Category Archives: Crime families-gangs


Mexican Drug Cartel Structures (2006–present)


Mexican Drug Cartel Structures (2006–present)

Beltrán Leyva Cartel(Armed wing: Los Negros)

Arturo Beltrán Leyva • Alfredo Beltrán Leyva • Mario Alberto Beltrán Leyva • Carlos Beltrán Leyva • Héctor Beltrán Leyva • Edgar Valdez Villarreal •
Current leaders:
Héctor Beltrán Leyva • Mario Alberto Beltrán Leyva • Edgar Valdez Villarreal • Sergio Villarreal Barragán •

La Familia Cartel

Nazario Moreno González • Carlos Rosales Mendoza • José de Jesús Méndez Vargas • Julio César Godoy Toscano • Enrique Plancarte • Arnoldo Rueda Medina • Servando Gómez Martínez • Dionicio Loya Plancarte • Rafael Cedeño Hernández • Alberto Espinoza Barron •

Gulf Cartel(Armed wing: Los Zetas)

Juan Nepomuceno Guerra • Juan García Abrego • Arturo Guzmán Decena • Jesús Enrique Rejón Águila • Jaime González Durán • Heriberto Lazcano • Miguel Treviño Morales •
Current leaders:
Osiel Cárdenas Guillén • Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén • Jorge Eduardo Costilla • Heriberto Lazcano • Miguel Treviño Morales •

Juárez Cartel

Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo • Rafael Aguilar Guajardo • Amado Carrillo Fuentes • Pablo Acosta Villarreal •
Current leaders:
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes • Juan José Esparragoza Moreno •

Sinaloa Cartel

Héctor Luis Palma Salazar • Joaquín Guzmán Loera • Adrián Gómez González •
Current leaders:
Joaquín Guzmán Loera • Ismael Zambada García • Ignacio Coronel Villarreal •

Tijuana Cartel

Ramón Arellano Félix • Benjamín Arellano Félix • Francisco Rafael Arellano Félix • Carlos Arellano Félix • Luis Fernando Arellano Félix • Eduardo Arellano Félix • Francisco Javier Arellano Félix •
Current leaders:
Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano • Edgardo Leyva Escandon •



Bulgarian Organized Crime Groups

Bulgarian organised crime groups are involved in a wide range of activities, including drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, illicit antiquities trafficking, extortion (often under the cover of ostensible security and insurance companies) and the arms trade. They appear to have connections with the Russian Mafia, Serbian Mafia, and the Italian Cosa Nostra.

The Bulgarian organized crime groups came to control much of Bulgarian business, so the word “businessman” acquired similar undertones. The “mugs” also infiltrated Bulgarian politics (it was often alleged that SIC and VIS were connected to the two main parties of the 1990s, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Union of Democratic Forces, respectively).

Vasil Iliev Security, or VIS, is a security and insurance company in Bulgaria thought to be a front for a criminal organisation dealing in extortion, car theft, drug trafficking and more. Set up in the early 1990s by Vasil Iliev. The company was declared illegal in 1994 but continued operating under the new name of VIS-2.

Vasil Iliev was assassinated on 25 April 1995. The new boss of the company became his brother Georgi Iliev, who was himself assassinated on 26 August 2005

VIS, along with it’s rival SIC, was made up primarily of ex-wrestlers, policemen and members of the security apparatus. As well as extortion rackets, the groups also worked in “car insurance” and theft. The capital they earned in the emerging Bulgarian economy of the 1990s allowed them to build huge influence amongst the government.

SIC is another security and insurance company in Bulgaria. Thought to be a front for a criminal organisation. Activity is much as the same as (VIS).

Naglite, literally „The Insolent Ones“ stands out of the groups mentioned before, is a Bulgarian criminal group involved in more than ten high-profile kidnappings in 2008-09. They asked for ransoms of several hundred thousand euros in each case, and in the event of delay or insufficient payment, cut fingers off their victims. In a December 2009 police action, more than 25 people were arrested in several Bulgarian cities.

