TAMAULIPAS- Officials south of the border confirmed on Tuesday that Mexican Marines had captured fugitive Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales- also known as "Z-40".
Even in a nation jaded by years of violence stemming from ongoing narco violence, Z-40 had earned a reputation for ferocity and depravity on both sides of the border. While not actually pulling the trigger, he is believed to have ordered the 2010 massacre of more than 70 Central American immigrants, a 2010 arson attack on a Monterrey casino that led to the deaths of 52 patrons, the death and disappearance of more than 200 people in Tamaulipas after gunmen abducted passengers off of intercity buses and a 2012 prison riot in Nuevo Leon that killed 44 and was used as cover for a jailbreak.
However, after years of aggressive incursions into territory controlled by the rival Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia Michoacána cartels, the Zetas began suffering a number of setbacks recently. In June 2012, a federal judge in Texas ordered the seizure of more than 400 racehorses stabled in New Mexico's Ruidoso Downs racetrack as part of a money-laundering investigation against Jose Treviño Moreals- Miguel's brother.
Around the same time, Mexican troops arrested the Zetas "piracy czar" in Nuevo Leon. Gregorio Villanueva Salas oversaw the lucrative video, music and software piracy arm of the Zetas and was said to be involved in a number of grenade attacks.
In October 2012, Mexican Marines shot and killed then-Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano outside a ballpark in Coahuila- although at the time the Mexican military initially thought they had simply encountered some low-level sicarrios. However, in a bizarre development a group of men broke into a funeral home and stole Lazcano's body the following day.
Despite the Zetas fearsome reputation, Treviño and two associates- a bodyguard and accountant- were apprehended without firing a shot. A Blackhawk helicopter from the Mexican Navy was used to cut off Z-40's escape route and after a brief foot chase in which he reportedly fell into heavy brush, he was captured.
The Zetas had originally started out as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel recruited from the ranks of the Mexican army or various police departments. However, after the 2003 arrest of Gulf Cartel capo Osiel Cardenas, the Zetas broke away from the Gulf cartel and usurped much of their territory, leaving the remnants of the Gulf Cartel a sliver of territory in Tamaulipas while they aggressively expanded into territory controlled by the Sinaloa and La Familia Michoacána (later the Knights Templar) cartels. Like other criminal organizations, the successfully managed to intimidate police, journalists and prosecutors into compliance with a high-profile campaign of arson and murders- often leaving the bodies of their victims mutilated and on display in public along with a warning written on a banner hung nearby.
However, the Zetas were able to separate themselves from others for random attacks on civilians not involved in the drug trade, forcibly conscripting illegal immigrants transiting through Mexico to become drug mules (or executing them if they refused), armed themselves with military grade weaponry from armories in Central America and even began recruiting members of the Guatemalan Army's elite Kabiles special operation unit as they expanded their operations in Central America.
MICHOACAN- The uprising in Guererro that has seen armed civilians in small villages oust public officials accused of co-operating with drug traffickers has spread to the mountainous state of Michoacán. Once home to the enigmatic and cult-like La Familia Michoacána cartel, the state had mostly fallen into the hands of the Knights Templar cartel- an offshoot of La Familia when much of their leadership was killed or arrested in late 2010.
Despite the apparent demise of La Familia, Michoacán remains prime real-estate for organized crime with arable land to grow export-grade marijuana and opium poppies as well as the port of Lazaro Cardenas, which can be used to import cocaine from South America or precursor chemicals for methamphetamine from Asia.
“The problem started when they began messing with the population: extortion, rapes, killings," Mayor Rafael Garcia, 42, says of the Knights Templar, the fancifully named cartel of thugs who control many of western Michoacan state's 113 counties. "We were terrified. We are still terrified.”Despite campaign promises to the contrary, the newly-sworn in government of Enrique Peña Nieto sent Mexican troops to intervene in the mountainous regions of Michoacán and Guererro. Some government officials have expressed concerns that rival cartels may be manipulating anti-government to oust the Knights Templar from some of the territory they hold.
“We are a very small town raising its voice,” he says. “Hopefully it will have an impact.”
Following the lead of two nearby counties, Coalcoman's people two weeks ago armed a makeshift militia with assault rifles and shotguns and drove the Templars out.
The gangsters responded by besieging the town from its outskirts. They set fire to trucks and cars trying to leave and attacked men working the forests and ranches.
Wielding a quasi-religious code of conduct and a cynical vow to defend communities against outsiders, the Templars are Michoacan's latest incarnation of a deeply rooted and politically protected criminal culture.
But this latest threat of impending slaughter proved a watershed, forcing President Enrique Peña Nieto to backtrack on vows to demilitarize Mexico's fight against its heavily armed and murder-minded gangsters.
He named an army general on May 16 to take control of Michoacan's public security and deployed as many as 6,000 soldiers to the state with orders to disarm the militias and force the Templars to retreat.
“I still don't understand how the government let this go on so long," Garcia says. "They didn't imagine the town would take up arms. The army is here because the people rose up."
Coalcoman joins a spreading movement across violence-plagued Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state, where towns and villages have formed volunteer “community police” to depose corrupt local police and draw a line in the dirt against the gangs.
Similar but more poorly armed militias formed in late February in the towns of Buenavista Tomatlan and Tepalcatepec, forcing the mayors of both towns to flee and sparked deadly clashes with the Templars.
