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 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 one a severe downward spiral into violence.
Much 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.
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This 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, in order 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 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.
Aguayo 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 to Cuéllar.
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 empire.
The 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.
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This 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.