openSecurity

Fears of increased violence after top Mexican drug lord killed during day-long battle

Feared drug lord ‘Tony the Storm’ killed in battle near the US-Mexico border. Post-election fighting causes thousands to flee Burma. Over half of fighters in Somali militias are children, says UN official. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Daniel C
8 November 2010

‘It’s going to be a bloody weekend’ an observer told the Guardian near to the site that a powerful Mexican drug lord, Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, was killed on Friday in a fierce battle with the Mexican military that lasted hours. The operation against Cárdenas , also known as ‘Tony Tormenta’ or ‘Tony the Storm’, involved navy special forces, 660 support troops, seventeen armoured vehicles, three helicopters and six months of intelligence-based planning. Though the latest in a series of government decapitations in the massive drug war launched by President Felipe Calderon in 2007, the operation has nevertheless caused many to fear a spike in inter-cartel violence and a bitter succession battle.

Cárdenas, a high-profile commander of the powerful ‘Gulf cartel’, was one of the most wanted men in Mexico with a $2m bounty offered by the Mexican government and $5m offered by the US Drug Enforcement Agency for information leading to his capture and arrest. The operation against him began on Friday morning in the border city of Matamoros and culminating in an intense, two-hour gunfight that ended around 5.30pm. The military forces were met with a barrage of assault-weapon fire and grenades when they closed in on the safe house in which he was hiding. Besides Cárdenas, four other suspected cartel members died in the assault, along with three naval officers, a soldier and a local reporter.

The Gulf cartel, which Cárdenas took control of after the arrest of his brother Osiel in 2003, is deeply embedded in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, regularly buying off politicians, local security forces and businesses, and threatening journalists in its determination to maintain control of numerous smuggling routes into the United States. Roughly ten years ago the cartel developed an internal paramilitary army, Los Zetas, however the Zetas splintered off from the Gulf cartel in February 2010, ‘declaring war’ on the group, which led to intense violence between the two organizations in the border towns of Tamaulipas. (See the geographical areas of cartel influence here).

The scale, size, and intensity of Friday’s operation was ‘something special,’ said an account in The Independent, ‘even by the surreal standards of the war on drugs cartels.’ Outside the building where it is believed Cárdenas was killed, a local vendor told one reporter that he hopes ‘the violence will calm down for a little while…Because you know how fast it can return. It's a hydra with 1,000 heads. If you cut one, another grows. But we hope there's a little time before the new one grows. Matamoros needs peace and tranquility. We are so tired.’ Roughly 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since January 2007.

The openSecurity verdict: The fear is that the death of Antonio Cárdenas will bring increased violence between Gulf cartel commandos and Zeta gunman as well as lead to a power struggle between Gulf leaders to replace their boss. With Antonio out of the picture and his brother Osiel, described as ‘arguably the most important criminal boss on the planet’ who founded a ‘whole new insurgent style of armed criminal syndicate’, sitting in a Houston prison for the next 25 years, the control of the Cárdenas family over one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels is over. A dangerous power vacuum has emerged.

Some observers question the method of directly going after cartel heads, arguing that the bloody succession battles often create more harm than good. Cartels can splinter into multiple antagonistic groups, leading to increased violence. ‘They cut off one head and many more grow back,’ one security expert commented.

The Zetas, who have already celebrated the death of the leader of their former partner in crime, have become emboldened. Following news of Cárdenas’ death, Zeta gunmen hung signs over bridges and in other public places. One banner taunted: ‘Once again, the Gulf traitors' destiny is evident ... there's no place for them, not even in hell.’

Malcolm Beith, the author of ‘The Last Narco’ says that the Zetas ‘will now likely have even more power in the region, and sadly this probably will result in more extortion, kidnapping, and fear for the people of Tamaulipas.’ Indeed, the city of Matamoros is Gulf cartel territory, though locals there have now started to fear that the Zetas will move in and further weaken or even take out the Gulf group. The Zetas, based in Reynosa, confirmed this belief on Saturday, when they distributed leaflets with warnings to Gulf leaders with promises of ‘more activity’ in the days to come.

Exodus of refugees from Burma to Thailand following contested election

At least 10,000 Burmese refugees have escaped into Thailand to flee from fighting that broke out between Burmese troops and Karen rebels in the south. The fighting began on Sunday after the country held a much-criticised election, the first in 20 years, and continued into Monday. The epicenter of unrest is Myawaddy, a border town where the rebels reportedly overran two government buildings and where gun and mortar fire have been heard.

The vast majority of observers have declared the election to be ‘neither free nor fair’, as military-backed parties appear to be set to come out on top. In the days prior to the election, some ethnic groups warned of the possible outbreak of violence if the military junta attempts to rob them of their rights.

On the Thai side, a football field has been converted into a makeshift shelter for the refugees, who will be sent back to Burma once ‘the situation is under control’, said the Thai commander in control of the area. As of Monday, Myawaddy had been retaken by Burmese troops.

60% of soldiers in Somali militia groups are children: UN official

Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary general’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, reports that 60% of the soldiers fighting the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are children. Saying that the TFG has already promised that it would stop recruiting children soldiers, Coomaraswamy repeated her hope that the militias would do the same. The militias in question include Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab.

This news comes as criticism mounts against President Obama for recently easing restrictions against four other countries the US State Department claims uses child soldiers. Those countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Chad, and Yemen. The justification for the waiving of sanctions against these governments as mandated by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 was that cooperation with their militaries was in the interest of US national security. Twenty-nine human rights NGOs sent a letter (View the PDF here) to the president on Friday to express their ‘deep disappointment’ with his decision.

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