Pubdate: Sat, 11 Oct 2003
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2003 Richmond Newspapers Inc.
Author: Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press
Bookmark: (Mexico)


Soldiers Join Drug Gang

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - Members of an elite Mexican army unit have
deserted and formed a drug gang, using their military training to launch a
violent battle for control of this border city, Mexico's top anti-drug
prosecutor said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The war for Nuevo Laredo is unlike other recent drug conflicts. It is a
turf war involving most of Mexico's major cartels in broad alliances not
seen in a decade. It has the Mexican army fighting an organized unit of
former comrades, and it has cost American lives.

"They are extremely violent, and they are very much feared in the region
because of the bloodshed they unleash," Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's
top anti-drug prosecutor, said.

The battles, which have taken 87 lives since 2002, have involved
unprecedented alliances among Mexico's drug cartels, according to Martin
Landa Herrera, the Nuevo Laredo police commander.

"I don't think anything like this has happened before in Mexico," he said.
"I have never heard of this many cartels fighting for one piece of territory."

Known as the Zetas or Zs, the new drug gang appears to have won control of
the city. It is led by former members of an elite paratroop and
intelligence battalion that was posted to the border state of Tamaulipas in
the 1990s to fight drug traffickers.

Vasconcelos said about 31 of the estimated 350 members of the Special Air
Mobile Force Group, posted to the border state of Tamaulipas in the 1990s,
had deserted and joined the drug turf war.

The Defense Department has refused to confirm any of its soldiers formed
the Zetas. But the army recently began posting wanted posters across the
country offering rewards for the deserters, some still pictured in army
uniforms. That led to speculation the soldiers were behind the Zetas.

The skirmishing began in 2001 as a dispute among local drug gangs that
operated with the permission of reputed Gulf drug cartel leader Osiel
Cardenas. By early 2002, the battle had heated up enough that the Zetas
appeared, working as hit men for Cardenas in a bid to restore order.

But Cardenas' arrest March 14 during a shootout in the nearby border city
of Matamoros opened the floodgates for a wider conflict. With Cardenas in
jail, cartels across Mexico - Michoacan, Ciudad Juarez, Sinaloa and
possibly Tijuana - sensed weakness and tried to move in on the territory.

Escaped Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman reportedly allied
himself with the Juarez cartel, sending in gunmen to take over Nuevo
Laredo. At the same time, another local trafficker tried to form an
alliance with the Valencia cartel, based in the western state of Michoacan.
And police even arrested a midlevel operator for the Tijuana-based Arellano
Felix cartel in Nuevo Laredo.

The Zetas have killed dozens of rival traffickers, trading shots from
passing sport utility vehicles on the streets of Nuevo Laredo. In one
attack, they engaged in a shootout just yards from where the city's mayor
was attending a flag-raising ceremony.

Nobody has to tell Houston resident Noe Villarreal how vicious the war has
become. On Sept. 27, a commando of at least 30 masked men carrying assault
rifles kidnapped his brother - Hayward, Calif., businessman Juan Villarreal
Garcia - from his Mexico home in Sabinas Hidalgo, a town south of Nuevo Laredo.

The gunmen had fanned out across the town in search of a rival. They killed
two police officers, kidnapped seven people, burst into Villarreal's home -
in a possible case of mistaken identity - and dragged the 78-year-old
tortilla-store owner away.

The other hostages were released soon afterward, but Villarreal remains
missing and is presumed dead. The area is so violent that nobody is sure
who kidnapped him or why.

"I don't know if it was the Zetas," said Noe Villarreal, "because the Zetas
have never released anyone alive. That's not their style."

It would not be the first time that Americans have died in the conflict.

A battle before dawn on Aug. 1 in Nuevo Laredo left at least three dead -
one of them a man from Laredo, Texas - and six wounded. Police and army
troops exchanged fire with cars believed to be carrying drug traffickers.

And in June 2001, Sylvia Solis and Juan Villagomez, a couple from Laredo,
Texas, were kidnapped by drug traffickers, although it is unclear why. She
was raped and strangled. He was beaten and buried alive.
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