Naglite kept their victims blindfolded and none managed to see any of the kidnappers’ faces. Nine people were brought to trial in 2010, four of whom were found guilty in April 2012. The Prosecutor’s office plans to appeal for the others to also be convicted.

During the government of National Movement Simeon II (2001–2005), assassinations became especially common. There was also frequent evidence for the close ties between the criminal networks and politicians and officials.

Despite continuing pressure from the U.S. and the EU, past Bulgarian governments have done little to reduce the presence of organized crime. As a result, Organized crime groups has increased its influence and is able to operate with virtual impunity.

If the EU uses this leverage to demand not only far-reaching judicial reform but effective implementation as well, there is reason to hope that the tide will slowly begin to turn against organized crime in the coming years.


  • – US embassy cables: Organised crime in Bulgaria
  • Glenny, Misha; McMafia; 2008

The Origins of the Medellin Cartel

Juan David Ochoa, Germán Castro Caycedo, Carlos Lehder y Pablo Escobar el día en que el capo aceptó contarle su vida al escritor. La reunión se dio en Puerto Triunfo, municipio ubicado a 180 kilómetros de Medellín. Foto: Cortesía Cromos

The 1979 incident at Dadeland Mall in Florida that had received national attention was the first visible evidence of the growing presence of a network of Colombia-based drug dealers in the United States.

Carlos Lehder conceived the idea of transporting loads of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
This drug alliance had been conceived by Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas, who had met George Jung, a drug trafficker, while in prison. Jung had been transporting tons of marijuana in private planes. Noting how successful this method of smuggling marijuana had been, Lehder reasoned that cocaine could also be moved in ton quantities.

In the late 1970s, Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas began cooperating with other Colombia-based traffickers in the manufacturing, transportation, and distribution of tons of cocaine to the United States and around the world. Lehder’s idea evolved into of the most lucrative, powerful, and deadly partnerships known–the Medellin cartel. Its membership included some of the most notorious drug lords of the 1980s–Jorge Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blanco, Gustavo and Benjamin Herrera, and Jose Rodriguez-Gacha.
By the summer of 1976, Jung and Lehder were out of jail and in the cocaine business. Lehder bought Norman’s Cay, an island in the Bahamas, which served as a base for air smuggling between Colombia and the United States. Lehder was just one of the hundreds of Colombia-based traffickers expanding the cocaine business.

By the mid-1970s, these traffickers, already active in marijuana trade, had established a virtual monopoly over cocaine distribution. The Andean city of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, was home to most of these traffickers. With cooperation, the cartels began processing even greater amounts of cocaine–from 25 tons in the late 1970s to 125 tons by the early 1980s. In the United States in 1978, a kilo of 12-percent purity cocaine had sold on the street for an average of $800,000. But by early 1984, cocaine was so plentiful that there were substantial price reductions in many U.S. cities. Prices for a kilo of cocaine dropped as low as $30,000 in New York City and $16,000 in South Florida.

Carlos Lehder Extradition (1987)
Carlos Lehder conceived the idea of transporting loads of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
In 1981, Carlos Lehder was indicted on U.S. federal charges in Jacksonville, Florida, and a request for his extradition from Colombia was formally presented to that government in 1983. Up until that time, no extradition requests had been honored by the Colombian Government. Lehder, a major cocaine trafficker, had formed his own political party and adopted a platform which was vehemently opposed to extradition. He viewed cocaine as a very powerful weapon that could be used against the United States and referred to the substance as an atomic bomb. Lehder also claimed that he was allied with the Colombian guerilla movement, M-19, in an effort to protect Colombian sovereignty.

Fanatical in his efforts to prevent extradition, Lehder was instrumental in forcing a political debate on the merits of extradition and publicly faced off against Colombia’s Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara-Bonilla. When Lara-Bonilla was suddenly murdered in 1984, Lehder and the Medellin cartel, who had hidden behind the pseudonym “The Extraditables,” were suspected. Embarrassed and outraged by the terrorist tactics employed by the Medellin organization, the Colombian Government turned Lehder over to the DEA and extradited him to the United States in February 1987.

