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

Friday, March 9, 2012

Family Franchises Organizational Evolution of Mexican TCOs

By: Sylvia Longmire
HS Today
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 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)


  1. Finally an insightful piece on the Zetas that doesn't rehash the same old story. Their chaotic power structure makes sense given their very rapid expansion. The didn't have enough competent managers to oversee all their different plazas. Zetas specialize in TAKING plazas not mantaining them.

  2. Senorita this is youre old friend just want to say hi and as i told you before you were the first to know for a reason and also its eazy top blame LOS ZETAS but out of all those crimes there probably responsible 15 to 20 percent of the time cds is more of a snake than you think but we out in BAJA believe mayo is setting him up evidence is starting to show if you pay attencion to the arrest and who is being in the media more SALUDOS DESDE TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA I HAVENT FORGOT MY PROMISE

  3. Which is also why they heavily used extortion & kidnapping, lacking the drug pipelines and business structure, and needing the quick expansion cash. Not sure if the extortion has calmed down a little since the Zetas have solidified their hold on these areas. Anyone know if that's true?

  4. These groups never did look like U.S's very, very organized crime. Check out guys like John Cleve Green. He payed for buildings at Princeton University, the only one of the big east universities that admits it.

    Todays annual U.S illegal profits are at least 60 billion. That market is nurtured and controlled by our own citizens with the help of a government they manipulate. The security companies sighted on this blog don't say much about this. If they did they would be told to shut the hell up.

    The law and order folk are betrayed from way up high. A lot of people die. It won't change. There is too much money in the trade. Nothing is left to do but stomp around in a self righteous parade calling for more jails and guns. Pathetic.

  5. BLO desintegrated? When did this happen?

  6. This type of hierarchy it's the one we need back. Mind their own business, bribe whoever they can, and continue fulfilling the insatiable appetite for dope the US has it's -obviously- a very lucrative and highly profitable business. Don't know of any company in the world that can generate the profits TCO can. Go back to your roots an leave society alone.

    Read this:
    The typical structure of the Albanian Mafia is hierarchical. Concerning "loyalty", "honor" and family (blood relations and marriage being very important) most of the Albanian networks seem to be "old-fashioned". Infiltration into these groups is thus very difficult. Albanian Mafia families or clans are usually made up of groups of fewer than 100 members, constituting an extended family residing all along the Balkan route from eastern Turkey, to Western Europe, and North America. The Northern Albanian Mafia which runs the drug wholesale business is also known by the name of "The Fifteen Families."

    According to Ioannis Michaletos, the family structure is characterized by a strong inner discipline, which is achieved by a means of punishment for every deviation from the internal rules, so that the fear should guarantee an unconditional loyalty to the family, with the provisions of the official laws considered to be secondary, not important and non-binding. Due to the fact that the Mafia families are based on the blood ties, which is a factor that restricts the number of the clan members, the bonds between them are very strong, which makes getting close to and infiltrating into them almost impossible. Members of other ethnic groups can be accepted only to execute certain one time or secondary jobs. Moreover, the Albanian mafia families are organized in 3-4 or more levels, which enable them to preserve the organizational action capability even in case some of its members or groups are captured[4]

  7. Seems to me that the above post subtly implies that the upsurge in violence during recent years is not largely the result of Calderon's U.S backed war but a natural outcome of an completely internal mutation within the drug organizations themselves. This is more than a bit disingenuous and brushes over a lot of other details to the rising violence.

  8. Well Missy she might have a lil insight on whats "Really happening" but she sure doesn't do her home work when it comes to the CDG, Juan
    Negroponte; Uncle to(Jaun Abrego) has run Matamoros and
    Tamaulipus since the thirties and used to be a
    Run Runner as well as gigarette smuggler for 70
    years. Whey before the so called "God Father" came on the scene. he was runnin Weed when Gallardo was a lowly Cop in Sinaloa. I'd get my facts right if I was a "Paid Consultant" for the government Lady..! If your going to tell a story and tell everyone that it's NonFiction"
    do your fucken homework! I know what I'm saying because I'm 64 years old and "NegroPonte" ran
    everything when I met him; I was 14 years old and lived in Brownsville and worked for him and
    Arturo Herrera in Matamoros.


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