By ANGELES NEGRETE LARES
The Brownsville Herald
The Gulf Cartel boasts a rare weapon in the high stakes war for drug-trafficking supremacy: U.S.-trained soldiers.
The Zetas, hired assassins for the Gulf Cartel, feature 31 ex-soldiers once part of an elite division of the Mexican army the Special Air Mobile Force Group. At least one-third of this battalions deserters was trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., according to documents from the Mexican secretary of defense.
They have high-powered weapons, training and intelligence capabilities, said Francisco Castillo Zaragoza, brigadier general at the 8th Military Zone in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
Since 1940, the (Mexican) Armed Forces have sent military personnel and Special Forces to training courses at several academies in the U.S.
According to the defense department, 513 Mexican soldiers in Special Forces were trained at the School of the Americas from 1940 to 2002. About 120 of them joined the Special Air Mobile Force.
There is a higher level of danger with the type of knowledge that these people have their arms capacity, their knowledge of techniques and specialization in (drug) traffic operations," said Luis Astorga, a drug-trade expert at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. "Traffickers traditionally dont have that; they pay other people for those services.
The 31 ex-soldiers were part of a 350-person elite paratrooper and intelligence battalion posted in Tamaulipas in 1995 to fight drug traffickers. But the Gulf Cartel, led by Osiel Cardenas, recruited them and brought a new level of expertise and firepower to the drug war.
We get mad and embarrassed knowing these kinds of people stain the Mexican army uniform, Castillo said. They served the nation of Mexico and then change drastically, even betraying it.
According to the Mexican attorney generals office, the Zetas were implicated in dozens of shootouts along the Texas-Mexico border. Theyre also suspected in the kidnapping and the execution of several police officers in Matamoros and the rescue of four members of the Gulf Cartel.
They are extremely violent. They are very much feared in the region for the bloodshed they unleash, Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexicos top anti-drug prosecutor, told the Associated Press.
Cardenas arrest in March after a shootout in Matamoros has apparently not weakened the Zetas, who are locked in a bloody battle with rival organizations to retain the Gulf Cartels territory. There have been several alliances between the competing groups in an attempt to weaken the Zetas presence in Tamaulipas.
We see these alliances. It just is proof of the crisis these gangs are going through," Vasconcelos said. There is no one single group strong enough anymore to dominate the territory.
The Zetas name, adopted by Cardenas, was a radio code used by federal police in Tamaulipas during in the 1980s to locate high-ranking commanders.
We knew Zetas existed in Tamaulipas, said a defense department official, who did not want to be identified. He estimates the Zetas are comprised of at least 40 members, most of them ex-soldiers. We know some of them are ex-military deserters and ex-state policemen as well as people with a long history in organized crime.
Mexican officials have arrested 12 Zeta members since 2001, none of them former members of the special paratroop group.
Among the alleged traffickers still free are Oscar El Winnie Guerrero Silva, who federal authorities consider the Gulf Cartel operator in Tamaulipas federal district.
Officials are also searching for Daniel Rojas and Miguel Angel Soto Parra, who are in charge of training their men with weapons, explosives and personal defense.