Los Zetas (pronounced [los ˈsetas], Spanish for "The Zs") is a Mexican criminal syndicate. Considered by the US government to be "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, efficient, violent, ruthless and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico", the organization has expanded beyond the traditional purview of drug trafficking and also runs profitable sex trafficking and gun running rackets. The origins of Los Zetas date back to the late 1990s when commandos of the Mexican Army deserted their ranks and began working as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel. In February 2010, Los Zetas broke away from their former employer and formed their own criminal organization.
Los Zetas are Mexico's largest drug cartel in terms of geographical presence, overtaking their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel. Los Zetas also operate through protection rackets, assassinations, extortion, kidnappings and other activities. The organization is based in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas.
As of December 2016 Los Zetas Group Bravo (Groupo Bravo) & Zetas Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas) formed an alliance with the Gulf cartel to fight against Cartel Del Noreste (Cartel of the Northeast).
Los Zetas was named after its first commander, Arturo Guzmán Decena, whose Federal Judicial Police radio code was "Z1", a code given to high-ranking officers. The radio code for Commanding Federal Judicial Police Officers in México was "Y" and are nicknamed Yankees, for Federal Judicial Police in charge of a city the radio code was "Z", and thus they were nicknamed as the letter in Spanish, "Zetas".
After Osiel Cárdenas Guillén took full control of the Gulf Cartel in 1999, he became involved in a violent turf war. In order to keep his organization and leadership, Cárdenas sought out Arturo Guzman Decena alias el Z-1, a retired Army lieutenant who lured more than 30 army deserters of the Mexican Army's elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) to become his personal bodyguards, and later, as his mercenary wing. These Army deserters were enticed with salaries much higher than those of the Mexican Army. Cárdenas' goal was to protect himself from rival drug cartels and from the Mexican military. Some of the original members, who had come from the GAFE unit, had during the 1990s reportedly received training in commando and urban warfare from Israeli Special Forces Units and American Special Forces units, which included training in rapid deployment, marksmanship, ambushes, counter-surveillance and intimidation.
Once Osiel Cárdenas Guillen consolidated his position and supremacy, he expanded the responsibilities of Los Zetas, and as years passed, they became much more important for the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas began to organize kidnappings, protection rackets, extortion, securing cocaine supply and trafficking routes known as plazas (zones) and executing its foes, often with barbaric savagery.
Guzmán Decena (Z1) was killed by members of the Mexican military on November 2002 in a restaurant in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, allowing Heriberto Lazcano (Z3) to take control of the paramilitary group. In response to the rising power of the Gulf Cartel, the rival Sinaloa Cartel established a heavily armed, well-trained enforcer group known as Los Negros. The group operated similarly to Los Zetas, but with less complexity and success. Upon the arrest of the Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillen in March 2003 and his extradition in 2007, the Zetas took a more active leadership role within the Gulf Cartel and their influence grew greater within the organization.
Some of the original members are: Arturo Guzmán Decena (Z-1), Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3), Carlos Vera Calva (El Vera), Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar (Z-7 or El Mamito), Galdino Mellado Cruz (El Mellado or Z-9), Flavio Méndez Santiago (El Amarillo or Z-10), Jaime González Durán (El Hummer), Rogelio González Pizaña (Z-2 or El Kelín), Efraín Teodoro Torres (El Efra, La Chispa or Z-14), Raúl Hernandez Barrón (El Flander), Víctor Nazario Castrejón Peña, Gustavo González Castro (El Erótico), Óscar Guerrero Silva (El Winnie Pooh), Alberto Trejo Benavides (El Alvin), Luís Alberto Guerrero Reyes (El Guerrero), Mateo Díaz López (Comandante Mateo), Daniel Peréz Rojas (El Cachetes), Luis Reyes Enríquez (El Rex), Nabor Vargas García (El Débora), Isidro Lara Flores (El Colchón), Alfonso Lechuga Licona (El Cañas), Ernesto Zatarín Beliz (El Traca), Prisciliano Ibarra Yepis, Rogelio Guerra Ramírez (El Guerra), Miguel Ángel Soto Parra (El Parra), Gonzalo Gerezano Escribano (El Cuije),  Daniel Enrique Márquez Aguilar (El Chocotorro), Iván Velázquez-Caballero (El Taliban, L-50), Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechuga (El Lucky, Z-16), Enrique Ruiz Tlapanco (El Tlapa), Braulio Arellano Domínguez (El Gonzo), Jorge López (El Chuta), José Ramón Dávila (El Cholo), Eduardo Estrada González, Omar Lormendez Pitalúa (El Pita), Eduardo Salvador López Lara (El Chavita), and Germán Torres Jiménez (El Tatanka).
