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.)