Targeting Drug Cartel Leaders Is Key to Mexico’s Strategy for War on Drugs

For Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the fall of Herbito Lazcano is part of a larger strategy to injure drug cartels’ operations by targeting their leaders. Judy Woodruff talks to Reuters News Agency’s Simon Gardner for more on how this success plays into the larger goals for curbing drug-related violence in Mexico.

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    For more on this, I'm joined by Reuters Mexico City bureau chief Simon Gardner.

    Simon, how high up the hierarchy chain is Heriberto Lazcano?

  • SIMON GARDNER, Reuters:

    Right up at the top.

    He is the leader of the Zetas. And he has been locked in a bitter battle with Trevino, who is the second, if you like, in command of the Zetas. And much of the bloodshed that we have been seeing in Mexico in recent months have been due to that feud.


    Since the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, in effect declared war on the drug cartels, have they ever caught as big a fish as this one?


    No, he's the biggest fish they have caught so far. I mean, this is a coup for Calderon.

    Calderon's drug strategy, which was to go after the capos, if you like, the heads of the different drug cartels, was criticized by some for having created fragmentation and a deepening of violence.

    And yet he has to a certain extent been vindicated today. In fact, he said so himself on television this afternoon.

    So, you know, for Calderon's strategy, which actually hurt his party in recent presidential elections and helped boost his opponent, or the opponent of his party, he is now, you know, reaping the benefits of this.

    And the fall of Lazcano is definitely the most important kill in this — in Calderon's drug war to date.


    Were American authorities interested in the capture or killing of Lazcano?


    They are very interested. They're still waiting, according to the State Department, for absolute confirmation. You can never be 100 percent sure here.

    There's also the issue that the body was stolen shortly — you know, just a few hours after he was killed in rather strange circumstances. So, there's this kind of veil of mystery which is sort of shrouding the whole incident to a certain extent.

    But judging by the photographs and by experts seem to feel that the features of the man killed do fit with Lazcano, and there are other sort of details such as the fact that, you know, he was — his body was stolen in the middle of the night, with apparently no resistance.

    And he was also found with some pretty heavy weapons, including an RPG and a grenade-launcher. So there are certain elements here which would support the idea that it was, in fact, him.


    What do the Mexican authorities who say they captured him in a gunfight say happened? How did they track him down?


    Well, they have been fairly mute about how they actually got hold of him.

    But the theory is that there may have been some informant involvement. At the end of the day, he was found — or there was a tip-off, a phone tip-off, an anonymous one, about two people who looked suspicious in a vehicle in the area where there was the gunfight.

    And so that could have been due to an informant. It could have been a local resident.

    But, at the end of the day, he was on his own with one other suspected Zeta. And the fact that he wasn't protected, considering he's the head of a drug cartel, would suggest that perhaps there was some, you know, involvement of informers or possibly of other Zetas, given there is all this infighting, who would like to have seen the back of him.


    From time to time, there have been captures of fairly high-ranking narco-traffickers. Is this a case where these people are simply replaced, or might this really injure operations of one of the most prominent cartels?


    Well, there could be other people waiting in the wings to replace him.

    However, given that the Zetas are essentially divided into two factions, with Trevino against Lazcano, it could be either that the other cells of the Zetas — because they operate in cells — will rally behind Trevino, or there could be a certain amount of bloodletting and they could end up allying themselves with some of the other cartels here in Mexico.

    So, it could go either way. It could lead to a deepening of violence. But it could also help solidify, if you like, Trevino's hold over the Zetas.


    Felipe Calderon is still president of Mexico for a few more months. Has his successor made clear his intentions about whether he intends to continue to prosecute the war on drugs?


    Well, president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto has said that his focus is going to be on tackling organized crime, going after extortionists and kidnappers and that kind of thing, in a way distancing himself a little bit from Calderon's tactic, which has been to go after the actual drug bosses themselves.

    Around two-thirds of 37 drug lords named by Calderon have now been either killed or captured. And so he's made real inroads into tackling these bosses.

    But, at the same time, like the Zetas, there's been a certain amount of fragmentation within the cartels. And that leads to battles for supremacy, and then, you know, you end up having further atrocities and killings.


    Simon Gardner in Mexico City, thanks for joining us.


    My pleasure.