The Zetas criminal organization evolved and expanded between 2001 and 2008, going from hired guns to a sprawling drug syndicate with tentacles reaching into the U.S. — and trained hit men to protect the gang's interests here.
The history and inner workings of the cartel were laid out by federal prosecutors over five days of testimony this month in a Laredo courtroom. Former cartel traffickers testified about the Zetas' smuggling operations, and hit men told jurors how they killed for its leaders — slaying their enemies with bullets in the U.S. and kidnapping rivals in Mexico and slaughtering them while bound.
The testimony helped convict Gerardo Castillo Chavez, 25, who prosecutors say was an enforcer for the cartel in 2006 in Laredo. But it also provided a window into the Zetas and their transition from the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel to one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.
Gerardo Castillo Chavez in Laredo, Texas.
Photo: AP / SA
Photo: AP / SA
Witnesses detailed six killings and eight attempted hits by the Zetas in 2005 and 2006.
“By then, we knew things had changed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney José Angel Moreno said in his closing arguments. “By then, they were hunting people in the United States.”
Today, the gang has split from the Gulf Cartel and is waging a bloody war against their former masters. But in 2001, when the prosecutors' story began, the Zetas were hired guns, a group of former Mexican army special forces who'd been dispatched to Nuevo Laredo to secure it for the Gulf Cartel. They also went to war against the west coast Sinaloa Cartel, which was trying to make its own inroads.
One of the first Nuevo Laredo crime figures the Zetas brought on board was Miguel “El 40” Treviño Morales. Today, Treviño Morales is believed to be the Zetas' second in command. But when Dallas drug dealer Mario Alvarado met the Zeta while hunting white-tailed deer in the early 2000s near Nuevo Laredo, Treviño Morales was an up-and-coming trafficker, feared by his peers but not yet in charge.
It wasn't long before Treviño Morales and Alvarado went into business, moving multi-kilogram loads of cocaine.
“He just kept throwing drugs at me,” Alvarado testified. “He'd give me 30 to 50 keys at a time. I was coming down once a week.”
When one of those loads got seized, he was responsible for the costs. Eventually, he owed Treviño Morales $500,000. The commander's brother, Omar “El 42” Treviño Morales, called Alvarado in late 2004 and told him to come to Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas handcuffed Alvarado and took his truck.
They held him for about a month. When Alvarado's cohorts in the U.S. had paid off most of his debt, the Zetas let him go.
The Zetas cross the river
By 2005, the Zetas had expanded to the U.S. They had stash houses in Laredo and were crossing drugs at the Rio Grande, testimony showed. They were also killing in the U.S.
Former Zetas hit man Wenceslao Tovar Jr., 26, testified in this month's trial that in 2005 he and his friend Gabriel Cardona, 25, went to work for the Zetas.
After their first hit, Cardona and Tovar were taken to meet Treviño Morales.
“We were taken to a ranch,” Tovar testified. “When we got there, I saw ‘40' there and he was executing three people. He was cutting their heads off.”
In the biggest revelation of the trial, Tovar testified he attended training camps where Zeta recruits were required to kill bound men with machetes and sledgehammers. One of those camps was near the northern Mexican city of San Fernando, where authorities last year uncovered mass graves containing 200 bodies.
Tovar also testified that for a period in late 2005, he and Treviño Morales' bodyguard kidnapped dozens of people in Nuevo Laredo that they turned over to the Zeta commander for execution.
Jurors heard that Treviño Morales dispatched at least four crews of hit men to Laredo. Some, like one headed by Cardona, were made up of U.S. citizens. Others were made up of Mexican citizens.
Miguel Angel Trevino-Morales (AKA 40, Cuarenta, L-40, David Estrada-Corado and Comandante Forty)
The Zetas' No. 1 target was a Laredo-area trafficker with ties to the Texas Syndicate prison gang named Jesus Maria “Chuy” Resendez.
Resendez dodged an assassination attempt in 2004. In 2005, Treviño Morales' killers in the U.S. assassinated a former Nuevo Laredo cop under his employ. In 2006, Resendez's brother and one of his nephews were wounded in separate shootings.
On April 2, 2006, the Zetas found their target. A pickup full of hit men from two crews pulled up alongside his truck and riddled Resendez and another nephew with bullets, firing nearly 100 times.
Expanding north of the Rio Grande carried risks for the Zetas. Controlling trafficking routes in the U.S. was more profitable, but it made the gang more susceptible to infiltration by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
By 2006, they had a problem. In February of that year, when the Zetas tried to bring nearly 1,000 pounds of pot across the river to Laredo, members of a Border Patrol special response team were waiting. A month later, Laredo police arrested two sicarios (hit men) who swam across the Rio Grande to carry out a hit.
And when Cardona and his crew, fresh off the Resendez slayings, moved into a new safe house in Laredo on April 8, 2006, DEA agents had installed cameras and microphones in it. A Zetas operative who'd turned informant took the witness stand and described how he was able to alert law enforcement about the Zetas' moves.
“I told (Cardona, the sicario leader), ‘I was going to be in charge of everything (you) do,'” the informant testified. “I asked if I could come with them” as the hit men set up surveillance.
DEA agents Chris Diaz and J.J. Gomez testified that at the beginning of 2006, they began working with the informant as part of their investigation into Treviño Morales, named Operation Prophecy. They worked with Laredo police detective Robert Garcia to thwart the sicarios' plans — in one instance arresting their target before the killers could get to him, then releasing him when they'd moved on. On April 11, 2006, police arrested five people at the gang's Laredo safe house.
The investigation resulted in charges against 34 Zetas members and associates, including Treviño Morales. Since an indictment was unsealed in 2008, 15 people have been brought to court to face justice. All have been convicted of state or federal crimes, including Castillo Chavez, the only defendant to go to trial.
Most of the remaining defendants are fugitives in Mexico. One was killed in 2009 in a Mexican prison.
“I think it exposed what was not as well known then as it is now — just how much they had infiltrated into the United States, not only operating these local cell groups for enforcement, but also transportation to Dallas and Chicago and throughout the United States,” said Jesus Guillen, a Laredo attorney who prosecuted several of the sicarios in state court. “I think it surprised quite a few people just how expansive the cartel operations are within the United States.”
In 2006, when the hit men were arrested, Laredo recorded 24 homicides, the most the city of more than 200,000 had seen since 2003. In 2007, that number fell to eight. Taking out the sicario crews hurt the Zetas, Guillen said, and so did publicly airing their leaders' names.
But the Zetas' continued to operate in the U.S., jurors heard.
In 2007 and 2008, a former trafficker testified, the gang used corrupt employees of bus companies to move hundreds of pounds of cocaine to Dallas and ship hundreds of thousands of dollars back to Nuevo Laredo.
And while Laredo's homicide rate hasn't approached the high numbers it saw between 2003 and 2006, state prosecutors there announced Wednesday — the same day federal jurors found Castillo Chavez guilty — that they'd indicted 13 people accused of kidnapping and killing for the Zetas.