HomeNewsThe Zetas’ Model of Organized Crime is Leaving Mexico in Ruins
The Zetas’ Model of Organized Crime is Leaving Mexico in Ruins

The Zetas’ Model of Organized Crime is Leaving Mexico in Ruins


It was a Saturday, around 12:30 p.m. local time, when a caravan of three vehicles loaded with well-armed men and at least one woman began a violent rampage through Reynosa, a Mexican city of about 700,000 people that borders McAllen, Texas, and serves as an important hub for numerous criminal groups. 

According to a detailed account by the local news outlet Elefante Blanco, the caravan began in the eastern part of the city, stopped and robbed a car, then continued to a neighborhood near the city center where the carnage began in earnest. 

They first shot and killed seven men inside a house. Then they traveled to another neighborhood and shot and killed two more men. A short distance away, they shot and killed two other men. Seconds later, they shot and killed two women and a man from the same family and stole the vehicle they were driving. 

An hour and 15 minutes after the rampage began, local authorities finally confronted at least part of the caravan near the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, connecting the city to the United States. Shots were fired. One of the attackers was killed and another captured. Inside one of the cars, authorities found two women bound and gagged. 

Several other alleged assailants fled. Authorities caught up to them again some six hours later. Authorities said more gunfire was exchanged; four of the alleged attackers, one of whom was a woman, were killed. 

SEE ALSO: The Next Generation of Criminal Groups Driving Violence in Mexico

However, the other victims were civilians, according to Elefante Blanco, citing interviews and social media posts from neighbors, politicians, and colleagues of the dead. They included a nursing student, a person who worked at a local maquila, a shop owner and another person in that shop. 

Indeed, the rampage seemed designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties. In all, at least 14 of those killed had no criminal ties, and the state governor later lamented the massacre of “civilians.” Shortly after, authorities touted the arrests of more than a dozen suspects, including the alleged Gulf Cartel boss in the city of Rio Brazo, known as “La Vaca,” who officials said they’d been after for more than two years. 

The timely captures by a troubled special operations group were curious, especially since relatives of two of those captured said they had been kidnapped in April. And the explanations for the massacre were even less forthcoming. Was it a fight between factions of what is left of the once-vaunted Gulf Cartel? Perhaps it was an effort by a faction of what is left from the Zetas to displace their rivals? In either case, the armed group had sent a message: no one is safe. 

‘So You Learn to Respect Us’

In 2006, when the Zetas were but a speck in the constellation of criminal organizations, they captured a couple of police in Acapulco, cut off their heads and left a message that read: “So you learn to respect us.” 


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Later, the words “Para que aprendan a respetar” appeared on flag-like logos circulating on the internet. It was impossible to know if the Zetas had promulgated the expression or the internet logo, but it stuck, and for good reason. 

The core of the Zetas model was fear. Formed by several Mexican Special Forces deserters in the late 1990s, they operated first as the enforcement arm for the Gulf Cartel’s leader, Osiel Cárdenas. The Gulf Cartel’s birthplace was the stretch of land between Reynosa and Matamoros, a key corridor for drug trafficking, contraband, human smuggling, human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

Cárdenas was from Matamoros, but he was not satisfied with just that territory, so in the mid-2000s, after he’d used the Zetas to secure important sections of the northeastern border with the United States, he sent them to places like the southern state of Guerrero – where Acapulco is, and where rivals had long operated – and Michoacán, a perennial epicenter of drug production and trafficking. Eventually, the Zetas’ leaders would find a seat at the table, trafficking drugs with the Gulf Cartel’s upper echelon. 

The Zetas soon began to mold other organizations and make their own name, not just with spectacular beheadings of police and ominous messages, but with a new way of operating. The model was based on control of physical space, for which the Zetas were built. Using a combination of sophisticated technology, military tactics and brutal violence, the group exerted their will over wide swaths of territory where they collected rent from all illegal and legal enterprises in those areas. 