Lehder was convicted and sentenced to 135 years in federal prison. He subsequently cooperated in the U.S. investigation of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega and received a reduced sentence in return for his testimony. However, the Medellin reign of terror did not end. The Medellin cartel was responsible for the murders of many government officials, including Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos-Jiminez in 1988, and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989.


The Gulf Cartel

The Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful of Mexico’s criminal groups but has lost territory and influence in recent years to its rivals, including its former enforcer wing, the Zetas. Working with Colombian suppliers, this group moves drugs north from its stronghold in Tamaulipas, and is known to outsource other activities, especially those related to human trafficking, to local “enforcer” gangs. Its one-time boss, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was considered the country’s most powerful underworld leader at one point, and its enforcers, the Zetas, considered Mexico’s most feared gang.

However, since Cardenas’ arrest in 2003, and his extradition in 2007, the cartel has declined significantly in power, and its area of operation has been greatly reduced. More trouble emerged in 2010, when the Zetas separated. A brutal turf battle in Mexico’s eastern border states, including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, has ensued, and violence has soared. Desperate, the Gulf Cartel has reportedly made an alliance with its former rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Familia Michoacana.



The Gulf Cartel’s origins can be traced to 1984, when Juan Garcia Abrego assumed control of his uncle’s drug trafficking business, then a relatively small-time marijuana and heroin operation. García Abrego brokered a deal with the Cali Cartel, the Colombian mega-structure that was looking for new entry routes into the United States’ market after facing a clampdown on their Caribbean routes by U.S. law enforcement. It was an agreement that, from the business side, proved irresistible both for the Cali Cartel’s leaders, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and for the Mexicans: Garcia Abrego would handle cocaine shipments via the Mexican border, taking on all the risks, as well as much as 50 percent of the profits.

When Garcia Abrego was arrested and deported to the U.S. in January 1996, the Gulf Cartel was reportedly pulling in billions in revenues each year, cash that had to be smuggled back across the border in suitcases, jets and through underground tunnels. This drug trafficking organization (DTO) built a wide-reaching delivery network across the U.S., from Houston to Atlanta, New York to Los Angeles, but its influence was more acutely seen in its imitators. Other kingpins, like Amado Carillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” (Lord of the Skies), the head of the Juarez Cartel, quickly followed in Garcia Abrego’s footsteps and began demanding more control over distribution from their Colombian partners, instead of settling for a share in the transportation fees. As a result, by the end of the 1990s Mexican traffickers had built a series of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin networks that rivaled Cali in size, sophistication and profit. And by buying out government aides, ministers, the federal police force and even the attorney general’s office, the Gulf Cartel was soon rivaling Cali in terms of political corruption.

But it took Garcia Abrego’s heir, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, to develop the Gulf Cartel’s military wing in ways never envisioned either in Cali or in Medellin. Cardenas recruited at least 31 former soldiers of Mexico’s Special Forces to act as security enforcers, for at least three times their previous pay. They were expert sharpshooters, were trained in weapons inaccessible to most of their drug-trafficking rivals, capable of rapid deployment operations in almost any environment, and they matched perfectly Cardenas’ more brutal, confrontational leadership style. Cardenas was arrested in 2003, after the U.S. Department of State placed a $2 million reward on his head. But his former protection unit, which soon began operating as an independent group known as the Zetas, is perhaps this DTO’s bloodiest and most influential legacy in Mexico’s drugs war.

Modus Operandi

Since Cardenas’ extradition to the U.S. in 2007, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias “El Coss,” is believed to lead the group’s day-to-day operations. Cardenas’ brother, Antonio Cardenas Guillen, handled the cartel’s drug trafficking business until he was gunned down in November 2010. On April 13, 2010, the Federal Police confirmed that there was an alliance between the Familia Michoacana and the Gulf Cartel against their common rival, the Zetas, which has been pushing aggressively into the Gulf’s traditional stronghold in Tamaulipas.

