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Los Zetas (pronounced [los ˈsetas], Spanish for "The Zs") is a Mexican criminal syndicate, regarded as one of the most dangerous of Mexico's drug cartels. They are known for engaging in brutally violent "shock and awe" tactics such as beheadings, torture, and indiscriminate murder. While primarily concerned with drug trafficking, the organization also runs profitable sex trafficking and gun running rackets. Los Zetas also operate through protection rackets, assassinations, extortion, kidnappings and other activities. The organization is based in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas. The origins of Los Zetas date back to the late 1990s, when commandos of the Mexican Army deserted their ranks and began working as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel. In February 2010, Los Zetas broke away and formed their own criminal organization, rivalling the Gulf Cartel.
They were at one point Mexico's largest drug cartel in terms of geographical presence, overtaking their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel. However, in recent times Los Zetas has become fragmented and seen its influence diminish. As of March 2016, Grupo Bravo (Bravo Group) and Zetas Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas) had formed an alliance with the Gulf Cartel against Cartel Del Noreste (Cartel of the Northeast). In March 2019, former Texas Republican congressman Chip Roy introduced a bill that would list the Cartel Del Noreste faction of Los Zetas, Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Gulf Cartel as foreign terrorist organizations. United States President Donald Trump had also expressed interest in designating cartels as terrorist organizations. However such plans have been delayed at the request of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Los Zetas was named after its first commander, Arturo Guzmán Decena, whose Federal Judicial Police radio code was "Z1", a code given to high-ranking officers. The radio code for commanding Federal Judicial Police officers in Mexico was "Y" and those officers are nicknamed "Yankees", while Federal Judicial Police in charge of a city was codenamed "Z"; thus they were nicknamed as "Zetas", the Spanish word for the letter.
After Osiel Cárdenas Guillén took control of the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s, he found himself in a violent turf war. To keep his organization and leadership from rival drug cartels and from the Mexican Army, Cárdenas sought out Decena, a retired army lieutenant. Decena lured more than thirty deserters from the elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) to become his personal bodyguards, and later, as his mercenary wing. These deserters were enticed with salaries much higher than what they were paid by the military. Some of these former GAFE members reportedly received training in commando and urban warfare from the Israeli and U.S. Special Forces.
Once Guillen consolidated his power, he expanded the responsibilities of Los Zetas, which began to organize kidnappings, protection rackets, extortion, securing cocaine supply and trafficking routes known as plazas (zones) and executing its foes, often with extreme violence. However, in November 2002, Decena was killed in a military action at a restaurant in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, allowing Heriberto Lazcano ("Z3") to take control of the group. In response to the rising power of the Gulf Cartel, the rival Sinaloa Cartel established Los Negros, an enforcer group similar to Los Zetas but not as complex or successful. Upon the arrest of Guillen in March 2003 and his extradition in 2007, the Zetas took a more active leadership role within the Gulf Cartel and their influence grew within the organization.
The Zetas' membership ranges from corrupt federal, state, and local police officers, and former U.S. Army personnel, to ex-Kaibiles, the special forces of the Guatemalan military. Over time, many of the Zetas' original thirty-one members have been killed or arrested; a number of younger men have filled the vacuum, but the group as currently extant remains far from the efficiency of their paramilitary origins.
Los Zetas was partially responsible for a qualitative increase in violence during the Drug Wars. Because the cartel was quite new, it competed with more established cartels by using extreme brutality. This strategy proved effective and helped Los Zetas become one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico. However, other cartels began to copy the Zetas' brutal methods to ensure they could survive. This resulted in the violence in Mexico escalating qualitatively to much more brutal levels.
Split from the Gulf Cartel and Civil war between Los Zetas and Gulf cartel
Following the capture and extradition of Cárdenas, Los Zetas became so powerful that they outnumbered and outclassed the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence by 2010. As a result of this imbalance, the Cartel tried to curtail their own enforcers' influence and ended up instigating a civil war. In addition, the Cartel, through its narco-banners in Matamoros and Reynosa, accused Los Zetas of expanding their operations to murder, theft, extortion, kidnapping – actions that the Cartel allegedly disagreed with. Los Zetas countered by posting their own banners throughout Tamaulipas, noting that they had carried out executions and kidnappings under orders of the Cartel and they were originally created for that sole purpose. In addition, Los Zetas charged that the Cartel was scapegoating them for the murders of innocent civilians.
