrero and Michoacan states in early 2013, a year that has seen the role of community police in Mexico's domestic security issues expand rapidly.

In Michoacan, the militias appear to form within the confines of distinct communities. The groups remain largely disconnected, though they share the goal of confronting organized crime organizations and, at times, of countering government interests. In Guerrero, the presence of self-defense groups is much greater given their longer history there and given that state laws grant special recognition to them, particularly to those in indigenous communities.

Two separate and sometimes conflicting bodies coordinate self-defense group operations in Guerrero state: the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero state and the Regional Coordinator of Community Authority. These groups, which call themselves community police, follow their own procedures for administering justice in their areas of operations and engage in talks with the state government. Regardless of the institutional system, both groups have been actively expanding their reach in Guerrero state through promoting the establishment of community police in new locales. This expansion has brought intermittent moments of tension with the state and federal governments due to the demonstrations and roadblocks that have accompanied it, as well as because of the increasing interactions between community police and organized crime during the second quarter of 2013.

As the Regional Coordinator of Community Authority and the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero state community police have historically operated with limited funding, their members have largely served as volunteers armed primarily with hunting rifles and shotguns.

By contrast, the recently formed self-defense groups in Michoacan reportedly are equipped with assault rifles, tactical gear and sport utility vehicles. Self-defense groups in Michoacan also have targeted organized criminal groups -- specifically the Knights Templar, which apparently has inflicted the most harm on the people of Michoacan -- much more actively. Groups in the Buenavista Tomatlan, Tepalcatepec and Coalcoman municipalities of Michoacan state were founded during the first and second quarters of 2013 to confront the Knights Templar, which have dominated regional criminal activity since its split from La Familia Michoacana in 2010. In response, the Knights Templar disseminated propaganda denouncing Michoacan's self-defense groups and has violently attacked them. This forced the Mexican government to deploy federal security forces, including Federal Police and the military, in May to quell the rising violence and reassert government authority in the affected communities. The troops are currently maintaining an increased operational tempo in Michoacan state and likely will continue to do so through the next quarter.

Community police groups reflect the social consequences of prolonged violence and Mexico City's inability to enforce the rule of law in rural regions that historically are difficult to govern. In most cases, residents in communities with active self-defense groups rely primarily on those groups to maintain public order, undermining Mexican government authority. This has lead to tensions between the communities and government authorities. Sometimes, these tensions spark demonstrations and even low-level violence, occasionally blocking important transportation routes along southwest coastal highways and interior roads throughout Michoacan and Guerrero states. Such blockades can last several days, with the self-defense groups ultimately winding up in negotiations with federal troops and multiple levels of government.

The expansion of self-defense groups also has led to increased conflict between them and Mexican cartels, particularly the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar. Michoacan's self-defense groups emerged amid a turf war between these two cartels. Notably, the self-defense groups have formed along roads connecting Jalisco and Michoacan. These are the same roads through which the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Knights Templar stage incursions into one another's territories. Thus the self-defense groups have not only directly impacted Knights Templar's operations but also inadvertently aided the efforts of the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in its incursions into Michoacan state.

Self-defense groups would not be in a position to confront organized criminal groups without some level of financial and other material support. While self-defense groups in Guerrero have in the past operated on a modest budget with the help of the community and occasional support from the government, the possibility remains that they have new benefactors -- perhaps including organized criminal groups. In June, business leaders in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state, met with Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero state representatives in an attempt to strike a deal to jointly combat extortion, an increasing problem as violence worsens. Such agreements do not yet appear to include financial support, something that could elevate the tactical capabilities -- and further the geographic expansion -- of the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero.

Despite a stated intent to combat organized crime, self-defense groups could collude with organized criminal groups. Mexican military officers have made multiple accusations that self-defense groups in Michoacan state and self-defense groups emerging in July in the Costa Grande region of Guerrero state (unaffiliated with either the Regional Coordinator of Community Authority or the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero state) are linked to organized crime. Likewise, the Knights Templar has actively spread propaganda through narcomantas and online media alleging that their principal rival, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, is behind the expansion of self-defense groups. There have been no further reports of links between self-defense groups and organized crime, and Mexican authorities apparently have not followed up on such accusations.

As exemplified by the May deployment of federal troops to Michoacan, self-defense groups have added additional complexity to Mexico's security environment, forcing the federal government to adjust its strategy. The Mexican government wishes to contain the expansion of self-defense groups, since they pose a threat to governmental authority. Thus far, the current government strategy has been to substantially increase military and law enforcement presence in exchange for self-defense groups' limiting their activity. This strategy will only yield temporary results, however, until the violence carried out by organized crime groups can be stamped out.

Specifically in Michoacan and Guerrero states, self-defense groups will likely continue to expand into some rural communities during the third quarter. As a result of continued expansion, confrontations between self-defense groups and organized crime could increase. Should violence with organized crime continue to escalate or tension between self-defense groups and the Mexican government rise as result of the groups' continued expansion, additional federal troop deployments to either Michoacan or Guerrero states could occur during the third quarter.

In addition to consequences resulting from their expansion, self-defense groups will continue to impact the conflict between the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Knights Templar in Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero states. Since the fourth quarter of 2012, this conflict has become more active, with the groups mounting continued incursions into their rivals' strongholds in Jalisco and Michoacan states and violence occurring in Guerrero state. To more effectively combat the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, the Knights Templar aligned with a Gulf Cartel faction and Los Coroneles (a organized crime group derived from now-deceased Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villareal's network) to form Los Aliados. Thus far, Los Aliados have had little impact on the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion's hold over Jalisco. Due in part to the contest between self-defense groups and the Knights Templar in Michoacan state, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion has made inroads into Michoacan state, particularly in towns along highways linking Michoacan and Jalisco. The conflict between the two criminal organizations has increased violence, particularly in Jalisco and Michoacan states but also in Guerrero state.

"Mexico's Drug War: Los Zetas Lose Their Leader and Community Police Proliferate | Stratfor is republished with permission of Stratfor."

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