Logo of Los Zetas
|Founding location||Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico|
|Territory||Mexico: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Chiapas, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Querétaro, Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, State of México, Jalisco, Michoacán
|Ethnicity||Mexicans and Guatemalans|
|Criminal activities||Drug trafficking, people smuggling, kidnapping, money laundering, racketeering, murder, extortion|
|Allies||Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, 'Ndrangheta, Los Mazatlecos. MS13, Sureños, Norteños|
|Rivals||Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, Knights Templar Cartel, Jalisco New Generation Cartel|
Los Zetas (Zetas, Zs) is a powerful and violent criminal syndicate in Mexico, and is considered by the U.S. government to be the "most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico." The origins of Los Zetas date back to 1999, when commandos of the Mexican Army's elite forces deserted their ranks and decided to work as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, a powerful drug trafficking organization. In February 2010, Los Zetas broke away from their former employer and formed their own criminal organization.
Los Zetas are well armed and equipped, and unlike other traditional criminal organizations in Mexico, drug trafficking makes up at least 50% of their revenue, while a large portion of the income comes from other activities directed against both rival drug cartels and civilians; their brutal tactics, which include beheadings, torture and indiscriminate slaughter, show that they often prefer brutality over bribery. Los Zetas are also Mexico's largest drug cartel in terms of geographical presence, overtaking its rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel. Los Zetas also operate through protection rackets, assassinations, extortion, kidnappings, and other criminal activities. The organization is based in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas.
The group's name Los Zetas is given after its first commander, Arturo Guzmán Decena, whose Federal Judicial Police radio code was "Z1", a code given to high-ranking officers. The radio code for Commanding Federal Judicial Police Officers in México was "Y and are nicknamed Yankees, for Federal Judicial Police in charge of a city the radio code was "Z," and thus they were nicknamed as the letter in Spanish, "Zetas."
After Osiel Cárdenas Guillén took full control of the Gulf Cartel in 1999, he found himself in a violent turf war. In order to keep his organization and leadership, Cárdenas sought out Arturo Guzmán Decena, a retired Army lieutenant who lured more than 30 army deserters of the Mexican Army's elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) to become his personal bodyguards, and later, as his mercenary wing. These Army deserters were enticed with salaries much higher than those of the Mexican Army. Cárdenas' goal was to protect himself from rival drug cartels and from the Mexican military. Some of the original members, who had come from the GAFE unit, had during the 1990s reportedly received training in commando and urban warfare from Israeli special forces and American Special Forces units, which included training in rapid deployment, marksmanship, ambushes, counter-surveillance and the art of intimidation.
Once Osiel Cárdenas Guillen consolidated his position and supremacy, he expanded the responsibilities of Los Zetas, and as years passed, they became much more important for the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas began to organize kidnappings, protection rackets, extortion, securing cocaine supply and trafficking routes known as plazas (zones) and executing its foes, often with barbaric savagery.
Guzmán Decena (Z1) was killed by members of the Mexican military on November 2002 in a restaurant in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, allowing Heriberto Lazcano (Z3) to ascend to the apex of the paramilitary group. In response to the rising power of the Gulf Cartel, the rival Sinaloa Cartel established a heavily armed, well-trained enforcer group known as Los Negros. The group operated similar to Los Zetas, but with less complexity and success. Upon the arrest of the Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillen in March 2003 and his extradition in 2007, the Zetas took a more active leadership role within the Gulf Cartel and their influence grew greater within the organization.
