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Dec 13, 2012 | 11:34 GMT

Mexico: Rivals' Propaganda Push to Split Los Zetas

Mexico: Rivals' Propaganda Push to Split Los Zetas
Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images

A new information operations campaign appears to have begun in Coahuila state, with rival groups communicating through murders and publicly displayed banners known as narcomantas. The recent messages are likely part of a larger attempt to create rifts within Los Zetas, one of the largest cartels in Mexico, and give their rivals opportunities to take over some of the organization's territory. However, whether or not the campaign achieves that goal, it will likely persist and spread to other states, threatening the security of those living in the affected regions.

On Dec. 7, authorities discovered four bodies hanging from an interchange in Saltillo, Coahuila state, with an accompanying narcomanta reportedly signed by Zetas leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales. (Authorities have not released the contents of the message.) On Dec. 8, a narcomanta was hung that denied Trevino's involvement in the deaths of the men hung with the Dec. 7 narcomanta, and it said two of the victims had worked for Los Zetas as scouts and were picked up by military troops Dec. 4. It too was allegedly signed by Trevino.

The narcomantas and public displays of violence are not unusual for Saltillo. However, it is unusual that the first display provoked a direct response. The denial would more obviously benefit Trevino and can thus be seen as more likely to have been authored by Los Zetas. Moreover, people in the community would be able to verify that two of the victims were working for Los Zetas and confirm the statement's veracity. The Dec. 7 narcomanta was likely disinformation from a rival of Los Zetas intending to create dissent within the organization by suggesting that its leader had betrayed his own men.

Mexican organized criminal groups occasionally vie for control of information to the public in order to subvert rivals, encourage collusion and misdirect both authorities and rivals. Narcomantas are the preferred medium for these goals because their messages and authorship are difficult to verify and therefore ideal for propagating disinformation.

In June 2012, Los Zetas were targeted by a similar campaign that spread rumors of a split between then-leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino, whose assumption of top leadership became apparent in mid-2012. The June campaign focused on alleged betrayals by Lazcano and Trevino in an attempt to fracture the organization. Media outlets began reporting on a rift between the two leaders, although indicators of such a split never manifested. Around the same time, it became apparent that Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, a former regional boss for Los Zetas, had split from the larger group and created his own criminal organization allied with Los Zetas' rivals. It is unclear whether his departure was related to any perceived betrayal by the top leadership of Los Zetas as suggested in the narcomantas, but even if the information operations campaign initiated Velazquez's split, it had much less of an effect on Los Zetas than a war between the top two leaders would have had. In this way, the June campaign did not achieve its ultimate goal.

The new campaign of narcomantas shows the desire to spread rumors of a new betrayal in an attempt to create another split, at least within Los Zetas' network in Coahuila state. Though there is no evidence indicating a new rift, the attempt may eventually prove successful. Regardless of the information operations campaign's effect on Los Zetas internally, it will probably continue and, like the campaign in June, could spread to other states, increasing violence wherever it goes. If the campaign achieves its goal of fracturing Los Zetas, violence will increase as the warring factions fight among one other. If the group coheres despite the campaign, violence could still grow if rivals of Los Zetas kidnap and murder people to send their messages.

Editor's Note: As an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, we now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, which provides more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. If you are interested in learning about this new fee-based custom service, please contact [email protected].

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