Mexico Security Memo: Confusing Reports of a Battle in Matamoros
Zetas Raid or Rescue?
Around 5 a.m. on June 17, simultaneous firefights reportedly broke out between elements of the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels in several locations in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, a Gulf stronghold. The Mexican military has confirmed that a gunbattle did indeed take place in the Colonia Pedro Moreno area but has not confirmed media reports of additional firefights in the Mariano Matamoros, Valle Alto, Puerto Rico and Seccion 16 neighborhoods. The military also has not confirmed a reported gunbattle in the rural area of Cabras Pintas, where six Mexican soldiers are said to have been killed.
Details of the confirmed firefight remain unclear, but from all indications, a large movement of Zeta forces into a Gulf stronghold did occur, and it suggests a heightened operational tempo in the war between these two cartels. In the coming months, this increasing violence is likely to continue in Gulf-held Reynosa and Zeta-held Monterrey as well as Matamoros.
The Mexican military said the June 17 gunbattle in Matamoros’ Colonia Pedro Moreno neighborhood resulted in three deaths and nine arrests, while an unnamed U.S. law enforcement official said four Gulf cartel gunmen died in the exchange of fire. According to a Mexican army officer quoted in border media, a Mexican army “mechanized regiment” was patrolling in trucks in downtown Matamoros when the fighting erupted but did not participate. The media also quoted a U.S. law enforcement official confirming the presence of another mechanized regiment and claiming that this other regiment of soldiers traveling in trucks supported Los Zetas in an attempt to rescue 11 Zeta operatives, both male and female, who had been captured by the Gulf cartel June 16.
For its part, the Mexican military said a motorized army unit rescued 17 civilians who had been kidnapped, although it is uncertain how an army unit could have achieved this without being a part of the operation or participating in the firefight. At some point during the gunbattle, the leader of Los Zetas, Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano, was reportedly killed, although STRATFOR doubts that he was present.
While reports of the Matamoros battle are conflicting, it is very likely that a large firefight did occur in the city between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas and that it was initiated by the latter. Due to the conflicting information, we have been unable to determine the motive behind the Zeta assault, which reportedly involved a force of armed Zetas in 130 SUVs. However, we have seen several large Zeta raids into Gulf territory in recent months intended to undercut Gulf’s support network, and this raid into Matamoros would have been the largest one yet (at least that we are aware of).
Zetas leader Lazcano, a former member of the army’s Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES), an elite special operations unit, is an “old Zeta.” He has good tactical and operational awareness and has proved himself to be a very rational decision-maker. Moving a convoy of 130 SUV’s nearly a half mile long (if they were bumper to bumper) into the heart of Gulf territory could not have achieved any element of surprise, which means Lazcano probably thought his force was large enough to accomplish the mission even if it was detected well in advance.
If the objective of this raid was to recover the 11 Zetas reportedly captured by Gulf forces, those prisoners must have been extremely valuable to the Zetas and possibly to Lazcano personally. Low-ranking members of an organization are typically not worth potential losses incurred in such an operation.
The reports that a motorized Mexican army regiment took part in the firefight alongside Zetas gunmen are likely untrue. While there is a corrupt element within the military, the chance of an entire regiment operating with cartel gunmen is quite remote. It is not uncommon for individual soldiers and smaller military units to be found in the employ of cartels, and perhaps a small element was working with the Zetas, but it could not have been a Mexican army regiment, which would number some 1,000 to 3,000 troops.
Whether the Zetas Matamoros raid was a deliberate strike against the Gulf cartel’s power base or an attempt to rescue a group of Zetas prisoners, we have been expecting to see this type of Zetas offensive for several months now. People and businesses should be aware of the probability of increasing violence in the coming months in Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey.