Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, October 29, 2010

US-Trained Cartel Terrorizes Mexico

Founders of the Zetas drug gang learned special forces techniques at Ft. Bragg before waging a campaign of carnage.

It was a brutal massacre even by the gruesome standards of Mexico’s drug war: 72 migrant workers gunned down by the "Zetas" - arguably the country's most violent cartel - and left rotting in a pile outside a ranch in Tamaulipas state near the US border in late August.

The Zetas have a fearsome reputation, but the real surprise comes not in their ruthless use of violence, but in the origins of where they learned the tricks of their bloody trade.

Some of the cartel's initial members were elite Mexican troops, trained in the early 1990s by America’s 7th Special Forces Group or "snake eaters" at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, a former US special operations commander has told Al Jazeera.

“They were given map reading courses, communications, standard special forces training, light to heavy weapons, machine guns and automatic weapons,” says Craig Deare, the former special forces commander who is now a professor at the US National Defence University.

"I had some visibility on what was happening, because this [issue] was related to things I was doing in the Pentagon in the 1990s," Deare, who also served as country director in the office of the US Secretary of Defence, says.

The Mexican personnel who received US training and later formed the Zetas came from the Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE), which is considered an elite division of the Mexican military.

Their US training was designed to prepare them for counter-insurgency and, ironically, counter-narcotics operations, although Deare says they were not taught the most advanced commando techniques available at Ft. Bragg.

Military forces from around the world train at Ft. Bragg, so there is nothing unique about Mexican operatives learning counter-insurgency tactics at the facility. However, critics say the specific skills learned by the Zetas primed them for careers as contract killers and drug dealers.

“The Zetas definitely have the reputation of being the most dangerous, the most vicious, the most renegade of the cartels,” says Kristen Bricker, a Mexico-based research associate with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

About 29,000 people have died since Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president, declared war on the drug cartels in 2006.

Extreme violence

The group has mounted the severed heads of its victims on pikes in urban areas, posted torture and execution videos on the internet, forced poor migrants into prostitution and massacred college students during house parties.

"Other cartels have accused them of not following the 'gentlemen's code' of drug trafficking and causing undue violence," Bricker told Al Jazeera.

"At one time, it was considered bad form to kill pregnant women, but not any more." For safety concerns, Bricker didn’t want to say where she lives in Mexico.

Deare estimates "probably more than 500" GAFE personnel received special forces training. He is unsure exactly how long the programme lasted. The Zetas came to the attention of Mexico’s Attorney General’s office in 1999.

After US training, GAFE operatives defected from the Mexican military to become hired guns, providing security to the Gulf cartel, a well established trafficking organisation, according to Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas program of the International Relations Center.

"They split from the Gulf cartel and formed as a cartel in their own right," Carlsen, based in Mexico City, told Al Jazeera.

The Zetas' alleged current leaders, Heriberto Lazcano, known as Z-3 and Miguel Trevino, or Z-40, were first recruited by Osiel Cardenas, the now-jailed leader of the Gulf cartel. The name "Zetas" originates from the radio code "Z" used by top military commanders in Mexico.

But unlike Zorro, the Mexican outlaw hero who also used the "Z" alias, Los Zetas steal from everyone, not just the rich. And they certainly don’t give much back to the poor, except the corpses of their relatives. "They are just known for being a different kind of human being," says Bricker.

Frequent defections

The number of initial defectors from GAFE is thought to be somewhere between 30 and 200, but "the exact number is unclear", says Deare. However, the possibility of defections should not have come as a surprise to US trainers.

The Mexican state "does not pay soldiers enough" Deare says. "I am not saying they [the government] have to pay as much as the cartels, but they [security forces] must be paid decently if they aren’t going to be susceptible to corruption."

The GAFE’s desertion rate of an estimated 25 per cent is high, even by the low standards of Mexico’s security forces. Between 2000 and 2005 more than 1,300 of the elite troops defected, La Journada newspaper reported.

"The US really needs to examine their vetting procedures and manuals to see why so many people who they train do so many terrible things when they go back home," Bricker said.

But just blaming Uncle Sam for the rise of the Zetas and increasing drug violence is too simplistic, says Bricker.

"It wasn't just US training. The GAFE were also trained by the Kaibiles of Guatemala, a notoriously brutal special operations force from that country’s dirty war in the 1980s," said Bricker.

And even without special training for cartels, there is little trust that Mexican security forces can deal with the drug trade.

In May 2006, "La Barbie" a leader of the rival Sinaloa cartel, took out a full page advert in a Mexico City daily newspaper, to allege that Mexican police were protecting the Zetas.

For their part, the Zetas have long complained that the Sinaloa cartel enjoys police protection.

Despite debacles surrounding the Zetas and increasing violence, Deare - who physically resembles the tough but fair minded under-secretary of defence played by Harrison Ford in the fictional drug war thriller Patriot Games - thinks Mexico needs more, not less, US involvement.

