Monday, March 16, 2009
The Evolution of 'Los Zetas,' a Mexican Crime Organization
· From the original 31 members, the Mexican organized criminal
faction Los Zetas has grown into an organization in its own right, operating separate
from the Gulf Cartel and just as violent
Between the first of the year
and mid-March, 2009, the Mexican criminal organization most commonly known as "Los Zetas" has been busy. Members of this group
have been linked to a death threat delivered to the president of Guatemala, a grenade thrown into a bar in Pharr, Texas, the
death of a high-ranking military general in Cancun, and a fair share of the organized crime-related deaths registered this
year in Mexico.
Many journalists and analysts
who write about Los Zetas still refer to this group as the enforcement branch of the Gulf Cartel. This was a true description
when the original 31 Special Forces soldiers abandoned the Mexican military to protect a young, upcoming leader of the Gulf
Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen. But today the Zetas have evolved into a separate entity with its own agenda. And it doesn't
take orders from the Gulf Cartel.
The original 31 "Zetas" saw to it that at least another ten men were trained.
Members of Los Zetas, along with Cardenas, bribed, threatened and cajoled local and state police to assist with that protection
detail. In most areas where the Gulf Cartel operated, local and state police formed the outer rings of a four or five ring-deep
security detail for Cardenas and other top leaders of the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas remained at the inner rings, providing close
protection support, and acting on the wishes of Cardenas and their leader, Arturo Guzman Decenas, known as Z1, and the man
for whom Los Zetas was named.
But that was in 2003, when the
Mexican Defense Ministry separated out Los Zetas as the most formidable death squad to have worked for organized crime in
Mexican history. At that time there were perhaps some 300 members of Los Zetas: 30 or so original military deserters and the
men they trained. Across the landscape of Mexican organized crime, no one could compete. These men were intelligence specialists
and experts with a number of different types of weapons and operational tactics.
In many ways, these men innovated
paramilitary tactics in use by organized crime today. Many agree that these men raised the bar in the Mexican criminal underworld,
forcing Cardenas' rivals to find former military soldiers of their own, just so they could compete.
Until Cardenas' extradition to
the US, where he has awaited trial in Houston, Texas since January, 2007, members of Los Zetas guarded the Gulf Cartel's most
important sections of turf, especially Nuevo Laredo, where in 2005 many observed the initial escalation of violence that has
so many worried today.
But the dominance of Los Zetas
couldn't last. Over time, many of the original 31 have been killed, and a number of younger, ambitious men have filled the
vacuum, forming something that resembles what Los Zetas used to be, but still very far from the professionalism and efficient
style of the original Zetas.
The term Los Zetas, some argue,
has been turned into a brand name – a calling card used to control businessmen and politicians deemed useful to further
the advances of either the Gulf Cartel, the new Zetas Organization, or even smaller groups who have capitalized on the name
brand but have very little connection to the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas Organization.
Los Zetas vs. the Zetas Organization
"Most of the original Zetas are
gone, but the legacy of the Zetas still lives on," Jose Wall, Senior Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
and Explosives told ISN Security Watch. He added that the current version of the Zetas carries a "more brutal mindset" and
apart from military and police deserters relies on a force of regular guys who have very little training with no future and
no job to speak of.
Ralph Reyes, chief of the Mexico
and Central America division for Global Enforcement at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), echoed Wall's sentiments.
Reyes pointed out in a recent phone call that one of the factors that have always separated the Zetas from other armed criminal
groups in Mexico is their willingness to engage in firefights.
That is partially why most of
the original 31 Zetas are either in custody or dead. What followed in their wake is called the Zetas Organization by an intelligence
officer in the US who focuses on Mexican organized crime and spoke with ISN Security Watch, but asked not to be named. The
Zetas Organization, he agrees, is very powerful in its own right and beholden to none, not even the current leaders of the
Gulf Cartel. Unlike Los Zetas of old, the Zetas Organization operates more like a network comprised of isolated cells that
all maintain control over a certain slice of turf between the US/Mexico border from El Paso east, moving south along Mexico's
eastern coast, south through Veracruz, and east through Tabasco, and into the Yucatan peninsula.
"Back in the PRI days, the rule
of the game was different," Dr. George Grayson, a Latin American politics professor at The College of William and Mary in
Virginia, US, and a senior associate at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told
ISN Security Watch. "Now the members of the Zetas are young and mean, and they don't take orders from anyone."
The men and women who form part
of this network likely number in the thousands. They operate a range of illicit businesses from the regular extortion of street
vendors to charging other groups for passage through their territory, to gun and drug smuggling, human smuggling, kidnapping
for ransom, money laundering and the operation of a vast network of illegal businesses.
Surrounding this organization
is a larger than life myth, a sort of Zeta brand name that some criminals use just to scare their targets, explains Howard
Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"The Zetas have become something
of a myth like Pancho Villa," Campbell said, adding, "their origins are obscure, and no one knows how many there are."
The Zetas' Intelligence Networks
Part of what made Cardenas so
powerful as an organized crime boss was his ability to smooth talk people into working for him. Like everyone else in his
line of work, he didn't hesitate to offer bribes, but unlike others he was able to maintain a very well organized network
of individuals who serviced him and his Zetas with a constant flow of information.
