Los Zetas is one of the most powerful and violent cartels of the seven primary cartels currently operating in Mexico. In addition to drug trafficking, it is accused of money laundering, human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, intellectual property theft, and executions, making it a truly “polycriminal” organization. Part of its strength comes from its strategy of taking over territories where criminal activity already flourished and co-opting that activity for itself. While Mexico bears the brunt of the violence stemming from this drug trafficking organization (DTO), Los Zetas’ reach extends throughout Central America, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The actions of this group have significant transnational impact, generating instability and demanding resources wherever it operates.
Los Zetas did not begin as a drug trafficking organization, but as the enforcement branch of the Gulf Cartel. In the late 1990’s, Osiel Cardenas Guillen was gaining control of the Gulf Cartel, but there were still several rivals for that position. His grasp on the cartel at that point was tenuous, and he understood that he would be a primary target for violence until the territory was consolidated. To defend himself, Guillen recruited 31 men from the Mexican military to serve as his bodyguards, many of who had served in the Grupos Aeromoviles de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), a Special Forces unit. This group would become the foundation of Los Zetas.
Once Guillen felt secure in his position, he expanded the role of the Zetas. Between 1997 and 2004, Los Zetas were in charge of executing rival leaders in addition to providing personal security. Arturo Guzman (Z-1), Rogelio Gonzalaz Pizana (Z-2), and Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3) led most of the execution missions, with operations “often capped off with an unprecedented act of barbarism.” Their Special Forces experience contributed greatly to their success, as they were better trained than the members of other cartels, the police, and even the military.
Between late 2004 and early 2010, Los Zetas worked to gain its independence from the Gulf Cartel. Guillen was captured by the Mexican military in 2003, which gave Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3), who was by then the leader of Los Zetas, the opportunity to strike out on his own. Lazcano recruited from Guatemalan Special Forces and increased training camps in the state of Tamaulipas, the home of Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. In addition to its previous activities, Los Zetas worked to gain control of the drug trafficking corridors, also known as plazas, charging smaller DTOs for the use of Zeta controlled routes. Los Zetas has also been tied to several massacres and prison riots, most notably the San Fernando Massacre of April 2011 that left 193 people dead. Its willingness to use violence to achieve its goals has led to its reputation as “most formidable death squad to have worked for organized crime in Mexican history.”
Lazcano remained in control of Los Zetas until October 2012 when he was reportedly killed by marines in Progreso, Coahuila. Unfortunately, Zetas members stole his body from the funeral home the day after the killing, so an irrefutable positive identification was never possible. After the death of Lazcano, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales (Z-40) took control of Los Zetas. Despite being “scorned as a traitor by many of his own cartel soldiers,” his reputation for excessive violence secured his position.
Most recent reports indicate that Los Zetas has now surpassed both the Sinaloa and the Gulf Cartels in terms of geographic control and power. At the end of 2011, the Zetas operated in more than half of the states in Mexico though it remains concentrated in the Northeast. While most of the other cartels maintain control of their territory by providing security and fulfilling the basic needs of the citizens in their territory, Los Zetas continues to “[prey] on local populations rather than wooing them with jobs, charity and public services.”
Within Mexico, Los Zetas has had a major impact on day-to-day life. However, high levels of violence and drug trafficking are not the only concerns. In Coahuila state, Los Zetas is alleged to have taken control of the coal mining industry, running the mines or buying the coal and then “reselling it to a state-owned company at fabulous margins that can see them make a profit 30 times greater than their initial investment.” With approximately 95% of Mexico’s coal coming from Coahuila, Los Zetas is in control of a major part of Mexico’s economy. Since coal mining is a licit business venture, it creates another avenue for money laundering. In addition, due to the Zetas ability to pay incredibly low wages and operate unsafe mines, coal is even more lucrative than drug running, and is without the risk inherent in illicit activity.
Los Zetas is also involved in petroleum theft from Mexico’s government oil company, Pemex. In 2011, 3.35 million barrels of fuel were stolen from Pemex, depriving the company of more than $1 billion. While not all of the stolen fuel can be traced back to the Zetas, captured Zetas founder Raul Lucio Hernandez told investigators that “rustling crude and refined petroleum had become a major source of income for the gang.” In addition, the Zetas control the vast majority of the territory in which Pemex operates. This appropriation of government resources harms Mexico’s overall economy and impacts its ability to function as a major player in the global market.
The United States
As the nearest neighbor and primary destination for smuggled drugs, the United States has also been impacted by the presence of Los Zetas. In the past year, reports have indicated that Los Zetas may have joined forces with the U.S. gang network Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13), which operates in 42 states and Washington, D.C. The expansion of the Zeta drug network is contingent on developing new distribution channels, and an agreement with MS-13 gives it a pre-existing network of personnel and protection. By working together, both the Zetas and MS-13 increase their power and Los Zetas gains “an agility, responsiveness, and adaptability that [it] currently lacks.” The resulting hybrid of cartel and gang poses a unique challenge to law enforcement officials in both Mexico and the United States.
