The following was written by John Lindsay-Poland, research and advocacy director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in Oakland, California. John accompanied Olga Reyes in her recent visit to North Texas. This post originally appeared at forusa.org. Thanks for permission to repost, John!
In the grotesque wars that pit Mexican armed forces and drug cartels against each other and civilians who get in their way, the Zetas cartel plays a fearsome role. Born of US-trained Mexican special forces soldiers who began working as muscle for the Gulf Cartel (“Zeta” was their radio call name in the military), the Zetas rapidly expanded by employing methods aimed at terrorizing opponents and civilians alike: decapitations, public hangings, mutilations.
Although the otherwise dominant Sinaloa federation of drug cartels in Mexico is responsible for more than 80% of drug war murders, the Zetas’ exotic cruelty gets more media coverage. Last month, alleged Zeta men torched a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people inside, mostly older women, an act that Mexican President Felipe Calderon called a “terrorist act.” But a policeman and the brother of Monterrey’s mayor have also been implicated in the crime, one illustration of how Mexican police, soldiers and officials are often participants in the same organized crime politicians say they are fighting.
The Zetas’ gruesome challenge to the Sinaloa federation has earned them a place on the United States’ short list of criminal syndicates to be targeted around the globe, and as a central target in $1.5 billion of U.S. military aid to Mexico since 2008.
And the Zetas are expanding their operations. A recent report by Insight Crime details the Zetas’ move into Guatemala, and provides important understanding of the Zetas’ military and commercial logic. Their income comes not just from drug profits, but by taxing all licit and illicit commercial activity in the territory that they control. Those who don’t pay the Zetas’ “tax” face their terrible and certain wrath. The Zetas draw on their military training and access to high-powered weapons to enforce such territorial advances.
The Zetas have also recruited former members of Guatemala’s feared special forces, known as Kaibiles. The Kaibiles gained a reputation for cruelty during Guatemala’s attempted genocide in the 1980s. In July, four low-ranking Kaibiles were convicted for their part in the notorious Dos Erres massacre of 1982, in which the soldiers raped women raped, smashed babies’ skulls, and murdered 251 Mayan villagers. The Zetas apparently saw the Kaibiles methods as useful to their own expansion.
For more than two decades, U.S. assistance to the Guatemalan army was banned or severely limited because of such actions. Now, not only is the United States aiding the Guatemalan army, it is assisting the Kaibiles. The Army Corps of Engineers last year renovated barracks for the Kaibiles in Poptun, a remote town in northwestern Peten province that hosts the Kaibiles training facility, known as El Infierno, or “Hell.” In 2009, the Special Operations Command financed other construction on the base. U.S. Embassy officers who visited the Poptun base in October 2009 wrote glowing praise of the U.S. Special Forces living with together Kaibiles forces and their counter-drug operations. Last September, a squad of 40 U.S. Marines travelled to the Kaibiles base in Poptun to train soldiers there.
“The drug cartels are made up of Guatemalans who are guided by the cartels, such as the Zetas and the Gulf. Many of the low-ranking [cartel] officers were trained in the same military school that is located in Poptun, Peten,” a government official in the area told Global Post in June. Former Kaibil soldiers “follow orders, kill, use military strategies to persuade people,” the official said.
Now, according to Insight Crime, the Zetas have established a base in the same small jungle town where the U.S. military has been upgrading facilities and training soldiers from a unit linked to the Zetas.
What better demonstration is there of the drug war’s perverse logic? U.S. military training of poorly paid young men with few work options plays directly into the game of narcotraffickers. President Obama said last year that “I don’t think Mexican people want to live in a society where drug kingpins are considered to be some of the more powerful individuals in society.” He was speaking against proposals to de-escalate the war in Mexico, but he could justifiably have said the same about what the current drug war path has produced.
It is time to re-cast U.S. drug policy in Mexico and Guatemala, stop supporting killing methods that end up in service of traffickers, and instead promote a public health approach to drug abuse.