For a while the Zetas were considered
the best-informed paramilitary force in Mexico. But once Cardenas left Mexico to face justice in Houston, he took with him
the connections to a large number of individuals who spoke only to him, successfully ripping out a large section of the Gulf
Cartel's tightly woven intelligence network.
"Osiel's extradition broke up
networks, and the Zetas now intimidate rather than bribe," Bruce Bagley, chairman of the Department of International Studies
at the University of Miami, told ISN Security Watch.
One of the original Zetas, Heriberto
Lazcano, aka "El Lazca," and Cardenas' brother, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, aka "Tony Tormenta," took over control of the Gulf
Cartel in January 2007, and have been able to keep the organization together until today, according to Ricardo Ravelo, a Mexican
journalist who has closely followed Mexican organized crime for the Mexican news weekly Proceso.
Yet they have not been able to
rein in the growing network and name that grew out of the time when Los Zetas were the most feared death squad in Mexico.
The Gulf Cartel still maintains
a robust intelligence network across Mexico and deep into the US, especially in Houston and Dallas, and in cities located
across the southeast and well into the mid-Atlantic and northeast, but it does not compete with the networks maintained by
the old guard of drug traffickers, and Cardenas' rivals like "El Chapo" Guzman who has kept his decades' old networks in play.
Today, the Gulf Cartel relies
more on intelligence gathered from a broad group of less sophisticated sources, argues Grayson. "Street vendors buy from the
Zetas or they are killed," Grayson explained in a recent phone call with ISN Security Watch.
"They operate a very well developed
grass roots network," he added, echoing a 31 December article published by the Mexican daily El Universal. Entitled "Inside Los Zetas," the article explained how small-time shop owners, men who stand on
highway overpasses, and a regularly updated list of local and state politicians and police officers all serve as look outs
and informants for the Zetas Organization.
Grayson also explained that the
Zetas are not as focused on high-level, federal politicians, preferring to keep close ties with local and state officials.
"If they do go after a high-level politician, it's only to make sure they control him when he comes back to the state level
to become governor or something similar," Grayson said.
Crossing the Border
Nevertheless, the Zetas Organization
remains a formidable criminal faction, operating both in Mexico and, to an extent, inside the US. Rumors of training camps
continue to circulate, and there is proof that this organization knows how to amass weaponry. In November 2008, Mexican military
soldiers seized from a Gulf Cartel safe house in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas the largest cache of weapons ever
discovered in Mexican history: over 500 firearms, including .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles, rocket and grenade launchers,
assault rifles and over a half-million rounds of ammunition.
At the time of the discovery,
many analysts in the US considered the cache as a bold statement of what the Gulf Cartel intends to do. Some headlines even
read that the Zetas "prepared for war."
Speculation about highly trained
members of Los Zetas crossing the US border to hunt down and kill civilian targets seemed to be confirmed when a group of
men dressed like a Phoenix police SWAT team entered a house and killed a Jamaican drug trafficker in June 2008.
Police in Birmingham, Alabama,
who responded to a multiple homicide in a suburban apartment complex in August 2008, suspected Zeta involvement in the death
of a number of Mexican men, found with their throats cut. Money and drugs in the apartment were not disturbed. Police in Georgia
suspected Zeta involvement when they discovered that a man had been bound and tortured in the basement of a house near Atlanta.
Yet in none of these cases have
authorities publically confirmed that members of the original Zetas carried out these hits, often referred to as "account
adjustments" in Mexico. While it remains unlikely that Mexican members of the Zetas Organization cross the border to maim
and kill rivals, there is strong evidence that connects Mexican organized crime with a robust and widespread prison gang population
in both California and Texas.
The Barrio Azteca and Texas Syndicate
prison gangs are most likely the Zeta operatives inside the US. There may also be some links to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13),
as well as other, smaller groups. Yet these groups are contractors, hired for one job, maybe two, explained the intelligence
officer. But there is little to no evidence to suggest that these groups operate on some sort of retainer, or use the Zeta
name to spread fear inside the US.
Back in Mexico, however, the
Zeta Organization has become more and more of a headache, both for the Mexican government and for the organizations' rivals.
During a conference call on 6
March with journalists, US Senator John Cornyn said that the Gulf and the Sinaloa drug trafficking organizations – including,
presumably, the Zetas Organization – could together muster an army of some 100,000 guns. Compared to the 130,000 troops
within Mexico's regular army, it appears that Mexican organized crime is powerful enough to topple a nation, but Campbell,
speaking to the cyclic nature of Mexican organized crime, warned against making such assumptions.
"There's a system of cartel infiltration
in the government for its own benefit, and this system has been going on for 50 years," Campbell said.
"This short term, sensationalistic
treatment [of Mexican drug trafficking organizations] is not going to ruin the US or overthrow the Mexican government."
This article was originally published at ISN Security Watch (03/11/09).
The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality
and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security
Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized
crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior
correspondent for ISN Security Watch, and editor of Southern Pulse – Networked Intelligence. He is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, forthcoming from Hyperion in
the summer of 2009. For issues related publications go to http://www.samuellogan.com/publications.html.
Reprinted with permission from ISN