Original members 
Some of the original members are: Arturo Guzmán Decena (Z-1), Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3), Carlos Vera Calva (El Vera), Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar (Z-7 or El Mamito), Galdino Mellado Cruz (Z-9), Flavio Méndez Santiago (El Amarillo or Z-10), Jaime González Durán (El Hummer), Rogelio González Pizaña (Z-2 or El Kelín), Efraín Teodoro Torres (El Efra, La Chispa or Z-14), Raúl Hernandez Barrón (El Flander), Víctor Nazario Castrejón Peña, Gustavo González Castro (El Erótico), Óscar Guerrero Silva (El Winnie Pooh), Alberto Trejo Benavides (El Alvin), Luís Alberto Guerrero Reyes (El Guerrero), Mateo Díaz López (Comandante Mateo), Daniel Peréz Rojas (El Cachetes), Luis Reyes Enríquez (El Rex), Nabor Vargas García (El Débora), Isidro Lara Flores (El Colchón), Alfonso Lechuga Licona (El Cañas), Ernesto Zatarín Beliz (El Traca), Prisciliano Ibarra Yepis, Rogelio Guerra Ramírez (El Guerra), Miguel Ángel Soto Parra (El Parra), Galdino Mellado Cruz (El Mellado), Gonzalo Geresano Escribano (El Cuije), Daniel Enrique Márquez Aguilar (El Chocotorro), Iván Velázquez-Caballero (El Taliban, L-50), Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechuga (El Lucky, Z-16), Enrique Ruiz Tlapanco (El Tlapa), Braulio Arellano Domínguez (El Gonzo), Jorge López (El Chuta), José Ramón Dávila (El Cholo), Eduardo Estrada González, Omar Lormendez Pitalúa (El Pita), Eduardo Salvador López Lara (El Chavita), and Germán Torres Jiménez (El Tatanka).
Over time, many of the original 31 have been killed or arrested, and a number of younger men have filled the vacuum, forming something that resembles what Los Zetas used to be, but still far from the efficiency of the original Zetas.
Split from the Gulf Cartel 
It is unclear which of the two – the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas – started the conflict that led to their break up. It is clear, however, that after the capture and extradition of Osiel Cárdenas, Los Zetas had become so powerful that they outnumbered and outclassed the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence. Some sources reveal that as a result of the supremacy of Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel felt threatened by the growing force of their own enforcer group and decided to curtail their influence, but eventually failed in their attempt, instigating a war. In addition, from the perspective presented by the Gulf Cartel, the narco-banners placed by them in the cities of Matamoros, Tamaulipas and Reynosa, Tamaulipas explained that the reason for their rupture was that Los Zetas had expanded their operations not only to drug trafficking, but also to extortion, kidnapping, homicide, and theft. These were actions that the Gulf Cartel allegedly disagreed with. Los Zetas responded and countered the accusations by posting their own banners throughout Tamaulipas. They pointedly noted that they had carried out executions and kidnappings under orders of the Gulf Cartel when they served as their enforcers, and they were originally created by them for that sole purpose. In addition, Los Zetas charged that the Gulf Cartel also kills innocent civilians, and then blames the Zetas for their atrocities.
Other sources have claimed that Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, brother of Osiel Cárdenas and one of the successors of the Gulf Cartel, was addicted to gambling, sex, and drugs, leading Los Zetas to perceive his leadership style as a threat to the organization. Other reports mention, however, that the divide occurred due to a disagreement on who would take on the leadership of the cartel after the extradition of Cárdenas. The candidates of the Gulf Cartel were Antonio Cárdenas Guillén and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, while Los Zetas wanted the leadership of their then head, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano. Some sources mention that the Gulf Cartel began looking to form a truce with their Sinaloa Cartel rivals, and Los Zetas did not want to recognize the treaty settlement. Other sources suggest that Los Zetas separated from the Gulf Cartel to form an alliance with Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which led to conflict with the Gulf Cartel.
Other sources mention that what initiated the conflict between them was when Samuel Flores Borrego, a lieutenant of the Gulf Cartel, killed Sergio Peña Mendoza, alias El Concorde 3, a lieutenant of Los Zetas, due to a disagreement over the drug corridor of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, whom both protected. Soon after his death, Los Zetas demanded that the Gulf Cartel hand over the killer, but they refused, triggering the war.
When the hostilities began, the Gulf organization joined forces with its former rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana, aiming to take out Los Zetas. Consequently, Los Zetas allied with the Juárez Cartel, the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel.
Los Zetas infighting 
In a flurry of articles in late August 2012, a U.S. law enforcement official told the press that Miguel Treviño Morales, the former second-in-command of Los Zetas, had successfully taken the leadership of the cartel and displaced Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the long-time leader. Due to his violent and confrontational personality, Treviño Morales began to take over the assets of Los Zetas and replaced Lazcano as the head in early 2010.
