Mexico's Most Dangerous Cartel Leader Is Dead. What Now?

PHOTO: Lazcano

Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of the feared Zetas cartel, was killed by Mexican marines on Sunday. He commanded an organization that dominates drug routes along Mexico's gulf coast and has become famous for ruthless acts of violence, like the mass execution of 72 migrants in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.

So what happens to the Zetas now that Lazcano, aka "El Lazca," is out of the picture? Does he simply get replaced, and business goes on as usual? Or could an even more violent leader replace him, as the San Antonio Express News recently suggested?

We talked to three security analysts and asked them if Lazcano's death will change how the Zetas operate.

Alberto Torres, CEO of Risk Evaluation

Alberto Torres runs Risk Evaluation, a security consulting firm based in Mexico City. He thinks that Lazcano's death could unleash a new struggle for control of drug routes around Nuevo Laredo, a town in Tamaulipas where the Zetas had been gaining influence.

"The Sinaloa cartel and other [rival] cartels, will try to enter Nuevo Laredo. Now is when they can get in there, and try to turn people to their side, because when the chief of an organization [dies], that is when you can steal talent," Torres said.

Torres doubted that Lazcano's death would lead to the dissolution of the Zetas, however. He explained that the group works like a franchise, where leaders of different plazas pay a minimum fee to the central organization. In return, the plaza leaders can sell drugs in the area, tax local businesses, run prostitution rings and take part in other illicit activities. They are also provided with military training and weapons.

"This system has enabled the organization to spread throughout Mexico and also abroad. They are going to have to make some readjustments in their ranks, but it would be very naïve to think that because the leader fell, the organization will also get disbanded," Torres said. "What the government must do is to attack the drug market. As long as customs checkpoints remain vulnerable, and as long as it is still possible to launder drug money, the Zetas will remain."

Steven Dudley, Insight Crime

Steven Dudley is the co-director of Insight Crime, a website that monitors the activities of organized crime groups in the Americas.

He mentioned that over the past year, factions of the Zetas have been gaining greater autonomy from the central command.

"We need to eliminate the myth that these are vertical, top-down structures," Dudley said. "Yes, el Lazca was the maximum commander, if you will, of this organization. But on the ground, does that mean that everybody from Tamaulipas to Chiapas to The Peten was getting a radio signal or a memo every week on what they needed to do? No. That is not how it works," said Dudley who added that with the death of El Lazca, some pieces may break off from the organization.

"This is a dispersed organization, each individual within their region has a lot of autonomy and the loss of a guy like this will give them an even greater sense of autonomy," Dudley said.

But this expert warned that Lazcano's death would not stop a fractured version of the Zetas and other groups from carrying out illegal activities.

"You cannot resolve these things by simply capturing the top guy, or the top 15 guys, or the top 20 guys. There is a much deeper problem or set of problems that need to be resolved, that have noting to do with whether or not you can capture 'alias el Lazca,' or 'alias el Chapo,' or 'alias el Azul,' or whoever is that ghost that you are trying to capture," Dudley said.

Jorge Chabat, Professor at CIDE

Jorge Chabat is a politics professor at Mexico City's CIDE university. He focuses on international crime networks.

Chabat said that killing El Lazca was symbolically important for the Mexican government, because through this action, the government tells drug lords that they will have to pay for their illegal actions.

But Chabat added that El Lazca's death would not instantly lead to the dismantlement of the Zetas group.

"They have lots of members, and lots of cells operating throughout the country," Chabat said. "But in some way the coordination [of the group] achieved by El Lazca will be affected, and that could negatively impact that cartel's operations," Chabat said.

Chabat warned that violence in territories controlled by the Zetas could increase, as members of the group wage a war over leadership of the organization.

"There was already violence due to confrontations between El Lazca and [number two leader] Miguel Treviño," Chabat said. "This operation marks a significant advance [in the struggle against cartels] but it's not enough."

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