Los Zetas Profile
Formed by a group of deserters from the Mexican Army Special Forces, the Zetas are one of the most powerful cartels, with cells that span the Mexican Gulf Coast and strong connections in both the U.S. and Guatemala. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano “el Lazca” the organization is involved in a number of illicit activities and has a reputation as arguably the most brutal drug trafficking organization (DTO) in the world.
History and Overview
“The Zetas have become something of a myth like Pancho Villa…their origins are obscure, and no one knows how many there are.”
– Howard Cambell Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas El Paso
In 1997, 31 members of the Special Forces Airborne Group (GAFES), Mexico’s elite counterpart to the U.S. Special Forces broke rank to work for Oselio Cardenas, a rising star in Mexico’s extensive criminal underworld. Cardenas, the leader of the Gulf Cartel (CDG), recruited these specialists led by their commander Arturo Guzman Decana (code name “Z-1”) with the intention of using them as his personal enforcement wing in a bitter war against his rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel. His actions fundamentally altered the landscape of Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The Zetas, as this private army became known, employed brutal terrorist tactics and dared to challenge the Mexican Military. Their methods of intimidation included videotaped beheadings, the assassination of high ranking politicians and government officials, and the massacre of civilians. Moreover, the Zetas hit their targets with military precision.
“For the first time in Mexican history, we had a military unit operating like a drug trafficking organization (DTO). In Mexico, it’s normally the other way around”
– Sam Logan, International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
The Zetas quickly went to work recruiting police officers and members of the armed forces to expand their ranks beyond the original band of 31. New prospects underwent rigorous training in secret camps set up throughout the Mexican countryside. Pushing further still, the Zetas reached into Central America, enlisting soldiers from the Kabiles, Guatemala’s Special Forces, to serve as their hit men.
While the Zetas began as the enforcement wing of the CDG they would once again brake from their former commanders to become a powerful force of their own. A split was in the making when Cardenas was arrested in 2003 and extradited to the U.S. in 2007 where he still faces charges from a court in Houston. After Cardenas’ extradition, the organization was divided among Cardenas’ brother, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen “Tony Tormenta” and the top Zeta commander, “el Lazca.” By this point the Zetas had grown powerful within the CDG, forming a joint leadership body known as La Compania. La Compania incorporated leaders from both the Zetas and the CDG into one top command that focused on coordinating smuggling and extortion activities within shared plazas and corridors. However, in the spring of 2010 the tentative triumvirate was shattered.
Violence soared in the states of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon; once peaceful cities devolved into chaos and fear. The once prosperous northern industrial city of Monterey became a war zone as the CDG struggled to hold onto its once extensive network. Essentially, the Zetas had eclipsed their former employers and carved whole chunks of territory out of the CDG, which lay in ruins beneath the power of their new rivals. But, the CDG refused to surrender, retaliating in a brutal counter offensive against the Zetas, literally butchering their enemies as they attempted to break up their infrastructure. While once rivals of the massive Sinaloa Cartel, the CDG turned to them in an alliance against the growing influence of the Zetas. The war continues to rage everyday leaving more dead in its wake.
Led by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano “El Lazca,” the Zetas Organization is divided into a multi-tiered hierarchy with the original military deserters, the Zetas Viejos, on top followed by the Zetas Nuevos, the Cobras, la Productividad, and the Halcones on the bottom.
While most of the original Special Forces officers have either been killed or captured, those who remain, the Zetas Viejos, make up the highest rung in the chain of command. These men are responsible for entire drug corridors and large numbers of foot soldiers. Notable Zetas Viejos include: El Comandante Mateo, El Mamito, El Hummer, El Rex, El Caprice, El Tatanka, El Lucky, El Paguita, El Cholo, El Ostos, El JC, El Cachetes, El Pita, El Bedur, El Cuije, El Chispa, El Chafe, El Tizoc, El Tejón and El Flaco.
