Monday, December 18, 2017
Mexican Study Offers Insight into Zeta Barbarity and Tyranny
By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)
A new study of the Zetas’
operations in northern Mexico offers a detailed examination of the roots of the organization’s power as well as the
extent of its reign of terror in 2011.
The paper, called “El Yugo Zeta: Norte de Coahuila, 2010-2011,” was written by Sergio Aguayo and Jacobo Dayán, researchers at El Colegio de
México and Universidad Iberoamericana, respectively. They examine the Zetas’ operations in the northern state
of Coahuila, which lies just south of Texas. During the period in question, previously tranquil Coahuila witnessed a severe
downward spiral into violence.
of the study focuses on the Zetas’ control of the prison facility in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, a border town across
the Rio Grande from McAllen. The penitentiary was one of many in the area that suffered from what federal authorities labeled
as “self-government” or “co-government”; that is, the inmates controlled the prison.
As the authors describe
in abundant detail, the jail operated as a self-contained criminal ecosystem. Operating under a chief known as David Loreto
Mejorado, the Zetas functioned as the prison’s maximum authority. Loreto had at his disposal nearly 100 inmate employees,
who served as bodyguards, smugglers, lieutenants, and even carpenters.
See also: Mexico News and Profiles
group constructed a criminal empire modeled after that of the Zetas’ outside the prison walls. They sold drugs and other
contraband to inmates. They charged for access to minor perks, such as use of cell phones, space for conjugal visits, and
junk food. Loreto Mejorado’s men also extorted other inmates, particularly those whose families displayed signs of wealth.
They made millions of pesos a year from the jail-based commerce, most of which they turned around and paid to prison authorities
to ensure their ongoing freedom of action. The Zetas enforced their role through a regime of physical punishment, ranging
from beatings with bludgeons to assassinations.
While the Zetas in the Piedras Negras prison created a self-contained economy, they
operated under the orders of the local Zeta bosses on the outside, and much of their work served to support the larger organization.
One of the jailhouse Zetas’ core functions was running a garage within the walls of the prison, in which they built
hidden compartments into cars to ship drugs across the border.
The Piedras Negras jail also served as a safe house for Zetas boss
Omar “Z-42” Treviño Morales, for use during Mexican Marine raids on the city. On multiple occasions, the
facility hosted parties for Zetas bosses. At some point during Loreto’s unofficial tenure, the Zetas began using the
prison as a site for executions.
and Dayán also spent much of their paper describing the Zetas’ wave of attacks in March 2011, following the defection
of one of their chief lieutenants, Mario Alfonso Cuéllar, who became a witness for U.S. prosecutors. The Zetas responded
by ordering attacks against anyone and anything associated with Cuéllar, which resulted in scores of disappearances
and killings. Many of those who were targeted had nothing whatsoever to do with organized crime, and only the scarcest connection
This episode has been covered in the past, but the focus has typically been on the city of Allende, Coahuila. Aguayo and Dayán argue that the violence was likely
as severe, if not more so, in Piedras Negras. They relay witness accounts of the mass execution of 40 people in Piedras Negras.
They also describe the dramatic spike in emergency calls within Piedras Negras, in which citizens reported fires, gunfights,
and other evidence of Zetas reprisals.
Ultimately, the authors estimate the number of dead could reach as high as 300.
InSight Crime Analysis
This study sheds new light on two well-known phenomena: The terrible state of Mexico’s prisons, and the predatory
nature of Zetas’ criminal operations.
Analyses of Mexican jails typically focus on the most spectacular symptoms, ranging
from mass escapes to massacres. “El Yugo Zeta” provides a deeper look at the roots of the problem. What we see is a penitentiary whose leaders
not only look the other way for the Zetas, but have been entirely co-opted, so they operate as one more division of the criminal
larger group has exploited this collusion to alter the fundamental role of prison, and criminals’ expectations for it.
No longer are prison sentences punishments to be endured with a minimum of discomfort; they simply provide a new locale for
the same old criminal activities. The basic goal of a Zetas’ work whether inside or outside of prison didn’t change:
It was to protect and maximize the group’s profits, whether through providing safe harbor for the bosses or by creating
hidden compartments in minivans for cocaine mules.
SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile
amounts to jailhouses serving as colonies of larger criminal organizations. In such a context, the idea of the justice system
serving as an effective deterrent is laughable.
The group’s approach to operating within prison mimicked its broader modus operandi,
which saw society as a resource to be exploited. The authors repeatedly refer to northern Coahuila as the Zetas’ “criminal
enclave,” in which the group demanded loyalty from the whole of society, from prison wardens to municipal police forces
to the relatives of their wayward lieutenants.
This parasitic integration into the community made the Zetas a unique problem, in that
threats to the group implied reprisals against the whole of society. Such threats could come from rival groups, from citizen
resistance, or from government agencies, whether in the U.S. or Mexico. In any such case, the Zetas’ response would
be directed both at the origin of their peril and the civilian population.
This is the worst possible state of affairs from the standpoint
of public security, because the status quo is already dreadful, but any steps to address it will arguably make things worse.
This commentary was first
published in InSight Crime and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective is to increase
the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. Patrick
Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced