Given the extreme levels of drug-related violence in several parts of Mexico these days, it’s hard to believe that Mexico-based Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) were ever anything like the Italian Mafia in the United States. But once upon a time, their characteristics and operations would have been almost indistinguishable from one another.
Drug trafficking has existed in Mexico since at least the mid-1800s when Chinese laborers brought the opium poppy across the Pacific. The Chinese started a lucrative heroin smuggling business from northern Baja California into San Diego and points north. Ambitious Mexican entrepreneurs saw the success of the Chinese heroin operation and soon took it over.
The drug trade in Mexico expanded over the next several decades, moving into larger transactions of marijuana in the “hippie era” of the 1960s, cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s and, most recently, methamphetamine.
Until the late 1980s, TCOs like we know them today didn’t exist. One man, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, was in charge of virtually all drug trafficking operations in Mexico, which is why he’s known as the godfather of Mexican drug smuggling. He never considered his organization as a drug cartel, and many traffickers who worked for the TCOs decades ago have said they never considered their groups as such.
Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989, and as a result, he initiated a transfer of power to a family and three close confidantes. Félix Gallardo divided up his empire among the Arellano Félix family, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Juan Ábrego and Joaquin Guzmán Loera. These divisions translated into the Tijuana Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, which emerged from the Guadalajara Cartel.
The TCO landscape has changed considerably since the division of Félix Gallardo’s empire. All of the TCOs have grown, shrunk, split, aligned and morphed several times over. Brand new TCOs like the evangelical La Familia Michoacana, have emerged while older family-run groups like the Beltrán Leyva Organization have disintegrated. But ultimately, the “old school” TCOs have worked under a more traditional hierarchical system -- partly due to family origins and partly due to business models that work for them.
When it came to doing business, the older TCOs stuck to violence and the threat of violence only when they felt it was warranted to mete out punishment or to send a message, much like the Italian Mafia in the United States. They only went after rivals, snitches, incompetents and the like. Mexican drug lords very rarely went after family members, let alone people not involved in the drug business.
But all these traditions and structures were cast aside when Los Zetas gave up their role as enforcers for the Gulf cartel and went out on their own as a stand-alone TCO. Los Zetas are not a family-run organization. They were recruited in the mid-1990s from Mexico’s special forces and maintain a more militarized structure. As they’ve grown in numbers and power, Los Zetas have evolved into what can arguably be called a franchise organization.
The two men at the top of the Zetas’ food chain are Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano and Miguel “Z-40” Treviño. While they run the Zetas’ show, it’s becoming less clear how much control they really have over various groups of Zetas throughout Mexico. It appears that each major city and town in Zetas territory falls under the purview of one group of the organization. While they report certain operations to Zetas leadership, and ostensibly have to ask for guidance or take orders with regard to certain operations, each cell, or “franchise,” operates relatively independently from the TCO’s core command.
Several incidents attributed to Los Zetas have occurred in different parts of Mexico that have caused many observers to believe local cells are doing what they want with little regard for larger organizational goals. The shooting of ICE agent Jaime Zapata, the killing of American David Hartley on Falcon Lake, the Casino Royale attack that killed 52 innocent people and the massacre of 72 innocent migrants in San Fernando are disturbing reminders of activities some local Zetas commanders are willing to engage in.
Patrick Corcoran of InSightCrime.org has said that “lower-level commanders are capable of spectacular provocations that clearly go against the interest of the group as a whole, with the nominal leaders -- Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano -- unable to prevent such incidents. This paints a picture of the Zetas as a group that, as terrifying as it remains, is structurally chaotic and only stumbling along.”
Part of the challenge to US and Mexican authorities as a result of this evolution is that agencies are still treating Los Zetas, through policy and strategy, like simple organized crime groups -- much like the Italian Mafia in the 1920s and 1930s. The difference is that, while the Mafia has conducted assassinations, threats, firebombings and bribery of officials, it has always been a tight-knit family business with a strict code of conduct. Los Zetas are neither tight-knit, nor beholden to any sort of code.
Law enforcement agencies on the US side of the border have largely relied on this code and the TCOs’ distaste for engaging in violence in the United States to keep the threat of spillover violence at bay. The big problem is that Los Zetas already have a sizable presence in various parts of the United States and are already engaging in reckless and brazen behavior on US soil. If the TCO’s members in the US do not feel any sense of responsibility to Zetas leadership back in Mexico, there is very little to stop members from continuing their behavior if they choose to do so.
Ultimately, US officials should realize that Los Zetas have evolved well beyond any measure of “old school” organized crime, and strategies need to be developed to deal with them as such. Law enforcement officials also need to be prepared for potential confrontations with Zetas members in the United States who don’t play by traditional rules of conduct, and who do not feel they have to answer to anyone but themselves.
A retired Air Force captain and former special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibility that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's situational awareness unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and Southwest border violence issues. Her book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," was published last September. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com.