It was little surprise to crime watchers in Mexico. The Gulf has a violent history of seeing former allies turn against it. A previous alliance, brokered in prison between Cardenas and Benjamin Arellano Felix, one of the heads of the Tijuana Cartel, held for about a year until the agreement broke down in 2005, leading to another outbreak of killings in the border states. Another temporary division of territory with the Sinaloa Cartel also broke down in 2007, causing havoc nation-wide.

The cartel’s center of operations is in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, with its most important operational bases in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. These areas are critical from an operational and a financial standpoint. The cartel makes a substantial amount of money simply charging others for passage through the area. Other key northern cities include Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon, where the cartel has been locked into a increasingly intense struggle for control against the Zetas since the split early 2010. Southwards, the group is known to have established itself in at least 11 other states, as well as in the cities of Miguel Aleman, in Oaxaca, Morelia in Michoacan, and possibly also the Yucatan peninsula.

The Gulf Cartel is now confronted with the Frankenstein-like task of facing down a monster of its own creation. There are some indications that they have been able to drive a few elements of the Zetas out of Tamaulipas. But the latter organization is holding on tightly in the border towns, and the Gulf has already lost much of its former monopoly over Mexico’s east coast to the Zetas. With the loss of Antonio Cardenas Guillen, there is concern the Zetas will make another violent push into border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros.


Juarez Cartel

The Juarez Cartel is responsible for smuggling tons of narcotics from Mexico into the U.S. throughout its long and turbulent history, and the group’s intense rivalry with the Sinaloa Cartel helped turn Juarez into one of the most violent places in the world. Despite recent news reports about its decline, the Juarez Cartel remains one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico and the region. Small cells carry out different types of operations ranging from transportation and distribution of drugs; street gangs, mostly in the north, act as the enforcement wing and are involved in human trafficking and kidnapping operations.

The cartel maintains a firm foothold in Ciudad Juarez and the Valle de Juarez, which remains the key corridor for transporting illegal drugs into the United States. It still has some measure of control over the local and state police, as well as some politicians. It has turned to local gangs to be its enforcers, changing the dynamic in the area and increasing violent confrontation with its rivals. To push back its main rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, it has turned to its former rivals in the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Zetas. It has also sought more direct contact with the drug sources in Colombia, namely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


The Juarez Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico. Since its beginnings, the cartel has focused on drug trafficking, but has expanded into other criminal activities such as human trafficking, kidnapping, local drug distribution and extortion. Based in the city of Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, northern Mexico, the Juarez Cartel is also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (VCFO), after its leader.

The origins of the Juarez Cartel go back to the 1980s, when the Ciudad Juarez area was under Rafael Aguilar Guajardo’s control. Aguilar Guajardo worked closely with the Guadalajara Cartel, and after the arrest of the cartel’s leader, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, he was granted control of Juarez. Amidst mysterious circumstances, Aguilar Guajardo was killed in Cancun in 1993. His lieutenant, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” quickly assumed control.

The organization grew exponentially under Carrillo Fuentes. More prone to negotiate than fight, Carrillo Fuentes reconstructed Felix Gallardo’s old network and more. Eventually, he controlled at least half of all Mexican trafficking and even extended his operations to Central America and into South America, including Chile and Argentina. Carrillo’s alias, “Lord of the Skies,” aptly described his method: using commercial and parcel traffic, the Juarez Cartel moved thousands of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico by air, then into the U.S. by land. Carrillo Fuentes furthered his reach by establishing his own distribution networks in the U.S. He died, abruptly, in 1997, while getting plastic surgery, leaving behind a well structured cartel but a void at the top.

