In terms of technology, the Zetas are known to favor AR-15 assault rifles, grenade launchers and even use helicopters. In terms of sophistication, thanks to their widespread intelligence networks encompassing street vendors to federal commanders, the group is able to launch full-scale attacks against police stations and prisons seemingly at will. And in terms of shock-and-awe violence, the Zetas are perhaps unmatched.
In 1997, 31 members of the Mexican Army’s elite Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales - GAFES) defected and began working as hired assassins, bodyguards and drug runners for the Gulf Cartel and their leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. The original leader of the armed group, Lieutenant Arturo Gumán Decenas, alias 'Z1,' was killed in 2002. Followed by the arrest and extradition of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the Zetas seized the opportunity to defect. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias 'El Lazca,' the Zetas, numbering approximately 300, set up its own independent drug, arms and human-trafficking networks.
The group’s logistical sophistication helped catapult the Zetas to power. The organization is known to use state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology, and uses military-like discipline for planning operations and gathering intelligence.
The Zetas now operate in a series of isolated, semi-independent cells, stretching from the Gulf Coast down to Central America, with their stronghold the corridor stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Nuevo León. Many of the original 31 members have been killed off, but what the thousands of new recruits may lack in Special Forces training, they make up for in brutality and shock tactics. Sub-groups within the Zetas include a wing dedicated to arms trafficking, known as the Mañosos, youths who provide street intelligence, known as 'halcones' and 'ventanas,' and about 20 'officers' who coordinate kidnappings and killings with sophisticated communications technology, known as 'la direccion.'
Currently the Zetas are fiercely fighting the Gulf Cartel for control of the key border state of Tamaulipas, especially the cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. They are almost totally dominant throughout the Gulf coast (including the southern states of Tabasco, Chiapas and Yucatán, granting them control to key trafficking routes from Central America). The Zetas also have presence in Mexico City and on the Pacific Coast. There is also some evidence the Zetas have presence in Texas, and possibly other US states and cities, including Phoenix.
The sophistication and brutality of the original Zetas forced other drug cartels to react and form their own paramilitary wings, as was the case with Familia Michoacana, which also received training from the Zetas. The Zetas appear particularly unafraid to launch bold attacks against the state, or to engage in war-like firefights with the security forces. This has made them one of the principal threats to the Mexican government, currently struggling to establish authority in the various zones of impunity where the Zetas operate.
The Zetas are currently working alongside the Beltran Leyva Organization, and have also established alliances across the hemisphere, including possibly with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, with Maximiliano Bonilla, alias 'Valenciano,' from the Oficina de Envigado in Colombia, and US gangs based in the Southwest, especially Texas.
Back when the Zetas still worked for Cárdenas Guillén, they would often receive backup from local police forces for security detail. The organization is still known for its corruptive power over security forces – they have been able to coordinate massive prison breaks, and are known to have deeply penetrated the police forces in Hidalgo and Tabasco.
But unlike other cartels, the Zetas do not buy their alliances so much as they terrorize their enemies. They torture victims, string up bodies, and slaughter indiscriminately, as was the case in August 2010, when 72 illegal migrants were killed by Zetas and dumped in a hole in Tamaulipas; or the assassination of a mayor that same month; or the assassination a gubernatorial candidate in July. For now, the Zetas are not showing much interest in bribing government officials into cooperation. Intimidation seems to be their preferred tactic.
It might not be an exaggeration to say the Zetas are among the most vicious drug cartel to ever emerge. Not only have they been able to establish drug-trafficking routes through Guatemala and Nicaragua into Mexico, but recent reports indicate that they may have co-opted a cocaine trafficking route via Venezuela-West Africa into Europe, representing yet another lucrative market for the organization. The Zetas have long been better equipped and better trained than their rival cartels. And in 2010 new anxieties emerged that the Zetas may in fact be deadlier than the police and military forces, deployed to stop the group’s expansion. Indeed, their only true rivals may be the Sinaloa Cartel, who has formed a strategic alliance with their old bosses, the Gulf Cartel, and the Familia, in an effort slow the rise of this powerful organization.
- George W. Grayson, "Los Zetas: the Ruthless Army Spawned by a Mexican Drug Cartel," Foreign Policy Research Institute, May 2008.
- Sam Logan, "Los Zetas: Evolution of a Criminal Organization," International Relations and Security Network, 11 March 2009.
- "Drug Wars in Tamaulipas: Cartels vs. Zetas vs. the Military," Frontera NorteSur (Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University), 1 March 2010.
- Alfredo Corchado, "Cartel's enforcers outpower their boss," Dallas Morning News, 11 June 2007.
- John P. Sullivan and Sam Logan, "Los Zetas: Massacres, Assassins and Infantry Tactics," Security Solutions International, 24 November 2010.