Mexico's Zetas rewrite drug war in blood
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Mexican government forces had bottled up a band of enemy fighters in this tiny village late last year, but feared they would escape into the dusty, rock-strewn hills. So more than 600 soldiers and federal police closed in from all directions with armoured Humvees and helicopters.
The outlaws responded with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault-rifle fire, tearing apart one federal police vehicle. For three days the fighting raged.
In the end, according to military accounts of the battle, 22 members of the Zetas drug cartel, two police officers and a soldier were dead, and 20 Zetas were in custody. Dozens more escaped to fight another day.
The battle could have been a scene from the war in Afghanistan, but it erupted just 45 miles south of the Texas border. It was only one of dozens like it in northeastern Mexico in recent months as soldiers, marines and police have engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with roaming Zetas hit squads.
Formed in 1998 by 14 former Mexican soldiers, the Zetas have grown to command more than 10,000 gunmen from the Rio Grande, on the border with Texas, to deep into Central America. Their rapid expansion has displaced Mexico's older cartels in many areas, giving them a dominant position in the multi-billion-dollar cross-border drug trade, as well as extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.
But it is bloodshed that has made the Zetas notorious. And feared.
Zetas killers have been arrested for some of the worst atrocities in Mexico's drug war, including the murders of hundreds of people whose bodies have been found in mass graves with alarming frequency, the massacre of 72 foreign migrant workers headed to the United States, and the burning of a casino that claimed 52 lives.
On Sunday, Mexican soldiers said they had arrested Daniel Elizondo, a Zetas leader known as "The Madman," as the alleged perpetrator of the massacre of 49 people whose corpses were decapitated, dismembered and dumped on a highway a week earlier. In the last month, the Zetas have also been linked to the decapitation of 18 people near Guadalajara and the hanging of nine in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. In those two cases, messages left at the scenes, signed by the Zetas, said the victims were rival traffickers.
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