Over time, many of the original 31 have been killed or arrested, and a number of younger men have filled the vacuum, forming something that resembles what Los Zetas used to be, but still far from the efficiency of the original, elite-military background.
It is unclear which of the two – the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas – started the conflict that led to their break up. It is clear, however, that after the capture and extradition of Cárdenas, Los Zetas had become so powerful that they outnumbered and outclassed the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence. Some sources reveal that as a result of the supremacy of Los Zetas, the cartel felt threatened by its own enforcers and decided to curtail their influence, but ended up instigating a civil war. In addition, from the perspective presented by the cartel, the narco-banners placed by them in the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa explained that the reason for their rupture was that Los Zetas had expanded their operations not only to drug trafficking, but also to extortion, kidnapping, homicide, and theft - actions that the cartel allegedly disagreed with. Los Zetas countered the accusations by posting their own banners throughout Tamaulipas, noting that they had carried out executions and kidnappings under orders of the cartel and they were originally created for that sole purpose. In addition, Los Zetas charged that the cartel also kills innocent civilians, and then blames the Zetas for their atrocities.
Other sources have claimed that Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, brother of Cárdenas and one of the successors of the Gulf Cartel, was addicted to gambling, sex, and drugs, leading Los Zetas to perceive his leadership style as a threat to the organization. Other reports mention, however, that the divide occurred due to a disagreement on who would take on the leadership of the cartel after the extradition of Cárdenas. The candidates from the cartel were Antonio Cárdenas Guillén and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, while Los Zetas wanted the leadership of their then head, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano. Some sources mention that the cartel began looking to form a truce with their Sinaloa Cartel rivals, and Los Zetas did not want to recognize the treaty settlement. Other sources suggest that Los Zetas separated from the Gulf Cartel to form an alliance with Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which led to conflict with the Gulf Cartel.
Other sources mention that what initiated the conflict between them was when Samuel Flores Borrego, a lieutenant of the Gulf Cartel, killed Sergio Peña Mendoza, alias El Concorde 3, a lieutenant of Los Zetas, due to a disagreement over the drug corridor of Reynosa, whom both protected. Soon after Mendoza's death, Los Zetas demanded that the Gulf Cartel hand over the killer; they refused, triggering the war.
When the hostilities began, the Gulf Cartel joined forces with its former rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana, aiming to take out Los Zetas. Consequently, Los Zetas allied with the Juárez Cartel, the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel.
In a flurry of articles in late August 2012, a U.S. law enforcement official told the press that Miguel Treviño Morales, the former second-in-command of Los Zetas, had successfully taken the leadership of the cartel and displaced Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the long-time leader. Due to his violent and confrontational personality, Treviño Morales began to take over the assets of Los Zetas and replaced Lazcano as the head in early 2010.
At the beginning, Lazcano was happy to have a man like Treviño Morales in his ranks, but he reportedly underestimated him and gave him too much power. The active role of Treviño Morales gained him the loyalty and respect of many in Los Zetas, and eventually many stopped paying Lazcano. Personality-wise, Treviño Morales and Lazcano are opposing figures; Treviño Morales tends to prefer violence, while Lazcano is a lot steadier, and prefers to keep his organization as a stable group. Lazcano reportedly wants Los Zetas to be less of a problem for the next political administration of Enrique Peña Nieto; in contrast, "[Treviño Morales] is someone who wants to fight the fight." Los Zetas are inherently an unstable organized crime group with a long history of brutal violence, and with the possibility of more if the infighting continues and if they fight off without a central command.
Los Zetas have also carried out multiple massacres and attacks on civilians and rival cartels, such as:
In addition, sources reveal that Los Zetas may also be responsible for:
As of 2012, Los Zetas had control over 11 states in Mexico, making it the drug cartel with the largest territory in the country. Their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, have lost some territories to Los Zetas, and went down from 23 states in dominion to 16.