At the beginning, Lazcano was happy to have a man like Treviño Morales in his ranks, but he reportedly underestimated him and gave him too much power. The active role of Treviño Morales gained him the loyalty and respect of many in Los Zetas, and eventually many stopped paying Lazcano. Personality-wise, Treviño Morales and Lazcano are opposing figures; Treviño Morales tends to prefer violence, while Lazcano is a lot steadier, and prefers to keep his organization as a stable group. Lazcano reportedly wants Los Zetas to be less of a problem for the next political administration of Enrique Peña Nieto; in contrast, "[Treviño Morales] is someone who wants to fight the fight." Los Zetas are inherently an unstable organized crime group with a long history of brutal violence, and with the possibility of more if the infighting continues and if they fight off without a central command.
Los Zetas have also carried out multiple massacres and attacks on civilians and rival cartels, such as:
- the 2008 Morelia grenade attacks (15 September), where 8 were killed and over 100 were injured.
- the 2010 San Fernando massacre (24 August), where 72 migrants were found dead;
- the 2011 San Fernando massacre (6 April – 7 June), where 193 people were killed;
- the massacre of 27 farmers in Guatemala (discovered on the 15th of May 2011);.
- the 2011 Monterrey casino attack (25 August), where 52 people were killed;
- the Altamira prison brawl (4 January 2012), where 31 Gulf cartel inmates were killed;
- the Apodaca prison riot (19 February 2012), where 44 Gulf cartel inmates were killed and 37 Zetas escaped from prison;
In addition, sources reveal that Los Zetas may also be responsible:
- for the 2010 Puebla oil pipeline explosion, which killed 28 people, injured 52, and damaged over 115 homes.
- for the death of 249 people at the 2011 Durango massacres
Current status 
As of 2012, Los Zetas has control over 11 states in Mexico, making it the drug cartel with the largest territory in the country. Their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, have lost some territories to Los Zetas, and went down from 23 states in dominion to 16.
By the beginning of 2012, Mexico's government escalated its offensive against the Zetas with the announcement that five new military bases will be installed in the group's primary areas of operation.
Tamaulipas state corruption 
Political corruption 
The drug violence and political corruption that has plagued Tamaulipas, the home state of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, has fueled thoughts of Tamaulipas becoming a "failed state" and a haven for drug traffickers and criminals of all kinds. The massacre of 72 migrants and the clandestine mass graves with more than 250 bodies in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, the assassination of the state candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú to Governor (2010), the increasing violence generated between cartels, and the state's inability to ensure safety, have led some analysts to conclude that "neither the regional nor federal government have control over the territory of Tamaulipas."
Although drug-related violence had existed long before the start of the Mexican Drug War, it often happened in low-profile levels, with the government "looking the other way" in exchange for bribes while drug traffickers went about their business —as long as there was no violence. Back in the days of the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), if the drug cartels got out of hand, the Mexican government would conduct some arrests, make some disappearances, and the drug lords would get their people back in line again.
In 2000, after the presidential election, the ruling party PRI lost power to the National Action Party (PAN), and all the "agreements" between the previous government and the cartels were lost, along with the pax mafiosa. Tamaulipas state was no exception; according to Santiago Creel, a PAN politician and pre-candidate for the 2012 presidency, the PRI in Tamaulipas had been protecting the Gulf-Zeta organization for years. PRI's main opposition party, the PAN, claimed that government elections in Tamaulipas are likely to encounter an "organized crime influence."
In addition, there are formal charges that the former Tamaulipas state Governors, Manuel Cavazos Lerma (1993–1999), Tomás Yarrington (1999–2004), and Eugenio Hernández Flores (2005–2010) have had close ties with the Gulf-Zeta organization. On 30 January 2012, the Attorney General of Mexico issued a communiqué ordering the past three governors of Tamaulipas and their families to remain in the country as they are being investigated for possible collaboration with Mexican drug cartels. In 2012, Yarrington was also accused of money laundering for Los Zetas and Gulf Cartel.
The Tampico, Tamaulipas Mayor Óscar Pérez Inguanzo was arrested on 12 November 2011 due to his "improper exercise of public functions and forgery" of certain documents. In mid-2010, Eugenio Hernández Flores, governor of Tamaulipas, and Óscar Luebbert Gutiérrez, Mayor of Reynosa, Tamaulipas—both members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)— were criticized for claiming that there were no armed confrontations in Tamaulipas and that the widespread violence was "only a rumor." Months later, Hernández Flores finally recognized that several parts of Tamaulipas were "being overrun by organized crime violence." Luebbert Gutiérrez later recognized the work of the federal troops and acknowledged that his city was experiencing "an escalation in violence."
