The Zetas were once Mexico’s most feared and violent organized crime threat. Now, the group is a fragmented shadow of its former self. InSight Crime looks at what happened, and what's next for the once-powerful cartel.
The founders of the Zetas were defectors from the Mexican Army’s Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales – GAFES), a US-trained unit considered one of the most elite in the region. Originally they acted as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel, but in the mid-2000s, the ex-soldiers broke away and formed their own autonomous group.
By 2010, the Zetas had used extraordinary levels of violence to rapidly expand and become one of Mexico’s most notorious criminal groups. But a series of arrests and deaths of important figures sent the group into a downward spiral. A lack of clear leadership caused the Zetas to splinter, allowing rival groups to assert dominance over Mexico’s organized crime landscape.
InSight Crime spoke with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, the author of the 2017 book "Los Zetas Inc.," to discuss the genealogy of the Zetas, how they rose and fell from power, and where the group stands today in the context of Mexican organized crime.*
InSight Crime (IC): The Zetas organization was founded by a group of deserters from the special forces of the Mexican Army. Why did they defect to form a crime group?
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera (GC): To understand the Zetas it’s important first to understand the Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel started smuggling alcohol in the 1930s during prohibition in the United States. But the capacity of this group to build, network and develop connections with the government at all levels, specifically in Tamaulipas, gave them the ability to expand in a way that not many groups had.
When cocaine routes changed from the Caribbean to land routes in Mexico in the late 1990s, the Gulf Cartel transformed into a drug trafficking organization by utilizing the networks they had created earlier. They were now dedicated to drug trafficking at a time when cocaine was a very lucrative business. The Gulf Cartel was allegedly protected by authorities and there were even allegations that the Mexican government had connections to the cartel and provided protection to its leader Juan Garcia Ábrego. But after Garcia Ábrego was extradited to the United States in 1996, there was a fight for control and the winner happened to be Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
The origins of the Zetas are in the special forces of the Mexican Army that were trained in the counterinsurgency against the Zapatistas [leftist militant group] in southern Mexico. But these forces were not used at that time and were instead sent to northern Mexico to conduct operations against drug trafficking when the Mexican government started to work more closely with the United States to fight the so-called war on drugs.
Soon after Cárdenas Guillén took control of the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990s, he met a group of 31 special forces members from the Mexican Army led by Lieutenant Arturo Guzmán Decenas, alias “Z1.” This group would eventually form the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel before later becoming the Zetas. This special forces group stopped being a part of law enforcement and became the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel to help protect Nuevo Laredo, the most important city for the cartel.
Nuevo Laredo is a very important passageway in the state of Tamaulipas for drugs heading to the United States because of its connection to routes leading to northeastern US cities, and also because of the fact that US customs does not have the capacity to verify every shipping container that passes through. This is why the Zetas started to assist the operations of the Gulf Cartel in Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas helped the Gulf Cartel consolidate control of the main trafficking plaza.
IC: And when did the Zetas start to break away from the Gulf Cartel?
GC: In 2003, Cárdenas Guillén was arrested and sent to prison in Mexico where he still controlled the Zetas. But when he was extradited to the United States in 2007, he could no longer control the Zetas and this is when the group started to break away from the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas started to consolidate power and control over drug trafficking operations in Nuevo Laredo under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias “El Lazca” or “Z3.”
The Zetas transformed the face of organized crime in Mexico because they had military training. They diversified and started to commit extortion in exchange for offering protection. The utilization of bribing local police in the city started to drive more violence than in the past. This transformed the criminal model in Tamaulipas. The Zetas and Gulf Cartel were called “La Compañía,” or the company, because they had become so powerful that they were collaborating with each other. But the Zetas soon achieved independence. They continued working with the Gulf Cartel, but because of the growth and importance they achieved, they eventually became "La Compañía" all by themselves.
By 2010, the Zetas wanted to control more of the drug trafficking in Tamaulipas. After a Zetas leader was assassinated by a Gulf Cartel leader in 2010, the Zetas and Gulf Cartel allegedly separated, but in reality the Zetas’ structure had already grown to the extent that they could operate independently and control routes and plazas that were formerly headed by the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas wanted to control the criminal businesses that they had opened and wanted to open up the plaza owned by the Gulf Cartel to other businesses like human smuggling, which would later translate into several different massacres, including the execution of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas.
IC: What caused the Zetas to fall from power and eventually fragment into other splinter groups?
GC: The Mexican government had already declared war on drugs and organized crime by the time the war between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas began, and the cartel war attracted the Mexican government. Lazcano, who led the Zetas’ transition towards independence and away from the Gulf Cartel, was arrested and allegedly killed in 2012 by Mexican security forces -- his body later disappeared. This was an important moment when the Zetas started to fragment. When these things happen you see a lot of instability and a desire from others to take these leadership roles.
SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile
The Treviño brothers, Miguel, alias “Z40,” and Alejandro, alias “Omar” or “Z42,” were considered very violent leaders of the Zetas after Lazcano’s death and had been connected to several massacres such as the March 2011 Allende massacre. But this gradual fragmentation of the Zetas became even more visible after Z40 was detained in 2013 and Z42 was detained in 2015. This was in part due to the militarization of Mexico’s war against organized crime, which further fragmented and weakened the group to the extent that we see today. At the beginning of current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term in late 2012 and early 2013, a new, violent group that controlled important parts of territory was not the Zetas anymore, but now the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG).
IC: The Northeast Cartel is one of several splinter cells of the Zetas and was originally headed by the Treviño family. Does this faction have any chance of becoming as dominant as the Zetas once were?
GC: The Northeast Cartel has control over operations in the state of Coahuila because the Treviño brothers had a very special role in activities there because of the protection they had from security forces. But the Northeast Cartel has also fragmented and has lost a lot of power in Piedras Negras in Coahuila, among other places. Today it seems that this fragmentation has become much more evident. There aren’t any indications that the group has extended its presence in the way that the Zetas used to in past years. It’s possible the Northeast Cartel, much like the Zetas before them, doesn’t have the capacity to expand any more due to the significant fragmentation they’ve experienced.
IC: What is the outlook for the Zetas’ criminal operations in Mexico? The Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are arguably the most talked-about and strongest cartels in Mexico, but where do the Zetas fit into this conversation?
GC: Today, the Zetas are not what they used to be. The fragmentation of the Zetas has been enormous. The Zetas Old School (Zetas Vieja Escuela) and the Northeast Cartel are now the most important factions of the Zetas. But it’s hard to identify, due to this severe fragmentation, whether or not some elements of these groups were even part of the original Zetas. It’s difficult to link them to the personnel of the initial members because most of them are dead or in jail now. It’s difficult to keep track of all of these groups and establish a genealogy as clear as we could before when we knew who was in the hierarchy of this organization. The Zetas structure was never very hierarchical, but there were some very obvious leaders that we could identify. Now we’re talking about groups that are dedicated to one criminal activity, and not a criminal corporation that was controlling different criminal businesses with different cells throughout Mexico.
* This transcript was edited for clarity and length.