By the beginning of 2012, Mexico's government escalated its offensive against the Zetas with the announcement that five new military bases will be installed in the group's primary areas of operation.
In a May 2013 interview with the International Crisis Group, researcher Daniel Haering stated, "The old networks were disrupted by the Zetas, and now the Zetas have disintegrated into Zetillas. They are splinter groups ('grupúsculos'), not big operators."
On 14 July 2013, it was reported that the Mexican Marine Corps captured the Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, also known as "Z-40" in Anáhuac, Nuevo León, near the border of Tamaulipas state. The authorities allege that he was succeeded by Omar Treviño Morales (alias Z-42), his brother.
On 12 October 2013, Mexican authorities captured alleged top Zetas operative Gerardo Jaramillo, alias "El Yanqui". His arrest ultimately resulted in the discovery and seizure of a large Zetas weapons cache and supply stash, including "assault rifles, several grenade launchers, magazines, 2,000 rounds of ammunition of various calibres, bullet-proof vests and balaclavas".
On 23 March 2015, Ramiro Pérez Moreno (alias "El Rana"), a potential successor of "Z-42" was captured, along with 4 other men, carrying 6 kilos of cocaine and marijuana, rifles and one hand grenade.
On 9 February 2018, Mexican authorities arrested the new leader José María Guízar Valencia alias "Z-43" in Mexico City on Roma neighbourhood. US offered $5m reward for his capture, he is responsible to importing thousands of kilograms of cocaine and methamphetamine to the US every year and murdered an untold number of Guatemalan civilians during the systematic overtake of the Guatemalan border region.
The drug violence and political corruption that has plagued Tamaulipas, the home state of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, has fueled fears of it becoming a "failed state" and a haven for drug traffickers and criminals. The massacre of 72 migrants and the discovery of mass graves in San Fernando, the assassination of the gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú, the increasing violence between cartels, and the state's inability to ensure safety have led some analysts to conclude that "neither the regional nor federal government have control over the territory of Tamaulipas."
Although drug-related violence had existed long before the Mexican Drug War, it often happened in low-profile levels, with the government "looking the other way" in exchange for bribes while drug traffickers went about their business — as long as there was no violence. During the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the Mexican government would conduct customary arrests and allow cartel business to continue.
After the PRI lost power to the National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 presidential election, all the "agreements" between the previous government and the cartels were lost along with the pax mafiosa. Tamaulipas was no exception; according to PAN politician Santiago Creel, the PRI in Tamaulipas had been protecting the Gulf-Zeta organization for years. The PAN has claimed that government elections in Tamaulipas are likely to encounter an "organized crime influence."
In addition, there are formal charges that three former governors of Tamaulipas – Manuel Cavazos Lerma (1993–1999), Tomás Yarrington (1999–2004), and Eugenio Hernández Flores (2005–2010) – have had close ties with the Gulf-Zeta organization. On 30 January 2012, the Attorney General of Mexico issued a communiqué ordering the governors and their families to remain in the country as they are being investigated for possible collaboration with cartels. In 2012, Yarrington was further accused of money laundering for Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
In Tampico, Mayor Óscar Pérez Inguanzo was arrested on 12 November 2011 due to his "improper exercise of public functions and forgery" of certain documents. In mid-2010, both Flores and the mayor of Reynosa, Óscar Luebbert Gutiérrez — both members of the PRI — were criticized for claiming that there were no armed confrontations in Tamaulipas and that the widespread violence was "only a rumor." Months later, Flores finally acknowledged that several parts of Tamaulipas were "being overrun by organized crime violence." Gutiérrez later recognized the work of the federal troops and acknowledged that his city was experiencing "an escalation in violence."
On 25 March 2010, forty inmates escaped from a federal prison in the city of Matamoros. On 5 April 2010, at a prison in the border city of Reynosa, a convoy of ten trucks packed with gunmen entered the prison grounds without resistance, broke into the cells, and liberated thirteen "extremely dangerous" inmates. Eighty-five inmates escaped from the same Reynosa prison six months later. In Nuevo Laredo, on 17 December 2010, 141 inmates escaped from a federal prison. The federal government condemned the mass prison break and stated that the work by the state and municipal authorities of Tamaulipas lack effective control measures, and urged them to strengthen their institutions.
