NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico – The Zetas, Mexico's notoriously brutal group of paramilitary thugs, are expanding their role as bully businessmen along the Texas-Mexico border, branching out from traditional criminal enterprises such as extortion and drug trafficking and buying legitimate businesses, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials say.
The group, which authorities say operates a weapons and drug distribution hub in North Texas, now calls itself "The Company" and has over the past year evolved from extorting businesses to owning them outright, the officials say.
"They own used-car lots on both sides of the border, restaurants, discotheques, liquor stores," said Robert García, a detective with the Laredo Police Department and an expert on the Zetas. "Basically, anything anywhere that moves to and from the border, or anything and anywhere they can launder large amounts of money, the Zetas have a hand in. They even own a dog-racing track."
Aside from money laundering, the Zetas are seeking legitimacy from those they have terrorized over the years, using methods such as beheadings and burning rivals alive. Investigators and civic leaders say the Zetas are trying to position themselves to become movers and shakers, even political players, in communities where they have a major presence.
Authorities say their strongholds include Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, Reynosa, Matamoros – where they were created – and Nuevo Laredo, their biggest base of operation. All five cities border Texas.
"We could see them running for mayor, even governor, in the future," said one civic leader in Nuevo Laredo, who like most people interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Operating legitimate businesses may be the new enterprise for the Zetas, but terrorizing Mexico remains their main occupation.
On Friday, two gunfights between Mexican troops and gunmen left 13 people dead in suburban Monterrey, an industrial hub in the northern state of Nuevo León, bordering Texas. Officials said most of those killed were gunmen working for the Zetas, and media reports said one was a top leader of the Zetas, Ricardo Almanza Morales, or "El Gori." A bystander was among those killed.
Hours later, a group of armed men believed to be Zetas stormed a police building near Monterrey, killed two federal police officers and freed 23 prisoners, according to media reports.
Last month in García, also near Monterrey, the town's new police chief, retired Brig. Gen. Juan Arturo Esparza, was gunned down in an attack by some 30 assailants believed to be members of the Zetas. Five bodyguards also were killed. Morales had been accused in that attack.
In Ciudad Juárez, more than 2,400 people have been killed in criminal violence this year, some of it attributed to the Zetas. As mercenaries for La Linea, armed enforcers of the Juárez cartel, the Zetas are helping train new recruits in clandestine camps spread across Chihuahua state, according to a senior official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The Zetas, by far, remain the biggest threat to Mexican security," said another U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're extremely dangerous, sophisticated and organized."
By now, the Zetas' reputation is the stuff of legend. Among its founders were commandos trained by the U.S. and Mexican governments to work as elite soldiers in the battle against drug cartels. They deserted instead and became armed enforcers for the powerful Gulf cartel.
They have become so powerful they are now regarded as a separate cartel, even overwhelming their former employers in a recent shootout in Reynosa.
The organization, including support staff, now numbers more than 4,000, according to U.S. and Mexican intelligence sources. They operate in small cells across the country, from Cancún to Sonora, to limit their exposure and to protect their secrets.
The leadership, however, remains a tightly knit group, reputedly headed by Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Treviño, known as El Cuarenta, or 40. Both men have hefty bounties on their heads – $5 million by the U.S. government and more than $2.5 million by the Mexican government.
New lines of work
Also worrisome for U.S. law enforcement officials are ongoing efforts by the Zetas to corrupt U.S. authorities. In Laredo, federal authorities have launched an investigation into two Laredo police officers to determine whether they were on the payroll of the Zetas.
In addition to their legitimate businesses, the Zetas continue to seek new lines of criminal work. In Nuevo Laredo, they have warned water and electricity companies not to collect fees from companies that they extort or that fall under their control, U.S. and Mexican investigators say. They have stolen gasoline from trucks of the national oil company, Pemex, and sold it to their own customers, including Texans.
"They've evolved into a number of business lines, if you will, from wholesale drug importers into Mexico, including cocaine, to traditional organized crime activity, like the American mafia: extortion, kidnapping, to stealing petroleum," said the senior DEA official. "They've evolved into a multidimensional criminal organization. They're doing all kinds of things beyond what a regular cartel will do."
They have also appear to have taken steps to guard their brand name from copycats or opportunists.
A band of kidnappers who falsely identified themselves as Zetas to collect ransoms in Nuevo Laredo landed in jail this fall. They were killed behind bars. An investigation is under way, but one municipal official said the killings were "most likely carried out on orders from the Zetas."
"The Zetas don't like their names used in vain, plus they want to tell society, 'Hey, we've changed. We're not kidnappers or extortionists. We're one of you.' " the civic leader said.
The U.S. law enforcement official scoffed at the notion that the Zetas had changed, insisting, "They're nothing but thugs, cold-blooded killers."
But some residents of Nuevo Laredo have come to accept that sharing a city with thugs is less bloody than trying to fight them.
"We coexist, but with zero tolerance for their crimes," said Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramón Garza. "We don't have the manpower or the responsibility to go after them. That's the job of the federal government. So our attitude is, you do your thing, but let us take care of our city so that our city can grow, prosper and heal from the past violence."
Coexisting with the Zetas, however, carries risks.
"The Zetas as businessmen have an unfair advantage over the small guy trying to make a living by playing by the rules," said Nuevo Laredo merchant Jack Suneson. He recently opened a shop featuring artisan work in San Antonio to cater to Texans afraid to cross the border.
García, the Laredo detective, had this warning: "You can only play with the snake a couple of times before it strikes you."
Angela Kocherga, Border Bureau chief for Belo Television, contributed to this report.