State Department looking for U.S.-trained Zetas in all the wrong places

Leaked cable exposes diplomatic sleight of hand


A 2009 State Department cable made public recently by the nonprofit WikiLeaks media organization appears to be an effort by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to do some deceptive damage control on the drug-war front.

The cable, drafted in August 2009, takes aim at what it describes as “conspiracy theorists” and “critics of U.S. military training” who contend that some members of the Los Zetas (a violent paramilitary group that has become a major player in the narco-trafficking business in Mexico) “once received U.S.-funded special-forces training.”

From the State Department cable:

Rumors have long circulated suggesting that U.S.-trained members of the Mexican military have become ZETAS.

… The Embassy conducted an extensive cross-check of our database of Mexican military officials who participated in U.S.-funded training programs [some 5,000 Mexican military personnel] against lists of known members of Los ZETAS. The comparison of databases did not produce any hits.

There is a major flaw in the State Department cable’s straw-man argument, however. The Zetas, according to a DEA Powerpoint presentation leaked to Narco News some time ago, trace their roots to a core group of former Guatemalan special forces soldiers known as Los Kaibiles — named after Kaibil Balam, a Mayan ruler who was never captured by the Spanish conquistadores.

The Kaibiles, recruited originally by the Gulf narco-trafficking organization, in turn, trained the future Zetas in paramilitary tactics. Many of these Zeta recruits were, and are, former Mexican law enforcers and soldiers as well as civilians who demonstrate an aptitude for the job.

So it would seem logical that any exhaustive search for Zetas with prior U.S. training would have to include a review of the State Department’s Guatemalan databases – which, based on the leaked cable, was not conducted.

Among the leadership of the Zetas are some former Mexican special forces soldiers, including the presumed No. 1 Zeta leader now, Heriberto Lazcano-Lazcano, aka “El Verdugo” (the Executioner) — who was part of Mexico’s GAFE special ops unit in the 1990s, prior to being recruited by the “Gulf Cartel,” according to the DEA Powerpoint.

The State Department cable released by WikiLeaks does concede that at least one former U.S.-trained GAFE member, Rogelio Lopez Villafanawas “forcibly” recruited by the Zetas and implicated in a January 2008 assassination plot against former Mexican Deputy Attorney General Jose Luis Vasconceles — who ultimately died in November 2008 in a plane crash in Mexico City, along with Mexican Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño.

However, the GAFE influence in the Zetas, though present, is far from dominant in terms of the number and range of recruits. One former high-ranking DEA source, who spoke with Narco News in 2005, when the Zetas were just beginning to command the media’s attention, spells out that reality.

From a Narco News story published May 28, 2005:

A former DEA official who worked extensively south of the border during his career explains:

“A lot of the Zetas came from former Mexican police officers or the military, and some are even students from universities in Texas that work part time with the Zetas to provide security. So they come from a diverse background. Some of them have prior training from the DEA, FBI and the U.S. military, as well as other agencies. We go to great lengths to assure they are not engaged in criminal activity before training them, but later on they can be lured into drug business by the money. It happens … And they (the Zetas) are very organized and have recruiters, who are out constantly bringing in new people and training them.”

Given that the leaked State Department cable makes no mention of conducting a search utilizing a list of Mexican law enforcers who have received U.S. training — by DEA or FBI or other agencies —it makes perfect sense that, as the cable states, “the comparison of databases [that were used] did not produce any hits.”

The State Department cable also concedes that its database of known Zetas is incomplete, so that it cannot rule out the possibility that some former Mexican military personnel who did receive U.S. training later joined the Zetas.

“Since we cannot know the name of every Mexican soldier who has joined Los ZETAS, we cannot irrefutably reject this possibility,” the cable states.

CNN reported in early 2009 that “during the past six years, some 150,000 [Mexican] soldiers have deserted.” In late 2008, Narco News reported, based on the leaked DEA Powerpoint presentation, the following:

Between Jan 2000-Dec 2006: More than 163,000 [Mexican] military members were criminally processed during former president Vicente Fox’s 6 years term of office. The majority of the crimes were: [the list includes abuse of power, homicide, embezzlement, kidnapping, bank robbery, illegal possession of firearms and health crimes (essentially organized crime)].

So, it seems clear that the Zetas have quite a rich recruiting pool to draw from in terms of the Mexican military — and the Mexican government in general.

How many of those soldiers individually received training from the U.S. is open to debate, but the odds seem to favor at least more than the one conceded by the leaked State Department cable.

In any event, the hundreds of millions of dollars in Merida Initiative funding and other assistance, including training, provided to the Mexican government in recent years to fight the so-called drug war certainly doesn’t seem to be stemming the tide of military and law-enforcement desertions and corruption in that nation — where a soldier's or law enforcer’s pay is a mere fraction of the money that can be earned in the drug business.

Journalist Charles Bowden penned a stunning report last year in Harper’s magazine about a narco-assassin, or sicario, who also worked as a Mexican state police commander. His report makes clear that U.S. training, even if well intentioned, is, in many cases, helping to hone the craft of professional killers in Mexico’s bloody drug war.

From Bowden’s story in Harper’s [which also has been made into a film, called el sicario Room 164, a must-see for those seeking the truth of the drug war]:

“I [the sicario, or hit man] was sent to the FBI school in the United States and taught how to detect drugs, guns, and stolen vehicles. The training was very good.”

After graduation, no one in the various [police] departments really wanted him because he was too young, but U.S. law enforcement insisted he be given a command position. And so he was.

“I commanded eight people,” he [the sicario] continues. “Two were honest and good. The other six were into drugs and kidnapping.”

Two units of the State Police in Juárez specialized in kidnapping, and his was one such unit. …

Another of those State Police units was headed, for a time, by a Mexican cop named Miguel Loya Gallegos, who carried out a number of the murders in the infamous House of Death case in Juárez — murders that were executed with the help of a U.S. government informant who is now in hiding in the U.S.

So be advised kind readers, take all State Department cables, leaked or not, with a grain of salt. And accept that our diplomats, particularly in matters related to the drug war, often speak with forked tongues – with the goal of assuring the facts are contorted to conform with U.S. policies.

Stay tuned ... 

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