Beginning as a group of deserters from an elite unit of the armed forces at the service of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas would go on to become one of the most powerful and feared cartels in Mexico before infighting and the loss of leaders started the organization's decline.
The Zetas started out as an enforcer gang for the Gulf Cartel predominantly made up of former soldiers with specialized training. Their military background and unbridled ferocity proved an underworld game changer, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describing them as perhaps "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups."
The Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel in the mid-2000s to become its own group, and launched an offensive that would see them expand throughout Mexico and Guatemala. The group employed a new model of organized crime, based on violently seizing and holding territory, using fear rather than corruption as a first resort.
However, after rising to the point where they could compete with the mighty Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas are now a fragmented force, held together by little more than a name and increasingly dependent on local criminal revenues rather than the transnational flow of drugs for their income.
In 1997, 31 members of the Mexican Army's elite Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales - GAFES) defected and began working as hired assassins, bodyguards and drug runners for the Gulf Cartel and its leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. The original leader of the armed group, Lieutenant Arturo Guzmán Decenas, alias "Z1," was killed in 2002. After the arrest and extradition of Cárdenas, the Zetas seized the opportunity to strike out on their own. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias "El Lazca" or "Z3," the Zetas, numbering approximately 300, set up their own independent drug, arms and human-trafficking networks.
The Zetas' logistical sophistication and military training helped catapult the group to power. They became known for their use state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology, and for employing military-like discipline in planning operations and gathering intelligence.
Unlike other cartels, the Zetas did not buy alliances so much as terrorize their enemies. They tortured victims, strung up bodies, and slaughtered indiscriminately, as was brutally illustrated in August 2010, when the Zetas killed 72 migrants and dumped their bodies in a hole in Tamaulipas. The Zetas preferred to take military-style control of territory, holding it through sheer force and exploiting its criminal opportunities. Although their military training was diluted over time, their brutality was not. Rival cartels struggling against the Zetas began to adopt some of their tactics, further ramping up violence in the country.
By 2010, the Zetas had established a presence in 405 Mexican municipalities, over twice as many as their nearest rivals. They had also moved into Guatemala, seizing strategic drug trafficking territories with their trademark violence. However, they were in nearly constant war with the Gulf Cartel over 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. The Zetas also became embroiled in numerous other cartel wars across the country, including taking on the might of the Sinaloa Cartel.
During this time, the Zetas built up a network of international drug trafficking contacts, stretching through Central America to Colombia, and with reported connections in Venezuela, Europe, the United States and West Africa. However, the territorial control of each local faction also allowed them to take their share from any other criminal activity taking place in their "plaza," and the Zetas also began to profit from everything from kidnapping migrants to pirating DVDs. The group also began looking for political protection, and would go on to infiltrate state governments in states like Tamaulipas and Veracruz.
Despite their rapid ascent, by 2012, the Zetas were beginning to crack, sparking a process of fragmentation and atomization that continues today. It was becoming increasingly difficult to coordinate all of the local factions centrally, but the fault line that would ultimately cause a split was the deteriorating relationship between the Treviño brothers, Miguel, alias "Z40," and Alejandro, alias "Omar" or "Z42," who divided into rival factions -- the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste) and the Zetas Old School (Los Zetas Vieja Escuela).
The Zetas were further undermined by a steady series of high-profile blows to the leadership, the most serious of which was the loss of Lazcano, who was killed in October 2012 -- although the mysterious disappearance of his body shortly after sparked conspiracy theories he remains alive today. The Zetas also lost Miguel Treviño, who was arrested in July 2013, and his brother Alejandro, who was arrested in March 2015.
With no clear national, centralized leadership, the Zetas have broken into splinter groups and largely independent local factions, each with their own operations, priorities and alliances. The breakup of the organization's national cohesion, in addition to a huge loss of influence in Central America, has made transnational drug trafficking increasingly difficult, and local factions now often rely more on profiting from crime in territories they hold than from international drug trafficking. Still, smaller, more localized cells that once assumed the Zetas’ brand continue to operate throughout much of the Zetas’ former territory.
In February 2018, Mexican marines captured Zetas capo José María Guizar Valencia, alias “Z43." Valencia allegedly operated in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas, along with overseeing drug shipments through Central America. The capture of Valencia is likely to cause further atomization within an already-fractured and weakened organization.
Since 2019, a number of Zetas splinter groups have gained in strength. They are, however, a far cry from the original gang, with a strong regional presence but little chance of a national breakout across Mexico. The main one are the Old School Zetas (Zetas Vieja Escuela), based in Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, Quintana Roo, and Zacatecas. However, the Talibanes are another major splinter group, fighting for control of drug trafficking routes through San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and Tamaulipas.
The Zetas as an unified criminal organization no longer exists. The group's fragmentation into several smaller splinter cells has made it increasingly difficult to identify those in leadership positions.
A 2017 DEA report indicates that Z40's cousin Juan Gerardo Treviño-Chávez, alias “El Huevo,” is the most powerful leader of the highly-fragmented Zetas. Other sources have been more specific, stating that El Huevo currently serves as leader of the Northeast Cartel faction.
Treviño-Chávez was arrested in Nuevo Laredo in March 2022, which provoked a wave of violence by Northeast Cartel forces. He was soon after extradited to the United States where he faces charges of drug trafficking.
The Zetas criminal empire once had a presence that stretched across Mexico, with their stronghold stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey. Their reach also expanded into Central America, especially Guatemala. However, now the group is limited to Mexico and occupies a patchwork of territory across the country. The Zetas' most critical areas remain Tamaulipas and the Gulf Coast.
Allies and Enemies
The Zetas have made numerous temporary alliances with groups such as the Familia Michoacana and the Beltrán Leyva Organization, as well as waging war against any number of rivals. However, two things generally remain the same: their rivalry with their former parent organization the Gulf Cartel, and their rivalry with the Sinaloa Cartel. Nevertheless, even this may be changing in the Zetas' current fragmented state where alliances and disputes are more localized.
Internationally, the Zetas reportedly built alliances with criminal organizations in Colombia, Central America -- in particular Guatemala -- Venezuela, West Africa, Europe and the United States. It is unclear how much of this network now remains.
The Zetas’ days as Mexico’s most feared cartel and a drug trafficking organization with a vast transnational reach are now over. However, this does not mean the name will fade any time soon. Instead, they are likely to continue the process of fragmentation, and splinter cells like the Northeast Cartel and the Old School Zetas will continue to operate with an increasingly local focus on their criminal activities.