Amado’s brothers, Vicente and Rodolfo, took over but a power struggle quickly ensued. After some infighting, the two brothers, and their nephew Vicente Carrillo Leyva, established a firm command. In 2002, they allied with Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” a former member of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police; Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo;” the Beltran Leyva brothers; and Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo.” Authorities called them the “Federation,” but the partnership would not last. After Rodolfo killed two of Guzman’s associates for not paying him to use the Juarez corridor, Guzman gathered his allies and told them simply that Rodolfo, alias “El Niño de Oro,” had to die. Faced with a choice, Guzman’s partners chose him. Rodolfo was killed with his wife as they walked out of a movie theatre in September 2004. Guzman’s brother, Arturo, was killed just a few months later. The war was on, and Mexico still has not recovered.


Modus Operandi

The Juarez Cartel has a large and longstanding transportation, storage and security operation throughout the country. It counts on its ability to co-opt local and state law enforcement, especially the judicial or ministerial police (detectives) and the municipal forces. It has long collected a tax for letting groups use its “plaza,” or drug trafficking corridor, and relied on alliances to operate nationwide. But the new modus operandi in the country, that of using small, more sophisticated armies to control swaths of territory, has made it hard for this group to compete. While its two main gangs, La Linea and the Aztecas, are formidable, they have had difficulty keeping pace with their competitors that work for the Sinaloa Cartel. La Linea, which does the street-level enforcement, has been particularly hard hit. Ciudad Juarez saw a decline in murders in 2011, with homicides dropping to a two-year low in May, which some attribute to the diminishing power of La Linea. The enforcement arm, like other failing drug traffickers, may have made an alliance with the Zetas. However, some analysts have suggested that it is the Juarez Cartel which is in decline and La Linea which is ascendant.

The Juarez Cartel has also created the Linces, a group made up by approximately 80 deserters from the Army’s Special Forces, who are in charge of protecting cartel members and transporting drugs. Drug trafficking is carried out by establishing two main fronts on both sides of the frontier. La Linea and the Linces control transport to the U.S.-Mexican border and the other gang, the Aztecas, manages the U.S. side, with operations in El Paso, Dallas and Austin. In Mexico, the cartel operates in nearly 21 states and its main areas of influence include Sinaloa, Durango, Jalisco, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Colima, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Puebla, Morelos and Mexico City.




The Yakuza

The name yakuza originates from the Japanese game of Oicho-Kabu, which is like Black Jack. In Oicho-Kabu, the goal is to reach 19, not 21 like in Black Jack. The word Ya means 8, Ku means 9, and Za means 3. When you add the three numbers, you get 20, which is worthless in Oicho-Kabu. The yakuza, therefore, are outsiders of society.

It is important to note that the yakuza is merely a term for the Japanese that don’t fit in with society. The yakuza are, as noted before, outcasts from society, and they have no place to turn but to each other. Often they are criminals and poor wretches that blindly follow the path of crime in an effort to succeed. The yakuza are completely different from the Yakuza. The Yakuza are a form of organized crime. The yakuza are just outcasts and petty criminals.

The yakuza say that they originated from the Machi-yakko. The Machi-yakko were the middle class of medieval Japan that took up arms against the Kabuki-mono. The Kabuki-mono were a band of thieves and misfits that rampaged across Japan, stealing from innocents. Because Machi-yakko defended the cities from Kabuki-mono, they weretreated as the heroes of the city. They would take in the weak, the poor, the criminals, and give them the nurturing safety they needed. In return, they would work for their “father”, the Oyabun, who was the leader of the Yakuza. Machi-yakko can be likened to Robin Hood, who was weaker than his foes, but stood up to them to protect the innocent. Themodern day yakuza didn’t come about until the middle of the seventeenth century. It was comprised mostly of gamblers (Bakuto), street merchants (Tekiya), and other such outcasts and misfits from society.

During the industrialization of Japan to follow, the yakuza began to gain control over the construction and shipping industries. As a result, the Bakuto sect of the yakuza began to fall away, and the Tekiya began to take over. Because of the increasing influences of Europe and America, politics began to play an important role in yakuza business. The yakuza began to line the pockets of key individuals in the government to be able to get away with certain illegal acts. In the depression of the 1920s, many gangs sprang up at the expense of the poor, and began to train assassins, thugs, and rogues. These gang members were masters of blackmail, extortion, and hired muscle. During the 1930s, the yakuza gang members assassinated two prime ministers, two finance ministers and assaulted many politicians and important people. The yakuza who committed these acts are called Unyoke, which means “political right” in Japanese.