They did not necessarily run these businesses. They simply taxed them. These included everything from contraband liquor to prostitution, local drug peddling, theft and retail. They also kidnapped migrants and extorted local businesses. The difference between them and the traditional cartels was stark. They won territory first, then usurped every business in that space. The underworld refrain that it is best not to calentar la plaza (heat up the plaza) to keep authorities away did not apply. There were no negotiations, no alliances, and no mercy for those who disobeyed. They lived by another refrain: Para que aprendan a respetar.

While the Zetas’ top leaders began to partake in some of the international drug trafficking activities of the Gulf Cartel, as illustrated in this 2009 US indictment, the lower echelons made money from the extraction of these rents and predatory criminal activities. The model served the Gulf Cartel, since it made it easier to finance their mini-army and their expansion into places like Guerrero and Michoacán. 

It worked. According to a Harvard study, between 1998 and 2010, the Zetas expanded to 33 new municipalities per year, the most of any criminal group; the Gulf Cartel was second during that time period, expanding to just under 20 per year. But, as the Gulf leaders and others would find out, this expansion came with a heavy price.

When Mexican authorities captured Cárdenas in 2003, the Zetas began a process of excising themselves from the Gulf Cartel. Part of this impetus came from their varied criminal portfolio, afforded to them because of their new criminal model. Part of it came from ambition. As the Dallas Morning News reported, part of it came from a sense of betrayal, specifically that Cárdenas himself was turning state’s evidence against them after he was extradited to the United States in 2007. He pleaded guilty in 2009 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

War followed. Fighting was particularly intense along the northeast corridor where both had operated for so many years. Few knew, but it was the beginning of a process that would eventually lead to the chaotic June 2021 massacre in Reynosa and many more like it across Mexico over the last decade. 

Derivatives of Derivatives

While the schism between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel was growing, other similar criminal organizations emerged. The most notable of them was the Familia Michoacana. Although it took its name from its home state of Michoacán, it followed at least part of the Zetas’ model: international drug trafficking at the top; territorial control, extraction of rent, extortion and kidnapping at the bottom. It differed in the way it sought more regular local political connections. 

And for a while, as it did with the Zetas, the Familia Michoacana strategy worked. It expanded. But soon, the Familia Michoacana was also splitting at the seams. It now forms part of a pantheon of groups operating in Michoacán, Jalisco and the state of Mexico.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Zetas

The same process was playing out in other areas. In Tijuana, what was left of the various factions of the Tijuana Cartel were fighting for local, as well as international, markets. In Juárez, numerous groups began fighting for local criminal markets at the same time as the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels sought control of the important international trafficking corridor. In Acapulco, numerous former elements of the Beltrán Leyva Organization sought control of the local drug market and parts of the international market.

But none of these multilayered battles played out as brutally as the one for the northeast corridor. It’s not exactly clear why, but it certainly did not help that the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel were both born in the area and knew each other intimately. By 2012, the Zetas themselves split, unable to corral their own members who had entered into local criminal markets. There are now at least four different factions, according to InSight Crime’s last count. The Gulf Cartel suffered its own schisms, splitting into at least three factions, at least two of whom appeared to be involved in the battle on June 19. 

It was, in many ways, inevitable. The Zetas proved that via fearsome messaging and brutal tactics, you could control territory and thus secure numerous local criminal rents, even while you vied for action in the international market. Most of these factions now do the same, focusing on local criminal markets where the bar for entering is far lower than for international markets than seeking a seat at the table with the international players. In the process, they too suffer their own schisms. 

Over time, these derivatives of derivatives have become even more primitive than the Zetas once were, which leads us to the June massacre in Reynosa. In late July, three groups along the Reynosa-Matamoros corridor left messages in various public places that they had reached a peace agreement.

"We have families, too," one part read.

Still, few believe the peace will hold, and in early August, the Attorney General’s Office captured another five suspects they linked to the case. Authorities also pointed to two derivatives of the Gulf Cartel as the culprits: the Ciclones (Cyclones) and Escorpiones (Scorpions), who may have teamed up to battle the Metros, another Gulf derivative.

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