America has pledged some $1.3bn to assist Mexico in the drug war through the 2007 Merida initiative, but much of that cash hasn’t been spent because it has been stalled in Congress, Deare says.

Alterior motives

Other analysts are critical of the initiative because it allows the US to "meddle" in Mexico’s affairs and has not garnered the desired results.

"For citizens here, Merida causes two great concerns: it raises questions of national sovereignty and there is a lot of fear that under the cover of the drug war there will be increasing attacks on grassroots movements," says Carlsen.

GAFE, for example, was established in 1994 to fight Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico, La Journada reported.

The Zapatistas, a poorly armed primarily indigenous militia, rose up against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994, the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect between the US, Canada and Mexico.

The Zapatistas called NAFTA a "death sentence", in part, because the agreement would allow subsidised US crops to enter the Mexican market, pushing small farmers off the land.

After battling the insurgency, GAFE gained additional training and support from the US to fight the drug trade, a business which arguably benefited more than any other from NAFTA. Relaxed borders increased trade flows in many goods, illegal drugs in particular, and rural displacement swelled the ranks of unemployed young men eager to make quick cash by any means necessary.

Valued between $19bn and $40bn dollars on a yearly basis – exact figures aren’t available for obvious reasons- the drug trade has massive power as a corrupting influence.

And despite 50,000 Mexican troops fighting the cartels, despite the mangled bodies and US assurances of support, Bricker speaks for all three analysts from divergent political outlooks when she states: "No one has been able to present any evidence that the Mexican government is winning this war."

And, if winning the war on drugs is the goal, training the most violent cartel probably isn't a great start.


  1. no es cuanto le pagan a los soldados , estados unidos esta lleno de corruption tambien,como llegan las armas a mexico como llega la droga a estados unidos esta un video en you tube cuando la cia estuvo involucrado en trafficando de droga para estados unidos cuando la guerra del salvador usando bases militares para trasportarlas no es lo que ganan es la ambicion de la jente INS como llega toda la gente a estados de contrbando and detenido a unos ajentes de migracion por corruptos y ganann bien,so la pagano es el problema por favor senores ya dejen de sentir que estados unidos es el pais perfecto ,esdos unidos esta lleno de pura mierda igual que todos los paises corruptos la diferencia es que aqui todo lo saber esconder

  2. This article makes it sound as if America’s 7th Special Forces Group purposefully trained The Zetas to be what they are today. I agree that better vetting should be done on Foreign soldiers being trained in the U.S., but should they be held accountable for the Zetas? Probably not.

  3. They also received training from GSG9 and the Israel Mossad.

  4. Does anyone really think any of the original US trained Zetas are still around? Twenty years in the drug trade is an eternity. The originals are either dead or in jail. The zetas of today are teenage street punks (look at their photos when they get caught).

  5. I have to Agree,
    The Original Zetas were Army deserters,
    nowadays any street punk Naco seduced by 50 USD a week, stolen truck,unlimited PASE, and an Ak is now considered a Zeta.
    pinche nacos.

  6. .What a lame excuse and easy way to shift blame to the u.s. Zetas are obviously bottom of the barrel when it comes to recruiting, and it doesnt take a special forces trained person to kill innocents with an AK47, only a person with no soul.

  7. The School of the Americas is known for training killers, so its not US blaming... Alot of south american hit squads got their special training there.

  8. The author spend a lot of time on something that was an utter waste of time and ink. Any reasonably intelligent person above the age of about 16 already knew all that, and those original Zetas are now either dead (most likely) or in prison.

    The solution to this mess will come from the U.S. side of the per usual.

  9. no seas mamon wey.
    Solution will come from the U.S. Side.
    that's comedy or something?
    you pour trillions of dollars looking for 1 tall Saudi and cant find him.

  10. only the zetas kill innocent people? since when?

  11. The Americans are the only one's who's shit doesn't stink; per usual...

    Why can't those piches zetas just die already? Son una bola de hijos de sus putas, perras, madres sin raza; los mismos perros que no dejan que te disfrutes unos de tripa del puesto de la esquina. can always count on the muthafukas taking em off your table.

    I want to feel safe in Matamoros again.

  12. This is a ridiculou/provoking article.
    It is illogical to imply directly or indirectly that the US knowingly trained some that would eventually become known as the ZETAs.

    Yes they were known to the US as Mx Military forces, trained to counter insurgency and caounter narco operations.

    This is not unusual for the US, they train military forces from around the world at ft. Bragg.

    Do you suppose the US which this occurred in the 90s, do you suppose this was a master plan of the US that they planned this group would return to MX defect become hired guns for Gulfo, then branch off in their on right??? Ya think that?

    if you do you probably believe in other fairy tales such as Obama is not an american citizens. The title of this piece goes back 20 years not relevant today and I dare say not one person alive today with the Zs were directly trained by the US. What people do with an education or training is out of the hands of the instructor.

