Los Zetas are a notorious cartel that evolved from a paramilitary force created by the Mexican government. In 2009, the U.S. government labelled the gang the “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.” Savvy and brutal, the Zetas don’t constrain themselves to making money off drugs. They also seek other lucrative opportunities.

Like coal mining. From Al Jazeera:

Speaking to Al Jazeera, [Coahuila ex-governor Humberto] Moreira says that the Zetas gang is fast discovering that illegal mining is an even more lucrative venture than drug running.

“They discover a mine, extract the coal, sell it at $30, pay the miners a miserable salary … It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.” …

His accusations have been borne out by the federal government, which also announced that it has found evidence of criminal infiltration in Coahuila’s mines. Two hundred government inspectors are heading to the region to investigate mines it suspects are tied to organised crime. …

The State of Coahuila presents a tempting target for any organised crime group looking to diversify from drug smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. It produces 95 percent of Mexico’s coal, churning out 15 million tons a year. Unregulated “pozos”, small roadside mines which are often little more than a hole in the road, abound; easy targets for those looking to make quick money.

A member of the Zetas is arrested in Guatemala
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A member of the Zetas is arrested in Guatemala.

There is no equivalence between the actions of the Zetas and domestic coal production. There is no equivalence between the Zetas and the rest of Mexico’s coal industry. The group is criminal, horrifying.

But the fact that mining coal could be as lucrative as trafficking drugs is at least astonishing and certainly ominous. As the global market for coal expands, prices will go up. If criminals can continue to extract and sell coal illegally and without concern for treatment of the miners, the urge for criminals to exploit those economics will only grow.