A confrontation inside a maximum security prison in Nuevo Laredo on 15 July 2011 left 7 inmates dead and 59 escaped. Five on-duty guards have not been found. The governor of Tamaulipas then recognized his inability to secure federal prisoners and prisons. Consequently, the federal government assigned the Mexican Army and the Federal Police to guard some prisons until further notice; they were also left in charge of searching for the fugitives. It has been reported that more than 400 prison inmates escaped from several Tamaulipas prisons from January 2010 to March 2011 due to corruption.
On 17 September 2012 in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, more than 130 inmates from Los Zetas organized a massive prison break in broad daylight by walking directly from the front gate to several trucks outside the prison.
Reports indicate that Tamaulipas police forces are the worst paid in Mexico despite being one of the states hardest hit by violence. The reports also indicate that in Aguascalientes, a state where violence levels are much lower, policemen are paid five times more than in Tamaulipas. As a result, most of the police forces in Tamaulipas are believed to be susceptible to corruption due to their low wages, and accept bribes from organized crime organizations. The National Public Security System (SNSP) has condemned the low police salaries, and demanded that state and municipal authorities create better paying programs for policemen so they can have a fair wage for themselves and their families.
Although the Joint Operation Nuevo León-Tamaulipas issued in 2007, along with several other military-led operations by the federal government, have brought thousands of troops to restore order in Tamaulipas, on 9 May 2011, Mexican Federal Police, along with the Mexican Army, disarmed all police forces in the state of Tamaulipas, beginning with the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. In June 2011, the Tamaulipas state government asked the federal government to send in troops to combat the drug cartels in the area, in order to "consolidate actions on public safety" and "strengthen the capacity of their institutions." News reports indicate that the troops could only replace half of the policemen in the state. Consequently, the federal government is currently building three military bases in Tamaulipas: in Ciudad Mier, San Fernando, and Ciudad Mante.
On 7 November 2011, about 1,650 policemen were released from their duties because they had either failed 'corruption control tests' or refused to take them.
Los Zetas have set up camps to train recruits as well as corrupt ex-federal, state, and local police officers. In September 2005 testimony to the Mexican Congress from the then-Defense Secretary Clemente Vega, indicated that the Zetas had also hired at least 30 former Kaibiles from Guatemala to train new recruits because the number of former Mexican special forces men in their ranks had shrunk. Los Zetas' training locations have been identified as having a similar setup as military GAFE training facilities.
Los Zetas members may also possess a "Los Zetas Commando Medallion" for their service to the organization.
Analysts indicate that the Zetas are the largest organized crime group in Mexico in terms of geographical presence.
Los Zetas are primarily based in the border region of Nuevo Laredo and Coahuila with hundreds more throughout the country. They have placed lookouts at arrival destinations such as airports, bus stations and main roads. In addition to conducting criminal activities along the border, they operate throughout the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas, and in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, as well as in Mexico City.
They are also active in several states in the United States. The cartel also has important areas of operation in Guatemala, where their operations are reported to have begun as early as 2008. They are active in Texas, other U.S. states and in Italy with the 'Ndrangheta.
Early in 2012 it was reported that 'Los Zetas' are operating in the northern Venezuela–Colombia border, and have teamed up with the Colombian outfit called Los Rastrojos. Together they control the drug trafficking routes in the Colombian La Guajira and the Venezuelan state of Zulia, Colombia as the producing country and Venezuela as the main port route toward the U.S. and Europe.
Indications of the broken alliance between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began in September 2009. On 24 February 2010, gunmen onboard hundreds of trucks marked C.D.G, XXX, and M3 (the insignias of the Gulf Cartel), clashed with Zetas gunmen in the northern cities of Tamaulipas. The clash between these two groups started in Reynosa, and then expanded to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. The war then spread out through eleven municipalities of Tamaulipas, nine of them bordering the U.S. state of Texas. Soon, the war reached Tamaulipas' neighboring states of Nuevo León and Veracruz. Their conflict also spread to U.S. soil, where Gulf Cartel hit men killed two Zeta members in Brownsville, Texas on 5 October 2010.