  13. A question for you...the more I read and learn about the crime cartels and how they are embedded into the politics, bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies in Mexico the more confusing and complicated it seems to me. So hard to get a sense of how it all works or does not work together, I find. In a report by Stratfor (independent company that produces global intelligence reports)their take is that there is an economic point to be made in that the cartels profits, funneled into the Mexican economy, are key to keeping that economy as viable as it is and to that end there are strong disincentives to truly seeking to end the drug and crime trades. Also they say violence is primarily focused on the border and that their is little that will be done in the US in terms of realistic options to truly deal with drug issues. There were other arguments made but their point was there is much lip service made by officials but little viable action to eliminate the cartels. Does this make any sense considering how much chaos and suffering is taking place on the border? Does this sound more like the reality of the situation?

  14. @ 11:04
    I subscibe to Stratfor..too bad it is so expensive which prohibits most folks from the info they gather. Though they are fairly accurate in my opinion of what I know of Mx, they are also out of touch with the depth of narco damage to the ordinary citizen. the US media has no clue that it has in effect touched every aspect of every day life for Mexicans. Such as draining funds that normally would be allocated for education or infrastructure are diverted to this so called "war". Municipal governments and police are the most corrupt and usually work in tandem with the cartel that governs that territory. It is the only choice of cities as they get no help from federal or even state agencies or funding, they get that from cartels. I believe Calderon's new proposal to have municipal police and governments taking over by state and federal agencies is a good one.

    as for the economic side of this, that is correct that the fragile economic condition Mx finds itself in is too dependant on narco money. Most world economic advisors and information in books such as MURDER CITY, and MEXICO; Narco-Violence and a Failed State, are of the opnion that it is so dependant on Narco money that if Narcos were eliminated tomorrow so goes the economy.

    political corruption is rampant, there is a saying in spanish that translates to "silver or lead"? which signifies the choice politicians have. Even those who go in with the most honorable intentions and soon faced with a choice of cooperating with org crime or having their lives and that of their family in jeopardy. Ask yourself what would I do? Given the choice I think we would all do the same, we may be self rightous & say we would not assist the cartels, but reality is it not simply and solely about ones self, or the life of ones self, but rather that of your spouse, children and even extended familes.

  15. @October 30, 2010 11:04 AM

    Seriously dude? your getting your reports from stratfor haha..everyone who reads BB can tell you more and accurate whats going one with this drug war then stratfor haha...i laugh at you because you are so lost haha...

  16. I would like BB to do a report on how the Global Narco $$$$ kept the world recession from being more horrible than it was.
    and how the Global banking system was helped to some extent.
    Legal banks laundered money knowingly,
    not just in the U.S. but everywhere.

  17. Drug related crime is running ramped in the US but is not discussed much in the media. The US wants to keep their dirty little secrets just that. I find it so heart breaking the violence and terror that is being rang through out Mexico. My heart goes out to the citizens of Mexico, I would not want to be in their shoes where you are scared to go out and just try to live your everyday life. The violence is getting to be all over Mexico not just in the border towns. It's a shame that a country with such warm welcoming people has come to be what it is,

  18. these people were trained while they were in the mexican army, how could you predict who , how many ,or if any of them would desert/go bad, mexico sent them , there to be trained, also these same people received training from other sources ,outside of , and unrelated to the USA ,

    this article seems to cast blame on the USA, but the evidence shows that it was more of a group effort, with several countries complicit,

    when you send your dog to the trainer, and have him trained to attack, and then you let him bite someone who's fault is it , trainer or is mexicos fault they got off the chain

  19. The only solution the U.S. offers is death. Its what they always offer. I'm not talking about americans, I'm talking about the U.S. government which was usurped by international bankers. Oh they have a plan and Mexico is right in it. Just like the U.S. And we will both fall Mexicans, Americans, and Canadians. The Only difference between us is that the Americans are armed, which is why the effen bankers take more caution. The Real Americans if they take their Government back can once again be the light of the World, otherwise we are all destined to a bleak future. Its time to clean house -- from the very top on down.

  20. The training for the original Zetas came from a program called the "Mexican Training Initiative"; the program started in late 1996 but didn't pick up speed until mid-1997. The CIA provided some training, but most of it was done by the 7th Special Forces Group.

    By early 1999, the Department of Defense and the State Department pulled the plug, as some of those trained were already starting to work with the traffickers, some even before their desertion from the Mexican Army.

    I know because at the time I was on active duty in another special operations unit that was invited to participate in the MTI--luckily we were able to talk USSOCOM into changing their minds and leaving us out of it.

    I agree with earlier posters who have said that any US-trained Mexican Army deserters who formed the early cadre for the Zetas are most likely dead or in jail.

  21. Even if the originals are old now or even some deceased, but they were trained well, and they are older and more experienced by now, and completely capable of training the new generations. The Zetas somehow are internationally supported and have been seen in Haiti, Africa and in other countries. I do believe they have an important role to play in destabilizing the nations as is occurring throughout the world.


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