Directly below the Zetas Viejos is a much larger corps of Zetas Nuevos. They are recruited from law enforcement and the military and trained extensively in paramilitary tactics by the Zetas Viejos at special ranches named “arroyos” scattered throughout rural parts of Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas Nuevos answer only to the Zetas Viejos. They are the lieutenants and most effective soldiers of the organization conducting large highly coordinated assaults that resemble military maneuvers.
Following the Zetas Nuevos, are the Cobras Nuevos aka L Nuevos who serve as personal body guards for the Zetas Viejos. Whenever one of the Zetas travels they are accompanied by a security detail of Cobras. The detail is heavily armed with assault rifles and side arms and often accompanied by one or two Zetas Nuevos.
The Zetas also employ a large number of accountants and money managers to launder their cash through “legitimate” businesses. Aptly named La Productividad, this large corps of professionals ensures that cash flows smoothly throughout the organization.
The Halcones, the lowest tier may be the least ostentatious sector of the organization, but in many ways it is the most terrifying. They are cops, cooks, trash collectors, and teachers. Invisible among the societal cacophony, they are “los ojos de la ciudad,” the eyes and ears spying on events around the city; they report any suspicious behavior to their commanders. These countless men and women make up a formidable intelligence network throughout several different countries.
Alliances and Rivalries
Essentially, the clashes among the major Mexican cartels can be understood in the context of opposing Pacific and Atlantic coasts and along the lines of principal powers and smaller actors. The two large principal powers are the Sinaloa (Pacific) and Zeta (Atlantic) Cartels. These titans battle one another for control of disputed territory in the center of the country in a space that separates their respective areas of influence. Amid the larger forces are many smaller actors, which cling on balancing the threat posed by their more powerful rivals. These more minor organizations are the Tijuana (Arrellano Felix Organization), CDG (formerly a principal power), Juarez, Beltran-Leyva (Cartel Pacifico del Sur), and La Familia Cartels. The smaller Pacific Beltran Leyva and Tijuana Cartels are allied with the larger Atlantic Zetas, while the smaller Atlantic CDG is allied with the larger Pacific Sinaloa Cartel. Along the middle point of the northern border is the Juarez Cartel, which has allied itself with the Zetas to relieve itself after suffering considerable losses in a war with the neighboring Sinaloa Cartel. The Zetas serve to balance the power of Sinaloa from completely dominating a crucial point of entry into the U.S.
La Familia, located in Michoacán on the Pacific coast directly to the South of the Sinaloa Cartel is an exception to the trend of large Atlantic, small Pacific alliances. This organization is very much unique with its strong religious rhetoric and fiercely paternalistic credo. While once strongly allied with the Zetas, La Familia broke off in fear that external influences would threaten the internal stability within the province.
Outside of Mexico, the Zetas have strong ties with many U.S. street gangs including Barrio Azteca, Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia, and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). In addition, the Zetas maintain connections internationally with Bolivian drug clans and the southern Italian ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
While the Zetas have so far dominated in the war against their former associates, the CDG has retaliated with brutal reciprocity. Zetas have been butchered by their new rivals in Monterrey, a city that has become a battle field. But the Zetas face even more challenges in their fight against the much better established and more experienced Sinaloa Cartel.
Like many other Mexican DTO’s the Zetas have evolved from a drug smuggling operation into a territorial entity. Within their areas of influence they extort common citizens and large business owners alike. Taking advantage of the most vulnerable the Zetas target immigrants along Mexico’s borders with the U.S. and Guatemala. In 2010, 72 immigrants who refused or were unable to pay for their safe passage were found dead on a ranch in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. And this is just one instance of a growing trend. According to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission in 2010 alone, 20,000 migrants were kidnapped until they paid the Zetas. Even more troubling is their extensive intelligence network of spies that in some ways resembles the secret police of authoritarian regimes. They will continue to maintain their influence with an iron grip.