"It's not possible to continue living this way," Michoacan's five Roman Catholic bishops declared in a call to action two weeks ago. "There is a permanent feeling of defenselessness and desperation. To that is added anger and fear because of the forced or voluntary complicity between authorities and organized crime."
Mexico's civil-war-like criminal violence began in Michoacan more than six years ago when then-President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to subdue La Familia Michoacana drug cartel.
The troops didn't stay long and the gangsters waited them out, returning stronger than ever. By one estimate, the Templars — who emerged several years ago as a breakaway faction of La Familia — now hold sway in nearly three-quarters of the state's counties.
The Knights Templar has become the state’s leading crime syndicate.
As long as they stuck with the drug trade the Templars were tolerated and even admired by many here. But in recent years the gang's local cells began heavily extorting communities and business people, reportedly raping women at will and killing on a whim.
Local officials and police either cooperated openly with the Templars or felt themselves powerless to oppose them. State and federal officials reacted sporadically, their operations often sparking open combat and gangsters blockading towns and cities.
Extortion fees were collected as taxes, just as formalized but far more hazardous to evade, the Coalcoman mayor and other residents say. The Templars took 10 percent of municipal budgets, and similar cuts from cattle, lumber and lime producers. They levied taxes on meat, tortillas and other groceries and charged “protection quotas” from anybody they came across.
Residents and companies refusing to pay face the Templars’ wrath.
Lumber yards, and fruit packing sheds and delivery trucks have been burned down, workers and citizens murdered. In April, gunmen twice attacked a convoy of lime growers and pickers who had traveled to complain to state officials about the extortion, killing 10 people.
For now the troops serve as peacekeepers, keeping Templars and militias separated but not really moving against either. The gangsters stay scarce, the militias keep their weapons out of sight but handy.
Most everyone expects the federal forces to pull out sooner rather than later. Then the troubles will begin anew.
"We are very aware that they can return at any time,” said the leader of unarmed militiamen manning the checkpoint on the highway entrance to Buenavista Tomatlan. “We know lives will be lost, but we are ready for that. The people don't want any more gangsters in this area."
The Templars and some federal officials have accused the militias of taking weapons and other support from a criminal cartel in neighboring Jalisco state, pointing to the assault weapons carried by many of the volunteers.
But Mayor Garcia in Coalcoman says local businessmen bought the weapons, though he won't say from whom.
"How are you going to fight these people, with slingshots?" Garcia asked in an interview Tuesday.
A sprawling county of just 10,000 souls, Coalcoman huddles near the Pacific coast in a valley surrounded by forested mountains a six-hour drive from Morelia, the state capital.
The area's independent-minded people work mines, cattle ranches and lumber mills. Coalcoman’s people long have had little use, or regard, for state and federal government.
Coalcoman earned a footnote in history for its fierce guerrilla resistance against occupying French soldiers in the mid-19th century.
A leftist guerrilla movement sprang up near here in the 1970s. Well-armed militias here again have set nerves on edge in Morelia and Mexico City.
“We are living this, we are fighting this in perhaps an old fashioned way," said rancher Misael Gonzalez, 48, a leader of Coalcoman's community police. "We are a grain of rice, but we are doing what we can."
Things are peaceful for now. Hundreds of soldiers and federal police man checkpoints on the highway leading to Coalcoman through Buenavista and Tepalcatepec. Armored troop convoys are about the only traffic on the road. Two propeller driven air force attack planes overflew the area last week in a show of force.
“Our fear is that days and months will pass and they will be here without finishing off the Templars," Mayor Garcia says of the troops.
“They haven't managed a single capture. We are not going to put down our arms. We are not going to drop our guard until this is resolved."
Meanwhile Garcia and his townspeople hunker down. The mayor says he sleeps in different houses every night, and doesn't dare leave town.
Should the Templars return, he says half jokingly, he might be forced to seek asylum in the United States. But Garcia stresses that he has few regrets about leading his town in confronting the gangsters.
"It's not about money any more. We were used to paying money,” he says of the Templars endemic extortion. “This is about honor and dignity.
“Either you serve God or you serve the Devil," Garcia says. "I am with the people.”
CHIHUAHUA- An ambulance carrying individuals wounded in a shootout was intercepted by gunmen in southern Chihuahua last week. The abductors reportedly abducted four men from paramedics at gunpoint and bundled them into a dark SUV before driving off.
The four patients, who had been wounded in a firefight pitting two groups of gunmen in the town of Guadalupe y Calvo, were being rushed to a hospital when they were forced off the ambulance Thursday night in the town of Parral and taken away in an SUV, Carlos González, spokesman for the Chihuahua state Attorney General's Office, told Efe.
TEXAS- A group of east Texas hunters setting up blinds for the upcoming deer season stumbled across more than 18,000 marijuana plants in rural Madison County this week.
Madison County Sheriff Travis Neeley says a group of hunters were setting up deer blinds when they discovered the plants on Friday. The sheriff's office eventually confiscated 18,400 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $9 million.While no arrests have been made, local police believe the operation has been in use for the past three or four years and was likely funded by one of the Mexican cartels.
Authorities say they also found 13 bags of fertilizer, 3,000 feet of irrigation piping and a generator. Neeley says hygiene products, tents and batteries were also found at a nearby campsite