Reports vary as to who triggered the formal split and why. Some sources claim that Guillén, brother of Cárdenas and one of the successors of the Gulf Cartel, was addicted to gambling, sex, and drugs, leading Los Zetas to perceive his leadership as a threat to the organization. Other reports mention, however, that the divide occurred due to a disagreement on who would take on the leadership of the cartel after the extradition of Cárdenas. The candidates from the Cartel were Guillén and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, while Los Zetas wanted to hand the leadership to their own head, Lazcano. The Cartel also reportedly began looking to form a truce with the rival Sinaloa Cartel, which Los Zetas did not want to recognize, allegedly preferring an alliance with the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. Samuel Flores Borrego, a lieutenant of the Cartel, killed Zetas lieutenant Sergio Peña Mendoza, alias "El Concorde 3", due to a disagreement over the drug corridor of Reynosa, whom both protected. Los Zetas demanded that the Cartel hand over the killer, but they refused.
When the hostilities began, the Cartel joined forces with its former rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana, aiming to take out Los Zetas. Consequently, Los Zetas allied with the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel.
Los Zetas infighting
In early 2010, Miguel Treviño Morales, the former second-in-command of Los Zetas, had reportedly taken the leadership of the Zetas and displaced Lazcano. Lazcano was initially content to have Morales in his ranks, but reportedly gave Morales too much power and underestimated his violent nature. Morales' active leadership gained him the loyalty and respect of many in Los Zetas, leading to many to eventually stop paying their tributes to Lazcano. Los Zetas are inherently an unstable organized crime group with a long history of brutal violence, and with the possibility of more if the infighting continues and if they fight off without a central command.
Los Zetas have also carried out multiple massacres and attacks on civilians and rival cartels, such as:
- the 2008 Morelia grenade attacks (15 September), where 8 were killed and over 100 were injured;
- the 2010 San Fernando massacre (24 August), where 72 migrants were found dead;
- the 2011 San Fernando massacre (6 April – 7 June), where 193 people were killed;
- the massacre of 27 farmers in Guatemala (discovered on 15 May 2011);
- the 2011 Monterrey casino attack (25 August), where 52 people were killed;
- the Altamira prison brawl (4 January 2012), where 31 Gulf cartel inmates were killed;[deprecated source]
- the Apodaca prison riot (19 February 2012), where 44 Gulf cartel inmates were killed and 37 Zetas escaped from prison;
In addition, sources reveal that Los Zetas may also be responsible for:
- the 2010 Puebla oil pipeline explosion, which killed 28 people, injured 52, and damaged over 115 homes.
- the 2011 massacre at Allende, Coahuila where an estimated 300–500 civilians were killed after the Zetas accused two local men of betraying the organization.
- The BPM Festival shootings (16 January 2017), which killed 5 people (two Mexicans, one American, one Canadian, and one Italian) and injured 15 at the Blue Parrot nightclub in Playa del Carmen. A large hand-painted sign was hung in the town which contained specific references to BPM and its co-founder and was signed by "El Fayo Z".
As of 2012, Los Zetas had control over 11 states in Mexico, making it the drug cartel with the largest territory in the country. Their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, had lost some territories to Los Zetas, and went down from 23 states in dominion to 16.
By the beginning of 2012, Mexico's government escalated its offensive against the Zetas with the announcement that five new military bases will be installed in the group's primary areas of operation.
In a May 2013 interview with the International Crisis Group, researcher Daniel Haering stated, "The old networks were disrupted by the Zetas, and now the Zetas have disintegrated into Zetillas. They are splinter groups ('grupúsculos'), not big operators."
On 14 July 2013, it was reported that the Mexican Marine Corps captured the Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, also known as "Z-40" in Anáhuac, Nuevo León, near the border of Tamaulipas state. The authorities allege that he was succeeded by Omar Treviño Morales (alias Z-42), his brother.
On 12 October 2013, Mexican authorities captured alleged top Zetas operative Gerardo Jaramillo, alias "El Yanqui". His arrest ultimately resulted in the discovery and seizure of a large Zetas weapons cache and supply stash, including "assault rifles, several grenade launchers, magazines, 2,000 rounds of ammunition of various calibres, bullet-proof vests and balaclavas".
On 3 March 2015, Mexican security forces arrested the last known leader of the remaining Zetas structure, Omar Treviño Morales (alias "Z-42") in a suburb in Monterrey, Nuevo León.
On 23 March 2015, Ramiro Pérez Moreno (alias "El Rana"), a potential successor of "Z-42" was captured, along with 4 other men, carrying 6 kilos of cocaine and marijuana, rifles and one hand grenade.
