In a testament to the Zetas drug gang's international reach, a handful of former members of the Colombian Special Forces are alleged to be actively involved in training the Mexican criminal group.
According to El Tiempo, four ex-members of the Colombian Special Forces are offering their military expertise to the Zetas. Citing anonymous sources, the Colombian newspaper claims that the individuals -- two captains and two non-commissioned officers -- served time in prison for violating human rights before being released in 2005. Once free, the men allegedly had contact with ex-military members of the Zetas drug gang, with whom they had trained in the United States. Since then the group of men have been working for the Zetas, providing “training in command and intelligence operations.”
Although the paper reports that the Colombian officers have been linked to several attacks carried out by the Zetas in Mexico, it should be noted that when the individuals joined up in 2005, the Zetas were still working as the security wing of the Gulf Cartel.
During this period, the Zetas’ relationship with Mexican security forces was more significant, as many of the original 31 founding army members were still alive and active, and likely retained some of their contacts. Once the Zetas began to assert themselves and expand as an independent drug trafficking organization, they saw a shift away from their original military-heavy membership, as more and more members rose up the ranks from the streets.
Nevertheless, the group is still influenced by military hierarchy. The Colombian alleged Zetas members, for instance, retained their military ranks in the world of organized crime. According to El Tiempo, the two lower ranking officers are the “right hand men” of the captains, who travel extensively from Colombia to Mexico and even the United States.
That the Zetas may have developed such close ties to former elements of the Colombian security forces comes as an alarming indicator of the group’s spread across the region. The Zetas have been rolling out their sphere of influence over the past several years, especially in Central America. This phenomenon has been driven in part by increased security crackdowns in Mexico, which encouraged the country's drug cartels to shift parts of their criminal networks elsewhere. But much of it is due to the group’s expansionist strategy, which relies on muscling their way further down the drug distribution chain -- which means gaining control of the business further south. As was evidenced by the May massacre of more than two dozen Guatemalans, the Zetas have shown an alarming propensity towards employing extreme violence to spread influence.
Despite their expansion, the Zetas are not yet thought to have developed a direct connection to cocaine production sources in Colombia. Last month’s announcement by authorities that individuals from the Daniel “Loco” Barrera and Rastrojos drug gangs could be supplying the Zetas with cocaine was the first indication that the group could potentially have done so, but as InSight Crime noted, the details surrounding the allegation seem sketchy at best.
Currently, the prevailing wisdom on the group is that they rely on contacts in Guatemalan and Honduras to obtain large shipments of cocaine from South America. But if the Zetas have close enough ties to Colombia that many of their members are trained by former Colombian soldiers, it suggests that they may be closer to the source than is generally thought. Even if this is true, however, the group’s level of infrastructure in Colombia is by any measure far less extensive than that of their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, who have long had ties to drug producing groups in the country.