The end of World War II saw Japan occupied with American troops. When the Americans began to ration out food to control the Japanese, the local yakuza became powerful and rich with the black market. As a result of the enforced poverty upon the Japanese, however, a new breed of yakuza came to exist. This new breed of yakuza were called the gurentai, Japanese for “street hustler”. Gurentai were like the Japanese version of the Mob in 1930s America. The yakuza decided to drop the sword and pick up the gun. They began to steal and rob from anyone and everyone; shopkeepers, people in the underworld, and even ordinary citizens were victims of the yakuza. In the five-year period between 1958 and 1963 yakuza membership increased 150% to about 184,000 members, more than the entire Japanese army at the time. These members of the yakuza weren’t all under the same banner, though. There were an estimated 5200 different gangs that these yakuza members followed. These gangs began to run out of room and started to increase their violence and mark their territories in bloody wars. However, there was one yakuza who wanted unity. His name was Kadama Yoshiro. He took these gangs and united them under a name: Yakuza.


Yakuza Structure

There are 2 types of yakuza, clan- yakuza and freelance yakuza.


Freelance Yakuza

A Freelance yakuza is a yakuza that do not commit the bigger crimes. They usually belong to a small group of hustlers.

They have however some difficulties to survivel, the clan- yakuza do not allows anyone to operate within their territories. Clan- yakuza can tip the police about crimes that the freelance yakuza are about to, or already have committed.

If the freelance yakuza earns to much money, the clan yakuza may kill the freelance yakuza or make him disappear without a trace.

Clan- yakuza sometimes use the freelance yakuza. If the clan yakuza needs something doing that is classed as ‘illegal’ by the Clan, then they will use a freelance to do the dirty work, for cash of course.


Clan yakuza

Clan yakuza, as the name suggests, belongs to a clan. The clan can be compared with the Sicilian mafias “family”. The clan are structured as a common family in traditional Japan. The clan have a hierarchy structure. The clans head chief is called Oyabun, that means Father. Beneath him he have his children(Wakashu) and brothers(Kyodai). These are not his real children and brothers.

All the members in the clan obeys Oyabun and in return he protect them against all dangers. Oyabun is almighty within the clan and his word is the law. All obeys him without hesitation even if it means danger for its own life.


Los Zetas Cartel

The Zetas, once the military wing of the Gulf Cartel, are now among one of the most violent groups in Mexico, with a growing presence in neighboring Guatemala. The Zetas started out as an enforcer gang for the Gulf Cartel, taking their name from the radio code used for top-level officers in the Mexican army. Not only are they highly organized, but their use of brutality and shock tactics — petrol bombs, beheadings, and roadblocks — has led the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to describe them as perhaps “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups.”


In terms of technology, the Zetas are known to favor AR-15 assault rifles, grenade launchers and even use helicopters. In terms of sophistication, thanks to their widespread intelligence networks encompassing individuals from street vendors to federal commanders, the group is able to launch full-scale attacks against police stations and prisons seemingly at will. And in terms of shock-and-awe violence, the Zetas are perhaps unmatched.



In 1997, 31 members of the Mexican Army’s elite Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales – GAFES) defected and began working as hired assassins, bodyguards and drug runners for the Gulf Cartel and their leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen. The original leader of the armed group, Lieutenant Arturo Guzman Decenas, alias “Z1,” was killed in 2002. After the arrest and extradition of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the Zetas seized the opportunity to strike out on their own. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias “El Lazca,” the Zetas, numbering approximately 300, set up its own independent drug, arms and human-trafficking networks.

The group’s logistical sophistication helped catapult the Zetas to power. It is known to use state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology, and employs military-like discipline for planning operations and gathering intelligence.



