2:16 p.m. October 30, 2012

Fear, senseless violence and shitty drugs

Hola. My name is Pancho Montana and I’m writing from deep inside Mexico. Pancho Montana’s not my real name. And I'm not a “real journalist,” because that would be a real stupid profession for me to be in here in Mexico, tops in the world when it comes to murdered journalists. And journalists don’t die quickly here either—they die in a variety of nasty (and incredibly creative) ways.

So yeah, my native country is not a fun place to be a reporter. As for the name “Pancho Montana,” that’s something I chose some time ago when, out of the blue, I started writing an irregular “Narco War” column for The eXiled Online, issuing reports from the front lines of the Mexican narco-war, from my home state of Nuevo León.

Back when I sent my first narco-war dispatch — in 2008 I think it was — the American media didn’t really give a shit about the narco-war in Mexico. To them, it was just a bunch of savage beaners icing each other. So I thought that I should get the story out — and what interested me the most wasn’t so much a kind of “holy shit, you have to hear this!” compulsion to get the story out; the truth is, I was really curious about what looked to me like a new type of 21st century conflict: a civil war with non-state actors, and I wanted to share that curiosity with others who might find it interesting. And yeah, mostly I wanted to score some bragging rights with you Scarface-obsessed gringos, showing you that Mexico was a giant death-match zone packed with thousands of bloodthirsty Tony Montanas, armed with way more firepower and shitloads more drugs than that Cubano cockaroach ever had — literally thousands of tons of whatever your druggie sweet-tooth fancies: from weed to coke, to heroin and ecstasy, and even piles of crystal meth for the redneck demographic.

Mexico became the numero uno drug supermarket, and that made for very fun years for your humble Mexico correspondent. But I was also interested in the mechanics of it all: The way a particular organization, Los Zetas, operated. Los Zetas were a pretty innovative group when they rose to prominence. Before the Zetas, every narco operated like the Sinaloans of old, by bribing the right authorities to make sure their merchandise got through to its destination, all of it very behind the scenes and out of the public view.

The Zetas’ Model went way beyond the methods of the old drug cowboys: For the Zetas, it was all about territorial control.

To understand why the Zetas operated this way you have to go back to their origins: The original forty Zetas (or the original 20, depending on how early you want to go) were elite soldiers who defected to the dark side. Nothing special, right? That shit happens sometimes, but what made these special forces soldiers truly special was that they were GAFEs, super-elite paratroopers, most of whom received, shall we say, very special training from American, Israeli and French military advisors, who trained them up into plane-jumping Mossad-like killers.

Their skill-set included expertise on demolitions, communications, psyops, and irregular warfare. Those are not skills you want criminals to be trained up in.

Forty may not seem like a lot of Special Forces guys to start a big narco-war army with. At first, they were used for bodyguard detail—nothing unusual for the narcoworld’s forces. But it turns out having 40 Special Forces guys doing bodyguard work can turn into something much bigger.

It was when they started expanding their business operations that the Zetas really flexed their military muscle. Pretty soon they clashed with the Sinaloa Cartel, and that set off the really epic rivalry between the Chapos (after the nickname “El Chapo” of the kingpin heading the Sinaloa Cartel) and the Zetas. In the early part of that war, the Chapos were led by Edgar “La Barbie” Villareal, and the Zetas by Heriberto Lazcano, or “Z-3”.

The Chapos and the Zetas were fighting for plazas all over the country. (“La Plaza” is narco slang meaning “cities important to narco-traffic.” That’s why you sometimes hear about narcos “battling for the plazas” — it means they’re fighting for cities or towns, transit and distribution routes that are key to the control of narcotics flows, all the way up the US border.)

It was because of another bloody war going on over “las plazas” between the Sinaloa Cartel and another narco-alliance known as the Gulf Cartels that Las Zetas were able to expand their ranks. They even started recruiting moles inside the Mexican police forces: Municipal cops (patrolmen), Ministerial Agents (Detectives), and SWAT or other special police units.

Over time, the Zetas created an impressive protection network, buying their own cops on the one hand, and using halcones on the other (halcones means narco-informants who relay information on rival narco-gangs or the Mexican authorities). They had their own 24-hour real-time human intelligence network, the kind of thing a CIA spook would wet his cammo fatigues for in Tehran. That US-Israeli training really paid off...

The Zetas’ logic was that to control a plaza you should control its greater territory. And that meant corrupting the authorities through bribes or intimidation: the famous “plata o plomo” or “silver or lead” — meaning that the Zetas gave said official the choice of getting a sack full of money for looking the other way (and/or protecting the interests of the gang)... or he could take a lead bullet instead. When the Sinaloans did it, it really was pretty much a strict silver or lead choice. But the Zetas went much further than that: If said official refused the “silver,” the Zetas would delight in kidnapping and torturing him for fun, videotaping the snuff, and finally dissolving the poor bastard’s carcass in an oil drum full of acid.

And that was the secret to the success of the Zetas’ territorial expansion strategy, and how they got so powerful and so much control: Fear.

Nowadays people in Mexico associate the Zetas with fear, senseless violence and shitty drugs. I myself also trashed the quality of the Zetas' drugs in my older exiled columns, but just to sum it up for you NSFWCORP folks interested in drugs, here’s why the Zetas’ drugs sucked so badly: They were expensive, low-quality, stepped on, and their dealers always gypped you on quantity. But hey, what are you going to do when you buy their shit drugs? Complain to Las Zetas’ Customer Service operators?

No, you just deal with it and take whatever they sell you. But if you’re like me and you your tastes are more refined and you can't settle for shitty drugs, then you had to find other means of scoring. But that meant finding a reliable dealer in a plaza controlled by the Zetas—not for the feint of heart.

In a place like Monterrey was when I was still there, scoring non-Zetas drugs was pretty much like playing Russian roulette. That’s cuz the Zetas’ punishment for anyone who didn't buy their drugs was death. So If by chance you were pulled over by local municipal cops and they found some drugs on you, they would take you away — not to the police station, but straight to the Zetas, who would first beat you up, then torture you until you gave them the name of your dealer... and then either they’d kill you, or they'd have you sent straight to jail, no paperwork, no bullshit about your rights. They didn't need paperwork. They controlled the state prisons too — still do, in fact.

Their strategy of control within their territory/plaza went beyond just drugs, covering a whole range of potential revenue streams: They’d control that city’s underworld action, the piracy trade, extortion, homicide, car theft, immigrant traffic, as well as the key business, drugs. If it was illegal, the Zetas were on it like white on blow. That way, not only did the Zetas earn more money, but they also knew every criminal in town, which fed into their intelligence network; and they kept all the criminal elements in check. It was also good for recruitment: most common criminals started to fill the Zetas’ ranks, working as halcones, killers and more.

So the Zetas’ trajectory took them beyond that of just a regular drug cartel: they went from bodyguard detail, to armed wing of a cartel, to Crime Org, and then finally to Crime Inc. A criminal organization that masterminded and controlled every criminal transaction in a city.

This is not the kind of thing you want to see becoming popular in your country or anywhere else, so the rest of you better hope your local criminals don’t get wind of the Zetas' business model on how to control a city.

But like it or not, the Zetas Way is the future: Mobile, independent cells, with firepower to spare and a highly effective intelligence network. Completely decentralized. And deadly as fuck.