On 9 February 2018, Mexican authorities arrested the new leader José María Guízar Valencia alias "Z-43" in Mexico City in Roma neighbourhood. US offered $5m reward for his capture, he is responsible for importing thousands of kilograms of cocaine and methamphetamine to the US every year and murdered an untold number of Guatemalan civilians during the systematic takeover of the Guatemalan border region.
On 9 April 2019, José Roberto Stolberg Becerra, also known as "La Barbie," was arrested in Jalisco. He was reported to have been the leader of the cartel's Los Zetas la Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas) faction.
On 26 May 2019, an operative for Los Zetas in the Veracruz municipalities of Las Choapas and Agua Dulce was arrested by the Mexican Navy.
In early July 2019, Los Zetas leaders Jorge Antonio "El Yorch" Gloria Palacios, the second-in-command of the Cartel Del Noreste (CDN) faction of Los Zetas, and Hugo "El Ganso" Sanchez Garcia, who served as head of Los Zetas in San Fernando, were detained by Mexican authorities.
In January 2020, Los Zetas regional leader José Carmen N., also known as "El Comandante Reyes," was arrested in Oaxaca. He was believed to be in charge of the gang's operations in 12 municipalities in Veracruz, including Acayucan, Minatitlán and Coatzacoalcos, known as the state's most violent towns. The same month, Verónica Hernández Giadáns, the Attorney General of Veracruz, admitted that her cousin Guadalupe “La Jefa” Hernández Hervis was in fact chief of operations for Los Zetas and also a close association of former Los Zetas leader Hernán “El Comandante H” Martínez Zavaleta, who was arrested in 2017.
In March 2020, senior Los Zetas operative Hugo Alejandro Salcido Cisneros, also known as “El Porras” or “Comandante Pinpon,” was killed in a gun battle with police in Nuevo Laredo. Salcido Cisneros was the leader of the “Tropa del Infierno,” a group of hitmen under the direction of the Cartel Del Noreste (CDN) fraction of Los Zetas. Several other Tropa del Infierno gunmen was injured in the clashes as well.
Tamaulipas state corruption
The drug violence and political corruption that has plagued Tamaulipas, the home state of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, has fueled fears of it becoming a "failed state" and a haven for drug traffickers and criminals. The massacre of 72 migrants and the discovery of mass graves in San Fernando, the assassination of the gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú, the increasing violence between cartels, and the state's inability to ensure safety have led some analysts to conclude that "neither the regional nor federal government have control over the territory of Tamaulipas."
Although drug-related violence had existed long before the Mexican Drug War, it often happened in low-profile levels, with the government "looking the other way" in exchange for bribes while drug traffickers went about their business – as long as there was no violence. During the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the Mexican government would conduct customary arrests and allow cartel business to continue.
After the PRI lost power to the National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 presidential election, all the "agreements" between the previous government and the cartels were lost along with the pax mafiosa. Tamaulipas was no exception; according to PAN politician Santiago Creel, the PRI in Tamaulipas had been protecting the Gulf-Zeta organization for years. The PAN has claimed that government elections in Tamaulipas are likely to encounter an "organized crime influence."
In addition, there are formal charges that three former governors of Tamaulipas – Manuel Cavazos Lerma (1993–1999), Tomás Yarrington (1999–2005), and Eugenio Hernández Flores (2005–2010) – have had close ties with the Gulf-Zeta organization. On 30 January 2012, the Attorney General of Mexico issued a communiqué ordering the governors and their families to remain in the country as they are being investigated for possible collaboration with cartels. In 2012, Yarrington was further accused of money laundering for Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
In Tampico, Mayor Óscar Pérez Inguanzo was arrested on 12 November 2011 due to his "improper exercise of public functions and forgery" of certain documents. In mid-2010, both Flores and the mayor of Reynosa, Óscar Luebbert Gutiérrez – both members of the PRI – were criticized for claiming that there were no armed confrontations in Tamaulipas and that the widespread violence was "only a rumor." Months later, Flores finally acknowledged that several parts of Tamaulipas were "being overrun by organized crime violence." Gutiérrez later recognized the work of the federal troops and acknowledged that his city was experiencing "an escalation in violence."
On 25 March 2010, forty inmates escaped from a federal prison in the city of Matamoros. On 5 April 2010, at a prison in Reynosa, a convoy of ten trucks packed with gunmen entered the prison grounds without resistance, broke into the cells, and liberated thirteen "extremely dangerous" inmates. Eighty-five inmates escaped from the same Reynosa prison six months later. In Nuevo Laredo, on 17 December 2010, 141 inmates escaped from a federal prison. The federal government condemned the mass prison break and stated that the work by the state and municipal authorities of Tamaulipas lack effective control measures, and urged them to strengthen their institutions.