Spillover violence is another concern for U.S. government officials. The Zetas are concentrated in northeastern Mexico, directly across the border from Texas, and are known to have hubs in Laredo, Dallas, and Houston. The Zeta-attributed killing of 49 people happened in Monterrey, only 80 miles south of the U.S. border. The mass grave with more than 140 victims, also attributed to Los Zetas, was found just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Finally, several murders of U.S. citizens in Texas and Arizona have also been attributed to Los Zetas.
The cooperation between MS-13 and Los Zetas does not end at the U.S.-Mexico border. While originally based in Los Angeles, MS-13 has begun to shift its leadership back to El Salvador. The MS-13 in El Salvador has close ties with Los Zetas, evidenced particularly by the two groups cooperation in human trafficking. In 2010, after a brief war over control of the smuggling route between southern Mexico and the United States, MS-13 and the Zetas came to an agreement in which Los Zetas controlled the northern half and MS-13 controlled the southern half. By the end of 2012, they had “reached a far more favorable and lucrative arrangement” in which only MS-13 coyotes are allowed to use Zeta controlled routes. In addition, Los Zetas has recruited MS-13 members and given them extensive military training while paying the clica, or local level MS-13 gang, for their service. The relationship between Los Zetas and MS-13 strengthens both groups, contributing to further destabilization in El Salvador and Mexico beyond what the groups could have achieved alone.
In early 2011, Los Zetas began their campaign to take control of territory in Guatemala. Guatemala is an important transit point in the narcotics trafficking chain, in part due to its ineffective government. Guatemala is also the point at which the price per kilo of cocaine is still relatively inexpensive. By taking control of territory in Guatemala, Los Zetas’ profits could “almost double relative to what one makes by taking possession in Mexico.” It allied with Guatemalan trafficker Horst Walther Overdick and his groups and used overwhelming violence to overthrow the Leon family, which had previously controlled a majority of the northern territory. Since its incursion into Guatemala, Los Zetas has infiltrated the army and police, set up local businesses for money laundering, and increased the levels of drug consumption in country by paying in product rather than money. The presence of the Zetas in Guatemala is undermining the already weak government and intimidating the local population.
A recent report from Europol indicates that Mexican criminal groups, including Los Zetas, are attempting to gain a foothold in Europe. Cocaine prices in Europe are almost double those in the United States, making it an appealing market for all Mexican DTOs. So far, only a few acts of violence have been attributed to their arrival, though it remains a concern for European officials. Europol singled out Los Zetas in particular for its involvement in human trafficking between Northeast Europe and Mexico.
Los Zetas is believed to have significant ties to the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian mafia group. The ‘Ndrangheta maintain a monopoly on the cocaine market in Europe, making them the ideal partner for a Mexican DTO attempting to break into that market. The mafia group was originally allied with the Gulf Cartel, a relationship that was uncovered during DEA’s Project Reckoning in 2008. Since that time, Los Zetas has become the main cocaine supplier to the ‘Ndrangheta, transporting the drugs from Mexico to New York before shipping them to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. As Los Zetas increases its global territory, it becomes an even harder target for both Mexican and international law enforcement efforts.
Los Zetas also has significant ties with groups and persons in the Middle East. In 2011, the U.S. government charged Ayman Joumma, a Lebanese drug kingpin, with cocaine distribution and money laundering. Allegedly, Joumma and his associates coordinated “multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel” in addition to laundering hundreds of millions of dollars of Zeta drug money through the Lebanese Canadian Bank SAL. Joumma also had ties to Hezbollah, a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. This connection contributes to the increased likelihood of collaboration between Los Zetas and Hezbollah. The U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security noted that the relationship between Hezbollah and DTOs goes back as far as 2005, and proceeds from the drug business could be providing additional funding for the FTO.
A separate incident indicates Iran’s willingness to work with Los Zetas, though not Los Zetas’ desire to assist a terrorist organization. In October 2011, the United States accused Iranian officials of conspiring to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. The Quds Force, part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was also accused of conspiring to traffic opium with the assistance of Los Zetas. According to U.S. officials, an Iranian-American and a Quds officer believed that they were dealing with representatives from the Mexican DTO when in fact they were speaking with a DEA informant. Reportedly, an Iranian acquaintance believed that the informant was a member of Los Zetas, and he approached the informant “with a proposition to hire the cartel to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States,” specifically targeting the Saudi Arabian ambassador. The Iranian government strongly denies any involvement in the plot; however, this incident could indicate a willingness on the part of more fringe groups in the Middle East to contract work to Los Zetas or other DTOs.
Los Zetas is a truly transnational criminal organization, with a reach that spans the United States, Central America, Europe, and the Middle East. In general, organized crime undermines rule of law and governance structures, and contributes to insurgency and instability.Enormous amounts of financial and human capital have to be diverted to contain the violence and criminal activity, which decreases the resources available for standard government operations. Los Zetas is particularly adept at fostering instability wherever it operates. Its connections to other criminal and terrorist organizations serve only to destabilize even more countries, which strengthens its ability to function with impunity. Los Zetas’ acceptance of extreme violence and willingness to participate in any revenue-generating endeavor with almost any business partner make it a considerable threat to the international order.