The Zetas now operate in a series of isolated, semi-independent cells, stretching from the Gulf coast down to Central America, with their stronghold the corridor stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Many of the original 31 members have been killed off, but what the thousands of new recruits may lack in Special Forces training, they make up for in brutality and shock tactics. Sub-groups within the Zetas include a wing dedicated to arms trafficking, known as the “mañosos,” youths who provide street intelligence, known as “halcones” and “ventanas,” and “officers” who coordinate kidnappings and killings with sophisticated communications technology, known as “la direccion.”

Currently the Zetas are fiercely fighting the Gulf Cartel for control of the key border state of Tamaulipas, especially the cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, as well as the key economic hub of Monterrey, in the nearby state of Nuevo Leon. They are almost totally dominant throughout the Gulf coast (including the southern states of Tabasco, Chiapas and Yucatan, granting them control of key trafficking routes from Central America), though since September 2011 the group may be facing a challenge from Sinaloa Cartel factions for control of Veracruz. The Zetas also have a presence in Mexico City and on the Pacific Coast. There is also some evidence the Zetas operate in Texas and other U.S. states and cities.

The sophistication and brutality of the original Zetas forced other drug cartels in Mexico to react and form their own paramilitary wings, as was the case with Familia Michoacana, which also received training from the Zetas. The Zetas appear particularly unafraid to launch bold attacks against the state, or to engage in war-like firefights with the security forces. This has made them one of the principal threats to the Mexican government, which is currently struggling to establish its authority in the various zones where the Zetas operate.

The Zetas are currently working alongside the Beltran Leyva Organization, and have also established alliances across the hemisphere, including possibly with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, with Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” from the Oficina de Envigado in Colombia, and U.S. gangs based in the Southwest, especially Texas.

Back when the Zetas still worked for Cardenas Guillen, they would often receive backup from local police forces for security detail. The organization is still known for its power to corrupt security forces — they have coordinated massive prison breaks, and are known to have deeply penetrated the police forces in Hidalgo and Tabasco, among other regions.

But unlike other cartels, the Zetas do not buy their alliances so much as they terrorize their enemies. They torture victims, string up bodies, and slaughter indiscriminately, as was the case in August 2010, when 72 illegal migrants were killed by Zetas and dumped in a hole in Tamaulipas; or the assassination of a mayor that same month; or the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate in June. For now, the Zetas are not as well known for bribing government officials into cooperation. Rather than building up alliances, the Zetas prefer to take military-style control of territory, keeping it through sheer force. Intimidation seems to be their preferred tactic.

It might not be an exaggeration to say the Zetas are among the most vicious drug cartels ever to emerge. Not only have they been able to establish drug-trafficking routes through Guatemala and Nicaragua into Mexico, but recent reports indicate that they may have also coopted a cocaine trafficking route into Europe via Venezuela and West Africa, representing yet another lucrative market for the organization. The Zetas have long been better equipped and better trained than their rival cartels. And anxieties have long existed that the Zetas may in fact be better equipped than the police and military forces, deployed to stop the group’s expansion. Indeed, their only true rivals may be the Sinaloa Cartel, who has formed a strategic alliance with their old bosses, the Gulf Cartel, and the Familia, in an effort to slow the rise of this powerful organization.

Amid security crackdowns in Mexico, the Zetas are increasingly shifting their base of operations into Guatemala. They first began to appear in 2007, allying themselves with local traffickers including Walther Overdick. In March 2008 they consolidated their power by killing Juancho Leon, scion of local crime dynasty the Leones, possibly at the behest of other Guatemalan groups. This allowed the Zetas to take over Leones’ territory and move into more of the country, displacing allies as well as rivals. The extent of the Zetas’ hold on Guatemala was made clearer still by the May 2011 massacre of 27 farm laborers in the northern state of Peten, in order to settle a score with the owner of the plantation where they worked. (See InSight Crime’s special report on the Zetas’ operations in Guatemala.)