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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What do Los Zetas and McDonald's have in common?

"Los Zetas" y McDonald's
John Baily/ Editorial de El Universal

The media often reports that the "Alpha" cartel is fighting the "Beta" cartel to take control of the plaza, or that "Gamma" cartel members were detected in Central America, Europe or Australia. This poses the question of how these organizations operate and how they evolve over time. The question is important because the nature of the organization of a criminal gang affects the ways in which it can influence society and the political system. It also dictates the strategies that the government can use to confront these groups.

The problem is that in academic circles there is very little useful information about how drug trafficking organizations operate and how they are organized. Mexico's security forces arrest hundreds of suspects every year but it is obvious that these arrests do not produce much useful intelligence on the organization of these criminal groups. In addition, we have yet to see a turncoat of the level and depth of the Italian Joseph Valachi and his detailed confessions about the Mafia's criminal activities.

Without solid information, we have to work with hypotheses. The conventional academic wisdom is that trafficking organizations typically are more like networks than hierarchies. The networks are composed of different kinds of organizations, some of which may be hierarchies or loose alliances between friends or business associates. One advantage of networks is that the member organizations, or nodes, can be replaced and new connections can be easily constructed to replace the previous ones. Governments constantly attack a network just to see how new nodes replace the previous ones. A disadvantage of networks, from the perspective of drug traffickers, is their dynamism and complexity: an ever-changing network is difficult to handle. Also, nodes have ample space to maneuver freely.

This leads to Los Zetas. The myth about the emergence of this organization states that a group of Mexican Army's elite forces defected and joined the ranks of the Gulf cartel and became its armed wing. The training and military discipline of Los Zetas gave them a degree of hierarchy and competence.

However, my opinion is that Los Zetas have evolved over time due to pressure from government forces and battles with other drug cartels. Despite the continued defections from the government security forces, it is more difficult for Los Zetas to recruit specialists with high levels of training and discipline.

This is where a "franchise" model is useful. A franchise is a mechanism in which different businesses may join under a recognized quality brand name. The McDonald's corporation operates only about 15% of its restaurants, while the rest are handled by independent contractors who pay fees to the parent company.

In a model of this kind, the more entrepreneurial "Zetas" can "apply" to operate in a particular plaza and pay fees to the lead organization for the use of their name. Or a gang can independently negotiate a franchise with the most relevant Zeta node. In addition, Los Zetas franchisees typically diversify into activities such as extortion or kidnapping to earn additional profits.

In addition to the problems posed by a complex network, the Los Zetas franchise faces additional challenges because of counterfeiters. Given the chaos of criminal competition, virtually anyone can claim to be a Zeta without taking many risks. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, which is a strong monopoly, the Los Zetas "brand" is easily falsifiable. Thus, an extortionist can exert additional influence over their victims by claiming to be affiliated with Los Zetas, and also runs a relatively low risk for doing so.

Finally, governments can confront these networks only by adopting the same type of organizations, ie networks. Thus, the key is to create highly mobile and fluid coordinating mechanisms. It is easier said that done.

John J. Bailey directs the Mexico Project at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

The following link is a study of how modern terrorist networks manage to survive in the face of aggressive counterterrorist operations by security forces.  It is also applicable to the drug war in Mexico in explaining how difficult it is to defeat groups such as Los Zetas that are organized as networks:


  1. Another good 'think' piece here ( that discusses an interesting study here: (

  2. Yes they both sell quarter pounders

  3. exactly this is probably why the zetas still operate. any crackhead can start claiming to be Zeta and pay tribute to operate. if they are captured it doesn't significantly affect the larger organization. like McDonalds workers can easily and quickly be replaced, faster then other cartels.

  4. This system of franchises is in place for most of the cartels. I dont think Lazca and 40 are out mugging people for their wallets. And I dont see Chapo and Mayo having an internal affairs unit in their organization to deter their foot soldiers from commiting crimes against innocent people. These are the names we here so much about but actually have little to no control over the actions of their sicarios.

  5. Of course they have control over their sicarios. All the bad guys rat on each other from the bottom all the way up to the top. When something way out of line happens someone higher up just orders to kill the underling. All criminal organizations loosely police their own.
    The Zetas will come to an end. The CIA is playing with them like a cat plays with a mouse.

  6. " What do Los Zetas and McDonalds have In common? "
    Answer , low paying jobs


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