A confrontation inside a maximum security prison in Nuevo Laredo on 15 July 2011 left 7 inmates dead and 59 escaped. Five on-duty guards have not been found. The governor of Tamaulipas then recognized his inability to secure federal prisoners and prisons. Consequently, the federal government assigned the Mexican Army and the Federal Police to guard some prisons until further notice; they were also left in charge of searching for the fugitives. It has been reported that more than 400 prison inmates escaped from several Tamaulipas prisons from January 2010 to March 2011 due to corruption.
On 17 September 2012 in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, more than 130 inmates from Los Zetas organized a massive prison break in broad daylight by walking directly from the front gate to several trucks outside the prison.
Tamaulipas police forces are the worst paid in Mexico despite being one of the states hardest hit by drug violence; in Aguascalientes, a state where violence levels are much lower, policemen are paid five times more than in Tamaulipas. As a result, most police forces in Tamaulipas are believed to be susceptible to corruption due to their low wages, and accept bribes from organized crime groups. The National Public Security System (SNSP) has condemned the low police salaries, and demanded that state and municipal authorities create better payment programs for policemen so they can have a fair wage for themselves and their families.
Although the Joint Operation Nuevo León-Tamaulipas issued in 2007, along with several other military-led operations by the federal government, brought thousands of troops to restore order in Tamaulipas, on 9 May 2011, the Federal Police and the Mexican Army disarmed all police forces in Tamaulipas, beginning with the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. The following month, the federal government was asked to send in troops to combat the drug cartels in the area, to "consolidate actions on public safety" and "strengthen the capacity of their institutions." However, the troops could only replace half of the policemen in the state. Consequently, the government is currently building military bases in Ciudad Mier, San Fernando and Ciudad Mante. On 7 November 2011, 650 policemen were released from their duties because they had either failed or refused "corruption control tests."
Los Zetas have set up camps to train recruits as well as corrupt ex-federal, state, and local police officers. In September 2005 testimony to the Mexican Congress from the then-Defense Secretary Clemente Vega, indicated that the Zetas had also hired at least 30 former Kaibiles from Guatemala to train new recruits because the number of former Mexican special forces men in their ranks had shrunk. Los Zetas' training locations have been identified as having a similar setup as military GAFE training facilities.
Los Zetas members may also possess a "Los Zetas Commando Medallion" for their service to the organization.
Analysts indicate that Los Zetas are the largest organized crime group in Mexico in terms of geographical presence. They are primarily based in the border region of Nuevo Laredo and Coahuila with hundreds more throughout the country. They have placed lookouts at arrival destinations such as airports, bus stations and main roads. In addition to conducting criminal activities along the border, they operate throughout the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas, and in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, as well as in Mexico City.
They are also active in several states in the United States, including Texas. The cartel also has important areas of operation in Guatemala, where their operations are reported to have begun as early as 2008. They are active in Europe, specifically in Italy with the 'Ndrangheta.
Early in 2012 it was reported that 'Los Zetas' are operating in the northern Venezuela–Colombia border, and have teamed up with the Colombian outfit called Los Rastrojos. Together they control the drug trafficking routes in the Colombian La Guajira and the Venezuelan state of Zulia, Colombia as the producing country and Venezuela as the main port route toward the U.S. and Europe.
Indications of the broken alliance between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began in September 2009. On 24 February 2010, gunmen onboard hundreds of trucks marked C.D.G, XXX, and M3 – the insignias of the Cartel – clashed with Zetas gunmen in the northern cities of Tamaulipas. The clash between these two groups started in Reynosa, and then expanded to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. The war then spread out through eleven municipalities of Tamaulipas, nine of them bordering Texas. Soon, the war reached Tamaulipas' neighboring states of Nuevo León and Veracruz. Their conflict also spread to U.S. soil, where Cartel hit men killed two Zeta members in Brownsville, Texas on 5 October 2010.
Confrontations between the two groups temporarily paralyzed entire cities in broad daylight. Many of the municipalities throughout Tamaulipas were described by witnesses as "war zones," with many businesses and homes burned down. In the midst of violence and panic, local authorities and media tried to minimize the situation and claimed that "nothing was occurring," but the facts were impossible to cover up.
For many years, there were long-fought battles between the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels, that eventually led the two to reevaluate the situation and decide whether or not this combat was in either organization's best interests. The complexity and territorial advantage of Los Zetas forced the Gulf Cartel to seek an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana.
Following the conflict with the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas joined forces with the Beltrán Leyva Cartel (who was simultaneously separating from the Sinaloa Cartel) as well as the Juarez Cartel and Tijuana Cartel or Arellano Félix organization, to counteract the alliance of the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana cartels. Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one formed by the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel; the other faction integrated by the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel.
