The Zetas are not the only extremely violent, military-style criminal organization from Mexico. Yet, they are the only one that operates in 350 Mexican municipalities, as well as numerous others in Guatemala and Central America. Why have they been able to expand faster than their rivals?

The Zetas’ expansion has been dizzying. A recent Harvard study** shows that since 1998, the Zetas have operated on average in 33 new municipalities every year. (See methodology for the study here in pdf.) The second most expansionist group, the Gulf Cartel, expanded by 19.7 new municipalities during the same time period. By 2010, the Zetas operated in 405 municipalities, 161 more than the Gulf Cartel, and was 2.3 times larger than the Sinaloa cartel. (See maps of the Zetas’ expansion from the study at the base of the article.)

Explaining how the Zetas were able to achieve this expansion is more difficult. Most analysts have focused on form. From the beginning, the Zetas seemed fearless and were distinctively cruel towards their enemies. They quickly became synonymous with torture and beheadings, mangled piles of bodies and horrifically bloody scenes in public spaces. They did not seek allies. They sought domination. They did not defeat their enemies. They destroyed them.Mexico Zetas Expansion

This showed in their decisions about where to expand. Unlike other cartels, the Zetas were among the first that openly challenged the traditional powers and attempt to wrest control of these rivals’ strongholds. There were, quite simply, no boundaries for this organization. Other groups have since followed suit helping create the current chaos in Mexico, but not to the extent of the Zetas.

Indeed, the areas where Zetas operate have seen the highest number of drug related homicides. In 2010, municipalities where Zetas operate experienced 10,169 drug-related homicides, whereas municipalities where Gulf Cartel operated had only 6,388. Tijuana is much less violent, having only 4,772 homicides. 

However, the Zetas are not alone in their use of violence or terror. Many other drug cartels are also known for their cruel and sadistic techniques. The now common practice of beheading members of rival cartels first started among members of the Familia Michoacana when, in 2006, the heads of six men were thrown by this group on a dance club floor in the state of Michoacan. This tactic is regularly employed by numerous organizations across the country.

Furthermore, other violent techniques, like that of leaving messages and deploying billboards next to the bodies of tortured and executed enemies, is not exclusive to the Zetas. A compilation by the Harvard researchers of 1,672 such messages left from 2007 to 2010 show that 382 of all these messages were signed by Familia members, a bit more than the 361 signed by Zetas.

Analysts also argue the Zetas achieved this expansion due to their military background. The Zetas were recruited from Mexican Special Forces in 1999 by the leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas, who used them as his private army. They were trained in cutting-edge warfare techniques, military strategy, and professionally versed in the use of weapons. This gave them a distinct advantage, especially at their onset.

However, we are a long way from these origins. All of the 14 original founders are dead or in jail. What’s more, the numbers of military personnel in the Zetas’ ranks has waned in recent years, especially as it entered a full-scale war with its progenitors, the Gulf Cartel. Recruiting and training has become haphazard at best. Increased use of untrained gangs has become commonplace.

Despite this decline in personnel, however, the Zetas have continued to expand. In addition, other cartels have tried to replicate the Zetas military prowess without achieving the same results. Neither Sinaloa, which created what was known as the Pelones, or the Familia Michoacana, which was originally trained by the Zetas, or the Beltran Leyva Organization, which is now aligned with the Zetas, has ever expanded at the rate of the Zetas.

So how do we explain the Zetas’ expansion? To begin with, the Zetas have never looked at themselves as a drug trafficking operation. They have always been a military group whose primary goal is to control territory. In essence, the Zetas understood something the other groups did not: they did not need to run criminal activities in order to be profitable; they simply needed to control the territory in which these criminal activities were taking place.

This outlook changed what they saw as propitious territory. The Zetas, for example, sought new markets, areas that had traditionally a role in drug trafficking or major criminal activity. Out of the total of municipalities in which Zetas have operated since their onset, the Harvard study showed that 381 were previously a territory of another criminal organization. The closest cartel to Zetas is Gulf, a cartel that operated in 325 municipalities held by others, followed by La Familia with 260.

They did this with the aforementioned combination of brute strength and training but most importantly, a singularly focused model. Their soldiers had one job: take over the territory and extract rent from the other criminal actors. They did not have to establish the infrastructure. They simply had to stick to their goal, then extort petty drug dealers, human traffickers, human smugglers, thieves and contraband traders.

To be sure, they are making money from international drug trafficking, which also plays into their strategy. But this too is modified to the Zetas’ overall strategy of controlling territory. Guatemala, for example, is the perfect choke point for cocaine shipments moving north, an area the group can control militarily and thus gain control of these shipments moving north.

The Zetas, according to Southern Pulse, appear to be trying to set up similar choke points in Mexico. Southern Pulse calls it the “Zeta Cross” theory. That cross stretches from city of Tampico in the east to the state of Durango in the west, and from the city of Nuevo Laredo in the north to parts of the state of Jalisco in the south.

The Harvard study shows a more haphazard expansion than Southern Pulse would have us believe, but one that also illustrates an attempt to set up an east-west choke point. What’s more, according to this study, Zetas operate in every single one of Mexico’s states.

However, their overall expansion obeys a different logic that is less about what drug markets are the most profitable and more about what illegal markets are in play. These illegal markets have lower barriers of entry than international drug trafficking giving the Zetas a final, decisive advantage: they can use the easily obtained local proceeds to fund the continued expansion.

In sum, the Zetas’ expansion is less about their terror techniques and military prowess, and more because of their singular focus, easily replicable model, and multiple and local revenue streams. The results for the Zetas have been stunning. The results for Mexico are depressing.

* Rios has a PhD. in Government from Harvard University, where she did this research on criminal organizations. She now works at the Mexican government’s Finance Ministry.

** Coscia, Michele, and Viridiana Rios. “Knowing Where and How Criminal Organizations Operate Using Web Content.” CIKM, 2012. Available in pdf form here

mexico zetas 2005
mexico zetas 2006
mexico zetas 2007
mexico zetas 2008
mexico zetas 2009
mexico zetas 2010

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...