Los Zetas Cartel is a criminal organization in Mexico dedicated mostly to international illegal drug trade, assassinations, and other organized crime activities. This drug cartel was founded by a small group of Mexican Army Special Forces deserters and now includes corrupt former federal, state, and local police officers, as well as ex-Kaibiles from Guatemala.
This group of highly trained gunmen was first hired as a private mercenary army for Mexico's Gulf Cartel. After the arrest of the Gulf Cartel's leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, as well as other events, the two entities became a combined trafficking force, with the Zetas taking a more active leadership role in drug trafficking. Since February 2010 Los Zetas have gone independent and became enemies of its former employer/partner, the Gulf Cartel.
Los Zetas are led by Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano and are considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as probably being the most violent paramilitary enforcement group in Mexico. Los Zetas have expanded their operations to Italy with the 'Ndrangheta.
The group's name Los Zetas is given after its first leader, Lieutenant 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."
Los Zetas posting a recruiting poster for military or former military
In the late 1990s, the Gulf Cartel leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, wanted to track down and kill rival cartel members as a form of protection. He began to recruit former Mexican Army’s elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) soldiers. It is argued that they received some of their specialized military training in counter-insurgency and locating and apprehending drug cartel members at the military School of the Americas in the United States, in Fort Benning,Georgia and by other foreign specialists of the United States, France and Israel.
They were trained in rapid deployment, aerial assaults, marksmanship, ambushes, small-group tactics, intelligence collection, counter-surveillance techniques, prisoner rescues and sophisticated communications. Military forces from around the world train at Fort Bragg, so there is nothing unique about Mexican operatives learning counter-insurgency tactics at the facility.
Cardenas Guillen's top recruit, lieutenant Arturo Guzmán Decena, brought with him approximately 30 other GAFE deserters enticed by salaries substantially higher than those paid by the Mexican government. The role of Los Zetas was soon expanded, collecting debts, securing cocaine supply and trafficking routes known as plazas (zones) and executing its foes, often with grotesque savagery.
Guzmán Decena (Z1) was killed by a rival cartel member on November 2002 in a restaurant, while he was dining, so Heriberto Lazcano (Z3) ascended to the leadership of the paramilitaries.
In response to such aggressive efforts on the part of the Zetas to defend and control its smuggling corridors to the United States, the rival Sinaloa Cartel established its own heavily armed enforcer gang, Los Negros. The group operated in a similar fashion to the Zetas, but with less complexity.
Upon the arrest of Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003, Los Zetas negotiated a collaboration pact with the Gulf Cartel and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel to engage in their own drug shipments.
In February 2010, Los Zetas (and its ally, the Beltran Leyva Cartel) engaged in a violent turf war against its former employer/partner, the Gulf Cartel, in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, turning some border towns to "ghost towns". It was reported that a Gulf Cartel member killed a top Zeta lieutenant named Victor Mendoza. The Zetas demanded that the Gulf cartel turn over the killer. However the Gulf Cartel refused and an all-out war has broken out between the two criminal organizations.
Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one integrated 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.
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, 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 containing the same items and setup as GAFE training facilities.
Los Zetas are primarily based in the border region of Nuevo Laredo, with hundreds more throughout the country. In Nuevo Laredo it is believed they have carved the city into territories, placing lookouts at arrival destinations such as airports, bus stations and main roads. In addition to conducting activities along the border, they are visible throughout the Gulf Coast region, in the Southern states of Tabasco, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas, and in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, as well as in Mexico City. Evidence also indicates that they may be active in Texas, other U.S. states and in Italy with the 'Ndrangheta.
Some of the original members are: Arturo Guzmán Decena (Z-1), Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar (Z-2), Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3), Carlos Vera Calva (Z-7), Galdindo Mellado Cruz (Z-9), Flavio Méndez Santiago (Z-10), Jaime González Durán, Rogelio González Pizaña, Efraín Teodoro Torres, Raúl Hernandez Barrón, Óscar Guerrero Silva, Luís Alberto Guerrero Reyes, Mateo Díaz López, Jorge López, Daniel Peréz Rojas, Sergio Enrique Ruiz Tlapanco, Nabor Vargas García, Ernesto Zatarín Beliz, Eduardo Estrada González, Prisciliano Ibarra Yepis, Rogelio Guerra Ramírez, Miguel Ángel Soto Parra, Gonzalo Ceresano Escribano, Daniel Enrique Márquez Aguilar and Germán Torres Jiménez.
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.
Law enforcement raids
Following a joint investigation, titled Operation Black Jack, by the ATF, DEA, ICE and the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the FBI, two Zeta safe houses were identified and raided, recovering more than 40 kidnapped individuals.
On October 26, 2008, the Washington Times reported of an FBI warning that Los Zetas' cell in Texas were to engage law enforcement with a full tactical response should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations; their cell leader was identified as Jaime González Durán (The Hummer), who was later arrested on November 7, 2008, in the border city Reynosa, Tamaulipas. In this operation, three safehouses in Reynosa were raided by elements of the Mexican Federal Police and Mexican Army, yielding the largest weapon 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 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. safety 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 the attack of the Zetas and receive an eventual exodus of Mexicans fleeing from the violence.