In a 2010 report, it was noted that the American street gang, Sureños, maintains ties with the Los Zetas cartel in California and South Carolina. A recent report from the FBI shows US street gangs growing closer with Mexican cartels. Within the United States, Los Zetas are using social media as a method of communication between the two countries and are also using the sites as a method of recruiting young aspiring members who in their perception see the actions of the cartel as glorified and are able to ask how they can join. In addition, Sureños share connections with Los Zetas, as do the gangs MS-13, Mexican Mafia, and Latin Kings.
On 13 February 2017, Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami was sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, with US officials accusing him of facilitating drug shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the US, freezing millions of dollars of assets purportedly under El Aissami's control. The accusation included allegations that EL Aissami had trafficked drugs to Los Zetas.
Law enforcement raids
Following a bilateral law enforcement investigation named 'Operation Black Jack', executed by the ATF, DEA, ICE and the FBI, three Zeta safe houses were identified in Mexico and raided by Mexican Federal security forces, releasing more than 40 kidnapped individuals, and making the largest weapons seizure in the history of Mexico; it included 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and several .50-caliber rifles, 287 hand grenades, 2 M72 LAW anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests, 3 anti aircraft weapons and 14 sticks of dynamite.
In October 2008, the FBI warned that a Zetas' cell in Texas would engage law enforcement with a full tactical response, should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations. The cell leader was identified as Jaime González Durán (The Hummer), who was later arrested on 7 November 2008, in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
In February 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced a program called "Operation Border Star Contingency Plan" to safeguard the border if the Zetas carried out their threats to attack U.S. security officers. This project included the use of tanks, airplanes and the National Guard "as a preventive measure upon the possible collapse of the Mexican State" to protect the border from a Zetas attack and receive an eventual exodus of Mexicans fleeing from the violence.
In 2012 the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Los Zetas as one of four key transnational organized crime groups, along with the Brothers' Circle from Russia, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Yakuza) from Japan, and the Camorra from Italy.
Also in 2012, the United States posted a $5,000,000 reward for information leading to the successful capture of Miguel Treviño Morales. Trevino-Morales is known in Los Zetas as "Z-40" On 12 June 2012, "Z-40" and two of his brothers were arrested and indicted on charges in the State of Texas after raids and dozens of arrests in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.
There is a great lack of funding being sent to Mexico by the United States to combat Los Zetas, although they address Mexico in the media as their biggest concern. The Mérida Initiative that was put in place by the Bush administration in the United States suggested that $1.4 billion in funds was to be sent to Mexico over a three-year period to combat narco trafficking from the U.S.-Mexico border to Panama, but few of these funds have yet to be received in Mexico. In addition, the Obama administration made a very modest effort by way of support for the struggling country although "former drug czar Barry McCaffrey told Congress that Merida, was ‘a drop in the bucket,’" and that the United States "’cannot afford to have a narco-state as [their] neighbour.’" Thus far, of the resources promised by the United States Government regarding Mexico and their ongoing drug combat, little has been received, principally because Mexico's 2012–18 PRI government failed to honour the clause of improving and upholding human rights in the Mexican Federal Republic.
Anonymous' Operation Cartel
The operation to expose information of people who work with Los Zetas, dubbed "Operation Cartel", was reportedly started as a result of an Anonymous member being kidnapped during Operation Paperstorm in Veracruz, a once peaceful city.
The New York Times mentioned that Los Zetas has access to sophisticated tracking software due to the fact that they have infiltrated Mexican law enforcement agencies, and that online anonymity might not be enough protection for Internet users.
In popular culture
- In the 2011 short Keep Your Enemies Closer, the head of Los Zetas is a dangerous drug lord named Jimmy "The King" Agilar (played by Manny Pérez).
- In the 2010 film Predators, one of the main characters, Cuchillo (played by Danny Trejo) is a ruthless and infamous enforcer for the Los Zetas.
- Los Zetas are the main focus of the Gangland season 3 episode To Torture or to Kill (3x11). In this episode, in addition to showing the brutal crimes committed by Los Zetas, the episode is focused on a notorious member of the cartel: Rosalio "Bart" Reta (a notorious sicario from Los Zetas known for becoming a Los Zetas sicario in his teens).
- Illegal drug trade
- Mérida Initiative
- Mexican Drug War
- Narco tank, improvised fighting vehicles used by Los Zetas
- War on Drugs
- List of gangs in Mexico
- List of Mexico's 37 most-wanted drug lords
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