The best way to think about the Zetas drug gang may be as a franchise like McDonald's, where independent contractors can pay a fee to operate under the group's brand name.
The media often reports that "alpha" cartel is fighting "beta" cartel to take control of the plaza, or that "gamma" cartel members were detected in Central America, Europe or Australia. This poses the question of how these organizations operate and how they evolve over time. The question is important because the nature of the organization of a criminal gang affects the ways in which it can influence society and the political system. It also dictates the strategies that the government can use to confront these groups.
The problem is that in academic circles there is very little useful information about how drug trafficking organizations operate and how they are organized. Mexico's security forces arrest hundreds of suspects every year but it is obvious that these arrests do not produce much useful intelligence on the organization of these criminal groups. In addition, we have yet to see a turncoat of the level and depth of the Italian Joseph Valachi and his detailed confessions about the Mafia's criminal activities.
Without solid information, we have to work with hypotheses. The conventional academic wisdom is that trafficking organizations are typically more like networks than hierarchies. The networks are composed of different kinds of organizations, some of which may be hierarchies or loose alliances between friends or business associates. One advantage of networks is that the member organizations, or nodes, can be replaced and new connections can be easily constructed to replace the previous ones. Governments constantly attack a network just to see how new nodes replace the previous ones. A disadvantage of networks, from the perspective of drug traffickers, is their dynamism and complexity: an ever-changing network is difficult to handle. Also, nodes have ample space to maneuver freely.
This brings us to the Zetas. The myth about the emergence of this organization states that a group of Mexican Army elite forces defected and joined the ranks of the Gulf Cartel and became its armed wing. The training and military discipline of the Zetas gave them a degree of hierarchy and competence.
However, my opinion is that the Zetas have evolved over time due to pressure from government forces and battles with other drug cartels. Despite continued defections from the government security forces, it is more difficult for the Zetas to recruit specialists with high levels of training and discipline.
This is where a "franchise" model is useful. A franchise is a mechanism in which different businesses may join under a recognized quality brand name. The McDonald's corporation operates only about 15 percent of its restaurants, while the rest are handled by independent contractors who pay fees to the parent company.
In a model of this kind, the more entrepreneurial "Zetas" can "apply" to operate in a particular plaza and pay fees to the lead organization for the use of their name. Or a gang can independently negotiate a franchise with the relevant Zeta node. In addition, Zetas franchisees typically diversify into activities such as extortion or kidnapping to earn additional profits.
In addition to the problems posed by a complex network, the Zetas franchise faces additional challenges because of counterfeiters. Given the chaos of criminal competition, virtually anyone can claim to be a Zeta without taking many risks. Unlike the Sicilian mafia, which is a strong monopoly, the Zetas "brand" is easily falsifiable. Thus, an extortionist can exert additional influence over their victims by claiming to be affiliated with the Zetas, and runs a relatively low risk for doing so.
Finally, governments can confront these networks only by adopting the same type of organizations, i.e. networks. Thus, the key is to create highly mobile and fluid coordinating mechanisms. It is easier said that done.
John J. Bailey directs the Mexico Project at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. This article is reprinted with permission from Borderland Beat, which translated it from a Spanish version published by El Universal.