When President Reagan armed and trained Osama bin Laden as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter, the result was blowback. That word describes grave, unintended consequences of military actions on civilians. A case study in blowback is developing right here in the United States. President Obama announced in July a shiny new update to the Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. As part of the plan, Obama issued an executive order that mandates a freeze on the funds of any individual or business linked to four criminal organizations. The executive order targets groups that “have reached such scope and gravity that they threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.” They are: The Brothers’ Circle, a group of gangsters that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union; the Camorra, or Italian mafia; the Yakuza from Japan; and, closer to home, a Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas.Thousands of murder, kidnapping and extortion cases in Mexico have been blamed on Los Zetas. The cartel is widely believed to be responsible for the mass graves—totaling more than 200 bodies—found in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in the last two years. An ongoing turf war between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel has earned Nuevo León, a border state, a reputation as being one of the bloodiest in Mexico. And these groups are no longer a uniquely Mexican problem. The U.S. media has largely failed to report that Los Zetas has established itself in the United States. As revealed on the front page of national Mexican newspaper El Universal on July 16, Los Zetas has expanded its criminal enterprise into the United States. Allegedly, with the help of a newly identified drug-trafficking group called Los Tolles, Los Zetas engage in kidnapping and extortion in the Southeastern part of the country. El Universal’s article was based on FBI documents leaked by hacker group LulzSec and published on the website Public Intelligence.The report states Los Zetas use I-40 as a principal smuggling route, which could allow it to expand to Southwestern cities, such as Albuquerque. In June, Capt. Matt Thomas of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office told the Alibi he was aware of the effects of cartels in the city, though not necessarily Los Zetas. “Is there violent crime in Albuquerque because of the cartels? Absolutely,” Thomas said . The leaked FBI documents, however, were roundly ignored by the U.S. press—a Google News search for “LulzSec + Zetas + FBI” reveals exactly zero stories written in English. Obama’s announcement of the organized-crime strategy specifically targeting Los Zetas fared better in the U.S. press. But the history of the criminal group, which provides a powerful lesson on the danger of blowback, was left out of most reports.In July, Mexican weekly magazine Proceso published an in-depth history of Los Zetas. The group, according to Proceso , was founded by soldiers who deserted from the Mexican Army’s Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE, for its acronym in Spanish). In the mid-’90s, at least 35 members of GAFE were ordered by then-President Ernesto Zedillo to receive special counterinsurgency training. Zedillo, it seems, was under pressure from the U.S. government to use Mexican army soldiers to combat cartels. This same trend—the militarization of Mexico’s drug war—spawned the widespread carnage the country is facing today. Poet-activist Javier Sicilia famously refers to current Mexican President Felipe Calderón as el presidente de los 40,000 muertos because he won’t change his strategy to fight drug trafficking, and thousands die as a result.Almost immediately after completing their advanced training, an unknown number of GAFE soldiers left the army to work for the Gulf Cartel, creating Los Zetas as an armed-enforcement branch of the organization. Soldiers going AWOL to find better-paying gigs with the cartels wasn’t exactly an isolated incident, either. CNN reported that between 2004 and 2009, a whopping 150,000 soldiers deserted from Mexico’s armed forces, many to take big-money jobs with the drug cartels.The situation only worsened when, in 2007, the Gulf Cartel formed an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, prompting the Zetas to sever ties with the Gulf Cartel and declare all-out war on their former allies. Persistent rumors indicate that Los Zetas was not only trained under pressure from the U.S., but like Osama bin Laden before them, actually trained by the United States. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City was released by WikiLeaks and published in Mexican paper La Jornada . It describes the embassy’s efforts to verify (or, better yet, disprove) the rumor and acknowledges that at least one member of Los Zetas was trained by U.S. forces, with the caveat that he was “forcibly recruited.”Unfortunately, U.S. government officials continue to act as if they secretly enjoy the irony of blowback. The day after Obama’s announcement of the new Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, El Universal’s front page ran the headline “Obama: ‘Zetas’ a global threat.” A sidebar to the main story announced “U.S. trains group from Mexican army,” a report on a new group receiving specialized training to fight organized crime in 2011.
Guest Editorial: Bonus Blowback
Operation Fast and Furious was even more ill-advised than the movie it took its name from. It was described as “the perfect storm of idiocy” by Carlos Canino, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acting attache in Mexico. The operation was conceived in 2009 by the ATF as a “brilliant” plan to track cartel gunrunners smuggling weapons into Mexico.Basically, the guns would be sold, transported to Mexico and tracked to their final destination. The ATF, however, had no effective plan to track the guns. “After a trip to Radio Shack with ATF funds, I myself manufactured a tracking device that would fit inside the handle of an A.K.-variant rifle,” ATF agent John Dodson told a congressional oversight committee. “The problem with it was the limited battery life.”Dodson told the committee in June 2011 that, of roughly 2,500 guns purposefully sold to known gun smugglers during Operation Fast and Furious, 300 to 800 have been recovered. The New York Times reported on July 26 that 122 of those weapons had been recovered from crime scenes, including two found at the scene of the killing of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. The Fast and Furious scandal didn’t stop with the ATF, either. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart admitted to Congressional investigators that her organization “provided a supporting role” in the operation.At least all the attention from Congress means the guilty parties in the ATF and DEA are feeling a little blowback themselves.
Andrew Beale has written for the Daily Lobo , the AP and Liberation! newspaper. He has traveled extensively in Mexico and hopes to work as a journalist there.