Confrontations between these two groups temporarily paralyzed entire cities in broad daylight. Several witnesses claimed that many of the municipalities throughout Tamaulipas were "war zones," and that many businesses and houses were burned down, leaving areas in "total destruction." In the midst of violence and panic, Mexican local authorities and mass media tried to minimize the situation and claimed that "nothing was occurring," but the facts were impossible to cover up.
For many years, there were long fought battles between the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, that eventually lead the two to reevaluate the situation and decide whether or not this combat was in either organization's best interests. The complexity and territorial advantage of Los Zetas forced the Gulf Cartel to seek an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel.
Following the conflict with the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas joined forces with the Beltrán Leyva Cartel (who was simultaneously separating from the Sinaloa Cartel) as well as the Juarez Cartel and Tijuana Cartel or Arellano Félix organization, to counteract the alliance of the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana cartels. Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one formed by the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel; the other faction integrated by the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel.
In a 2010 report, it was noted that the American street gang, Sureños, maintains ties with the Los Zetas cartel in California and South Carolina. A recent report from the FBI shows US street gangs growing closer with Mexican cartels. Within the United States, Los Zetas are using social media as a method of communication between the two countries and are also using the sites as a method of recruiting young aspiring members who in their perception see the actions of the cartel as glorified and are able to ask how they can join. In addition, Sureños share connections with Los Zetas, as do the gangs MS-13, Mexican Mafia, and Latin Kings.
On 13 February 2017, Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami was sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, with US officials accusing him of facilitating drug shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the US, freezing millions of dollars of assets purportedly under El Aissami's control. The accusation included allegations that EL Aissami had trafficked drugs to Los Zetas.
Following a bilateral law enforcement investigation named 'Operation Black Jack', executed by the ATF, DEA, ICE and the FBI, three Zeta safe houses were identified in Mexico and raided by Mexican Federal security forces, releasing more than 40 kidnapped individuals, and making the largest weapons seizure in the history of Mexico; it included 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and several .50-caliber rifles, 287 hand grenades, 2 M72 LAW anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests and 14 sticks of dynamite.
In October 2008, the FBI warned that a Zetas' cell in Texas would engage law enforcement with a full tactical response, should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations. The cell leader was identified as Jaime González Durán (The Hummer), who was later arrested on 7 November 2008, in the border city Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
In February 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced a program called "Operation Border Star Contingency Plan" to safeguard the border if Zetas carry out their threats to attack U.S. security officers. This project includes the use of tanks, airplanes and the National Guard "as a preventive measure upon the possible collapse of the Mexican State" to protect the border from a Zetas attack and receive an eventual exodus of Mexicans fleeing from the violence.
In 2012 the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Los Zetas as one of four key transnational organized crime groups, along with the Brothers' Circle from Russia, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Yakuza) from Japan, and the Camorra from Italy.
Also in 2012, the United States posted a $5,000,000 reward for information leading to the successful capture of Miguel Treviño Morales. Trevino-Morales is known in Los Zetas as "Z-40" On 12 June 2012, "Z-40" and two of his brothers were arrested and indicted on charges in the State of Texas after raids and dozens of arrests in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.
There is a great lack of funding being sent to Mexico by the United States to combat Los Zetas, although they address Mexico in the media as their biggest concern. The Mérida Initiative that was put in place by the Bush administration in the United States suggested that 1.4 billion in funds was to be sent to Mexico over a three-year period in order to combat narco trafficking from the U.S.-Mexico border to Panama, but few of these funds have yet to be received in Mexico. In addition, the Obama administration made a very modest effort by way of support for the struggling country although "former drug czar Barry McCaffrey told Congress that Merida, was ‘a drop in the bucket,’" and that the United States "’cannot afford to have a narco-state as [their] neighbour.’" Thus far, of the resources promised by the United States Government regarding Mexico and their ongoing drug combat, little has been received, principally due to Mexico's current PRI government failing to honour the clause of improving and upholding human rights in the Mexican Federal Republic.
The operation to expose information of people who work with Los Zetas, dubbed "Operation Cartel", was reportedly started as a result of an Anonymous member being kidnapped during Operation Paperstorm in Veracruz, a once peaceful city.
The New York Times mentioned that Los Zetas has access to sophisticated tracking software due to the fact that they have infiltrated Mexican law enforcement agencies, and that online anonymity might not be enough protection for Internet users.
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