Prison breaks 
In the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, 85 inmates escaped from prison on 10 September 2010. On 5 April 2010, in the same prison, a convoy of 10 trucks with gunmen on board, entered the prison grounds without resistance, broke into the cells and liberated 13 "extremely dangerous" inmates. In Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas on 17 December 2010, about 141 inmates escaped from a federal prison. The federal government condemned the mass prison break and stated that the work by the state and municipal authorities of Tamaulipas lack effective control measures, and urged them to strengthen their institutions.
A confrontation inside a maximum security prison in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas on 15 July 2011 left 7 inmates dead and 59 escaped. Five on-duty guards have not been found. The Tamaulipas Governor then recognized his inability to secure federal prisoners and prisons." Consequently, the federal government assigned the Mexican Army and the Federal Police to guard some prisons until further notice; they were also left in charge of searching for the fugitives.
It has been reported that more than 400 prison inmates escaped from several Tamaulipas prisons from January 2010 to March 2011 due to corruption.
On 17 September 2012 in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, more than 130 inmates from Los Zetas organized a massive prison break in broad daylight by walking directly from the front gate to several trucks outside the prison.
Police corruption 
Reports indicate that Tamaulipas police forces are the worst paid in Mexico despite being one of the states hardest hit by violence. The reports also indicate that in Aguascalientes, a state where violence levels are much lower, policemen are paid five times more than in Tamaulipas. As a result, most of the police forces in Tamaulipas are believed to be susceptible to corruption due to their low wages, and the presence of organized crime, who can easily bribe them. The National Public Security System (SNSP) has condemned the low police salaries, and demanded that state and municipal authorities create better paying programs for policemen so they can have a fair wage for themselves and their families.
Although the Joint Operation Nuevo León-Tamaulipas issued in 2007, along with several other military-led operation by the federal government, have brought thousands of troops to restore order in Tamaulipas, on 9 May 2011, Mexican Federal Police, along with the Mexican Army, disarmed all police forces in the state of Tamaulipas, beginning with the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. In June 2011, the Tamaulipas state government asked the federal government to send in troops to combat the drug cartels in the area, in order to "consolidate actions on public safety" and "strengthen the capacity of their institutions." News reports indicate that the troops could only replace half of the policemen in the state. Consequently, the federal government is currently building three military bases in Tamaulipas: in Ciudad Mier, San Fernando, and Ciudad Mante.
On 7 November 2011, about 1,650 policemen were released from their duties because they had either failed 'corruption control tests' or refused to take them.
Organizational structure 
Los Zetas have set up camps to train recruits as well as corrupt ex-federal, state, and local police officers. In September 2005 testimony to the Mexican Congress from the then-Defense Secretary Clemente Vega, indicated that the Zetas had also hired at least 30 former Kaibiles from Guatemala to train new recruits because the number of former Mexican special forces men in their ranks had shrunk. Los Zetas' training locations have been identified as having a similar setup as military GAFE training facilities.
Los Zetas members may also possess a "Los Zetas Commando Medallion" for their service to the organization.
Analysts indicate that the Zetas are the largest organized crime group in Mexico in terms of geographical presence.
Los Zetas are primarily based in the border region of Nuevo Laredo and Coahuila with hundreds more throughout the country. They have placed lookouts at arrival destinations such as airports, bus stations and main roads. In addition to conducting criminal activities along the border, they operate throughout the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas, and in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, as well as in Mexico City.
They are also active in several states in the United States. The cartel also has important areas of operation in Guatemala, they are active in Texas, other U.S. states and in Italy with the 'Ndrangheta.
Early in 2012 it was reported that 'Los Zetas' are operating in the northern Venezuela–Colombia border, and have teamed up with the Colombian outfit called Los Rastrojos. Together they control the drug trafficking routes in the Colombian La Guajira and the Venezuelan state of Zulia, Colombia as the producing country and Venezuela as the main port route toward the U.S. and Europe.
Alliances and rivalries 
Indications of the broken alliance between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began in September 2009. On 24 February 2010, gunmen onboard hundreds of trucks marked C.D.G, XXX, and M3 (the insignias of the Gulf Cartel), clashed with Zetas gunmen in the northern cities of Tamaulipas state. The clash between these two groups started in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and then expanded to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. The war then spread out through 11 municipalities of Tamaulipas, 9 of them bordering the state of Texas. Soon, the violence between these two cartels spread to Tamaulipas' neighboring states of Nuevo León and Veracruz. Their conflict also spread to U.S. soil, where Gulf Cartel hit men killed two Zeta members in Brownsville, Texas on 5 October 2010.
