Narco-coal: Zetas diversify portfolio

Authorities in Mexico's coal-producing northern state of Coahuila say that the notorious Zetas, bloodiest of the country's warring cartels, have taken over much of mining industry. Suspicions were first raised in October when top Zeta commander Heriberto Lazcano was found in a Coahuila coal mining town and killed in a shoot-out with Mexican marines. Coahuila produces some 95% of Mexico's coal at approximately 15 million tons a year, and current estimates place the Zetas' annual profits from their share of the industry at around $25 million. Former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira said the Zetas are expanding their control over the state's mines, both legal and illegal. "They discover a mine, extract the coal, sell it at $30, pay the miners a miserable salary," he told Al Jazeera. "It's more lucrative than selling drugs."

The state government has been tarred by the accusations, as a Coahuila government body, the Promoter of Mineral Development (PRODEMI), buys coal from the companies and then sells it to power the state's generating plants. Some of it apparently comes from small unregulated pit mines operating on the margins of the law, called pozos. The federal Prosecutor General has launched an investigation into Coahuila's industry, and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) has ceased purchases from PRODEMI. The state firm is also accused of buying coal at vastly marked-up prices. (Coal prices vary widely depending on the BTU per pound of the coal variety; the US Energy Information Administration shows coal mined at various locations in the US priced from $10 to $65 per ton.)

Coahuila's coal industry has long been plagued with disasters in an atmosphere of loose oversight. "Here those in poverty are forced to seek work where they can, and there's little difference in terms of work safety for them between the way that organized crime and a legal owner of a mine treat them," said Bishop Raul Vera of Saltillo, who has advocated for miners' rights. (IBT, March 9; Public Radio International, Feb. 26; Take Part, Jan. 6; Al Jazeera, Jan. 4; Zócalo Saltillo, Aug. 31, 2012)