Beginning as a group of Special Forces deserters at the service of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas would go on to become one of the most powerful and feared cartels in Mexico before infighting and the loss of leaders began their decline.
The Zetas started out as an enforcer gang for the Gulf Cartel predominantly made up of former Special Forces operatives. Their military training and unbridled ferocity proved an underworld game changer, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describing them as perhaps "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups."
The Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel to become a cartel in their own right, and launched an offensive that would see them expand throughout Mexico and Guatemala. They employed a new model of organized crime, based on violently seizing and holding territory, using fear rather than corruption as their first resort.
However, after rising to the point where they could compete with the mighty Sinaloa Cartel, they are now a fragmented force, often held together by little more than a name and increasingly dependent on local criminal revenues rather than the transnational flow of drugs for their income.
In 1997, 31 members of the Mexican Army's elite Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales - GAFES) defected and began working as hired assassins, bodyguards and drug runners for the Gulf Cartel and their leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen. The original leader of the armed group, Lieutenant Arturo Guzman Decenas, alias "Z1," was killed in 2002. After the arrest and extradition of Cardenas, the Zetas seized the opportunity to strike out on their own. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias "El Lazca" or "Z3" the Zetas, numbering approximately 300, set up their own independent drug, arms and human-trafficking networks.
Principal criminal groups
The group's logistical sophistication and military training helped catapult the Zetas to power. They became known for their use state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology, and for employing military-like discipline for planning operations and gathering intelligence.
Unlike other cartels, the Zetas did not buy their alliances so much as they terrorize their enemies. They tortured victims, strung up bodies, and slaughtered indiscriminately, as was brutally illustrated in August 2010, when the Zetas killed 72 illegal migrants and dumped their bodies in a hole in Tamaulipas. The Zetas preferred to take military-style control of territory, holding it through sheer force and exploiting its criminal opportunities. Although their military training was diluted over time, their brutality was not. Rival cartels struggling against the Zetas began to adapt by adopting some of their tactics, further ramping up the violence in the country.
By 2010, the Zetas had established a presence in 405 Mexican municipalities, over twice as many as their nearest rivals. They had also moved into Guatemala, seizing strategic drug trafficking territories with their trademark violence. However, they were also in near constant war with the Gulf Cartel over control of the key border state of Tamaulipas, especially the cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, as well as the key economic hub of Monterrey. They also became embroiled in numerous other cartel wars across the country, including taking on the might of the Sinaloa Cartel.
During this time, the Zetas built up a network of international drug trafficking contacts, stretching through Central America to Colombia, and with reported connections in Venezuela, Europe, the United States and West Africa. However, the territorial control of each local faction also allowed them to take their share from any other criminal activity taking place in their "plaza," and the Zetas also began to profit from everything from kidnapping migrants to pirate DVDs.
However, by 2012, the Zetas were beginning to crack, sparking a process of fragmentation and atomization that continues today. It was becoming increasingly difficult to coordinate all of the local factions centrally, but the fault line that would ultimately cause a split was the deteriorating relationship between the Treviño brothers, Miguel, alias "Z40," and Alejandro, alias "Omar" or "Z42" and Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban," who divided into rival factions.
With the Zetas' unity hanging in the balance, it was then further undermined by a steady series of high profile blows to the leadership, the most serious of all, the loss of Lazcano, who was killed in October 2012 -- although the mysterious disappearance of his body shortly after sparked conspiracy theories he remains alive today. The Zetas also lost Velazquez, who was arrested in September 2012, Miguel Treviño, who was arrested in July 2013, and his brother Alejandro, who was arrested in March 2015. With no clear national, centralized leadership, the Zetas have broken into splinter groups and largely independent local factions, each with their own operations, priorities and alliances. The breakup of the organization's national cohesion, in addition to a huge loss of influence in Central America, has made transnational drug trafficking increasingly difficult, and local factions now often rely more on profiting from crime in territories they hold than from international drug trafficking.
The arrest of Alejandro "Omar" Treviño in March 2015 left no clear successor. Treviño's lieutenants such as Roman Ricardo Palomo, alias "El Coyote," Maxiley Barahona, alias "El Contador," and Sergio Ricardo Basurto, alias "El Grande," his older brother, Juan Francisco Treviño Morales, and Rogelio Gonzalez Pizaña, alias "El Kelin" or "Z2," have all been touted as potential replacements but none of them is likely to be able to assert his authority on a national scale.
The Zetas criminal empire once had a presence that stretched across Mexico, with their stronghold corridor stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Their reach also expanded into Central America, especially Guatemala. However, now the group is limited to Mexican territory and occupies a patchwork of territory across the country. The Zetas' most critical areas remain Tamaulipas and the Gulf Coast.
Allies and enemies
The Zetas have made numerous temporary alliances with groups such as the Familia Michoacana and the Beltran Leyva Organization, as well as waging war against any number of rivals. However, two things generally remain the same; their rivalry with their former parent organization the Gulf Cartel, and their rivalry with the Sinaloa Cartel. Nevertheless, even this may be changing in the Zetas' current fragmented state where alliances and disputes are more localized, with reports of a Zetas faction forming an alliance with a faction of the Gulf Cartel.
Internationally, the Zetas reportedly built alliances with criminal organizations in Colombia, Central America -- in particular Guatemala -- Venezuela, West Africa, Europe and the United States. It is unclear how much of this network now remains.
The Zetas' days as Mexico's most feared cartel and a drug trafficking organization with a vast transnational reach are coming to an end. However, this does not mean the name will fade any time soon. Instead, they are likely to continue the process of fragmentation and an increasingly local focus on criminal activities.