Mexico City, Mexico — A report by the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas, prepared with testimonies given in US courts, makes an overwhelming account of the history of the Zetas cartel, particularly in the state of Coahuila.
In the report, the Zetas protection network is described in detail. According to sworn testimonies collected, they had governors on the payroll. They had accomplices in each of the security forces. They had, in the descriptive title of the report, control over the entire state of Coahuila and activity in many others.
They had. They no longer have, at least not to the same extent. The Zetas as a national organization, with hierarchical structure, with identifiable leadership, with a centralized treasury, have ceased to exist. Many groups persist that identify themselves as zetas and act as zetas, but they are no longer the Zetas.
The decline of the cartel has been almost as spectacular as its rise. Some theories that have shed light onto the demise of the cartle include the level of extreme violence since extreme violence ended up becoming a liability.
The Zetas expanded to brutality. Fear was the letter of introduction and the method to capture criminal income. To maintain it, it was necessary to incur in excesses, in massacres, in unprecedented atrocities in the criminal underworld. But that trail of blood ended up generating too much attention and turning them into the main target of attention of the authorities and rival groups.
Others think accelerated expansion hindered internal cohesion. From being the armed wing of the Goflo Cartel, Los Zetas passed in a decade to be an independent organization, with national reach. For 2011, its peak year, had some type of presence or activity in 17 states of the country.
But that quick growth brought them face to face with a wall. The greater notoriety generated more external pressure, thus producing growing difficulties for the leadership to maintain command and control over the organization. Likewise, in a larger structure, internal discipline was probably relaxed and betrayal multiplied. This, in turn, may have exacerbated internal disputes.
Another theory is that the Zetas’ predatory nature ended up charging them the bill. They depended much more on rent extraction (theft, kidnapping, extortion) than the old drug cartels. That fact probably generated zero-sum games within the organization.
The rent captured by one of the leaders is income that’s lost to another. In contrast, it is possible that illicit traffic lends itself more to positive-sum games: everyone can win with the same shipment of drugs (one because it produces it and another because it smuggles it). In that sense, it is possible that trafficking organizations tend to be more stable than extractive organizations.
The Zetas ended up divided into many pieces. Despite their vast network of protection, all leaders of the first and second line of the organization ended up detained or killed which opened up an interesting possibility.
Perhaps there is a limit to the efficient size of an extractive criminal organization. After a certain threshold, a band may be unmanageable (at least in the Mexican context).
But that does not mean that the methods have gone away with the organization. Many groups continue to behave like Zetas, many continue to make extreme violence their brand. But, now, each of those sheaves practice brutality in more limited spaces, to draw less attention.