Confrontations between these two groups temporarily paralyzed entire cities in broad daylight. Several witnesses claimed that many of the municipalities throughout Tamaulipas were "war zones," and that many businesses and houses were burned down, leaving areas in "total destruction." In the midst of violence and panic, Mexican local authorities and mass media tried to minimize the situation and claimed that "nothing was occurring," but the facts were impossible to cover up.
The complexity and territorial advantage of Los Zetas forced the Gulf Cartel to seek an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel and, the now disbanded, La Familia Cartel. Consequently, Los Zetas joined forces with the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel to counteract the opposing cartels.
Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one formed by the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel; the other faction integrated by the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel.
United States 
In a 2010 report, it was noted that the American street gang, Sureños, maintains ties with the Los Zetas cartel in California and South Carolina.A recent report from the FBI shows US street gangs growing closer with Mexican Cartels.
Law enforcement raids 
Following a bilateral law enforcement investigation named 'Operation Black Jack', executed by the ATF, DEA, ICE and the FBI, three Zeta safe houses were identified in Mexico and raided by Mexican Federal security forces, releasing more than 40 kidnapped individuals, and making the largest weapons seizure in the history of Mexico; it included 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and several .50-caliber rifles, 287 hand grenades, 2 M72 LAW anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests and 14 sticks of dynamite.
In October 2008, the FBI warned that a Zetas' cell in Texas would engage law enforcement with a full tactical response, should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations. The cell leader was identified as Jaime González Durán (The Hummer), who was later arrested on 7 November 2008, in the border city Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
In February 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced a program called "Operation Border Star Contingency Plan" to safeguard the border if Zetas carry out their threats to attack U.S. security officers. This project includes the use of tanks, airplanes and the National Guard "as a preventive measure upon the possible collapse of the Mexican State" to protect the border from a Zetas attack and receive an eventual exodus of Mexicans fleeing from the violence.
In 2012 the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Los Zetas as one of four key transnational organized crime groups, along with the Brothers' Circle from Russia, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Yakuza) from Japan, and the Camorra from Italy.
Also in 2012, the United States posted a $5,000,000 reward for information leading to the successful capture of Miguel Treviño Morales. Trevino-Morales is known in Los Zetas as "Z-40" On 12 June 2012, "Z-40" and two of his brothers were indicted on charges in the State of Texas.
Anonymous' Operation Cartel 
On 6 October 2011 a man identifying himself as a member of Anonymous posted a video on YouTube under the account MrAnonymousguyfawkes stating that Los Zetas had kidnapped one of their group members and demanded that Los Zetas Cartel release the individual. If he was not freed, the man in the video threatened to expose photos and the names of several people who collaborate with the cartel, such as police officers and taxi drivers. The man in the video stated that they were "fed up" with the situation in Mexico where people are getting kidnapped and experiencing violence.
The operation to expose information of people who work with Los Zetas, dubbed "Operation Cartel", was reportedly started as a result of an Anonymous member being kidnapped during Operation Paperstorm in Veracruz, a once peaceful city. On 29 October 2011 the Global Intelligence group Stratfor released a report stating that if Anonymous did go through with OpCartel, most certainly it would lead to more deaths and could leave bloggers and others open to reprisal attacks by the cartels. Meanwhile, a retired head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Puerto Rico, Mike Vigil, warned that Los Zetas should take Anonymous seriously.
OpCartel also raised the concern that Los Zetas have experts in computer intelligence who are believed to track down the "anti-cartel" campaigns online, which helps experts understand the high rate of journalist executions. Additionally, the Mexican drug cartels generally have people monitor forums, news websites, and blogs to help them be in touch with what is being published and with what could affect their interests. The New York Times mentioned that Los Zetas has access to sophisticated tracking software due to the fact that they have infiltrated Mexican law enforcement agencies, and that online anonymity might not be enough protection for Internet users.
On 4 November 2011, Anonymous posted on the Iberoamerican Blog that the kidnapped member had been released and that they had confirmed his identity. They also stated that they would not be moving forward with releasing the information they had of several cartel members.
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