Mexico’s feared band of hired guns takes a hit
Luis Reyes Enriquez was lying on the bed of a $13-per-night hotel room in a provincial town when federal troops came for him. Reyes, a leader in Mexico City of the infamous band of hit men known as the Zetas, was caught off guard: He was hung over from a wedding party the night before.
The arrest of the man also known as “Zeta 12” and “El Rex” was the latest in a series of blows in recent weeks to the Zetas, an organization born in the late 1990s when the Gulf cartel of drug traffickers began recruiting Mexican army deserters.
Reyes, 39, was an army deserter, as well as a former federal police officer who had once been assigned to work in the attorney general’s office. As a well-trained gunman with an official pedigree, he was precisely the kind of man who helped build the Zetas’ reputation as a paramilitary army at the service of drug traffickers.
Since taking office in December, President Felipe Calderon has declared an aggressive war on drugs and deployed thousands of federal troops throughout several Mexican states.
During the first seven months of his administration, authorities have arrested five Zeta leaders. A sixth Zeta was killed in an ambush with rivals. And the group’s leader and founder, Osiel Cardenas, has been extradited to face drug-trafficking charges in the United States.
Three years ago, the Mexican attorney general’s office had 44 members of the Zetas on its most-wanted list. As of May, with a growing number of Zetas in prison or dead in gun battles with authorities and rival traffickers, the number had declined to 27.
Analysts say Calderon’s crackdown, along with a split in the Gulf cartel that is pitting old partners in crime against each other, is leading the Zetas to seek new avenues of income, such as kidnapping and extortion.
“There has been a clear effect on the Mexican drug market, which in turn has reduced the cash flow of these criminal groups and forced them to diversify their activities,” said Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Ibero-American University here. “All of a sudden they’re kidnapping businessmen. That’s when they put themselves more at risk of getting caught.”
A kidnapping scheme led to the arrest this year of Nabor Vargas, also a Zeta member.
Vargas, alias “El Debora,” was captured in April when federal agents stormed a house in Ciudad del Carmen in the Gulf state of Campeche, looking for kidnapping victims and weapons. After a brief standoff, authorities rescued a prominent local businessman and arrested 19 people.
To the surprise of authorities, the kidnappers were being led by El Debora, one of the most-wanted criminals in Mexico and one of the first soldiers to desert and join the Zetas.
Vargas “was one of the founders of the Zetas and one of the few active members who was personally recruited by Osiel Cardenas,” columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote in the newspaper El Universal. For Vargas to be engaged in a kidnapping scheme illustrated a tremendous fall from power, Riva Palacio said.
It was an anonymous call that alerted police to the presence of Reyes in Atotonilco, a town in Hidalgo state, according to news reports. El Rex had attended a friend’s wedding, and his heavily armed crew attracted the attention of residents.
In the early hours of June 24, after a night of partying, he headed to La Fuente Hotel to rest, unaware that he was under surveillance by dozens of soldiers and federal agents. He was arrested without incident. When authorities presented him to the media the next day in Mexico City, he was still dressed in a khaki suit and white dress shirt.
Not all arrests of Zetas are the result of the federal crackdown. Some are simply slip-ups by criminals known for their impulsive and reckless behavior.
Such was the case of Jose Ramon Davila Lopez, alias “El Cholo,” who was arrested in February in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
According to the newspaper Reforma, El Cholo was cruising through the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, with his girlfriend when he caught a passerby staring at them. For a man considered one of Mexico’s most dangerous criminals, this was apparently a grave insult.
El Cholo threw his car into reverse and called out: “What are you looking at?” A few seconds later he pulled a gun and opened fire, narrowly missing the man who had offended him.
The gunfire attracted local police. After a brief shootout, El Cholo was taken in. It took authorities six days to identify him as one of the Zetas.
Although it remains unclear how much power the Zetas still have, U.S. officials say the Mexican government is making important progress in many of the states where it has deployed troops to fight the drug trade.
“By going to places like Michoacan, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Tabasco and Veracruz, you’re able to knock many of these cells off their base of operations and circles of protection,” said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be named. Mexican authorities are beginning to penetrate the “command-and-control structure” of several trafficking organizations, the official said.
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report.
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