Los Zetas: The Origins and History of a Criminal Army

Mexico had one party rule under the PRI party for 71 years, until the 2000 election of Vicente Fox.  The PRI was a notably corrupt governing institution that had worked out a mutually beneficial arrangement with drug traffickers where corrupt police and party officials collected bribes and payoffs from drug traffickers, and controlled the market by arresting criminals who got out of control or attracted American drug enforcements interest.[1]  Despite the corruption, it was able to maintain control throughout Mexico.  This stability changed with the end of the PRI’s rule in 2000.  The old deals and systems of corrupt officials were gone, and the new regime lacked the traditional relationships with the criminals that allowed them to constrain criminal violence.  As a result, Mexico is currently undergoing a massive narco-conflict waged between the state and various drug cartels.  Since 2006 there have been 78,207 deaths, and since 2012 there have been 11,990 refuges caused by the ongoing battles.[2]

One of the most violent and powerful groups that emerged from this chaos is the Zetas. The Zeta’s were founded by Arturo Guzman, an ex-Mexican Army Special Forces solider who defected in 1997 to become the bodyguard of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.  The Gulf Cartel is active in the Tamaulipas State, but during the late 1990s Cárdenas’ control was not secure, so he asked Guzman to form an elite group of bodyguards to protect him and kill his enemies.  Guzman turned to the Mexican military and convinced 31 troops to defect, which formed the foundation for the Zeta’s.[3]  In 2010 the Zetas completely broke away from their affiliation with the Gulf Cartel after the Gulf Cartel killed Victor Pena Mendoza, a Zeta captain.  Currently the Zetas is one of the most powerful criminal groups battling for supremacy in Mexico, and threatening to further destabilize the state and make parts of it ungovernable.[4]

As of 2013, the Zetas were operating in 350 Mexican municipalities, as well as in Guatemala and Central America, and since their founding they have operated in an average 33 new municipalities per year.[5]  Part of their success is based on their sophisticated military training and use of terrorist tactics.  The original 31 members of the Zetas were part of the elite forces of the Mexican military, and had received training from the Israeli Defense Forces and the American military.  Some of the Zeta members further gained combat experience on missions against the rebel Zapatista group in southern Mexico.[6]  When the Zetas needed more men to augment their movement they recruited from a Guatemalan Special Forces unit called the Kaibiles, who are known for their fighting skills as well as their suspected flagrant abuses of human rights during Guatemala’s civil war.[7]

The Zetas have a wide repertoire of terrorist tactics that they use to consolidate control over territory.  The Zetas do not only target other gang members, but also actively target police, military and government officials.  Some examples of these attacks include the severed heads of eight Mexican soldiers found in plastic bags outside of a shopping center in the Mexican city of Chilpancingo, the three heads found in an icebox near Ciudad Juarez, and the murder of former chief of Police for Ciudad Juarez Roberto Orduna’s deputy, as well as the threat that another police office would be killed every 48 hour until Orduna resigned in 2009.[8]  Aside from violent attacks, the Zetas are employing tactics that demonstrate their power over the state.  One dramatic example of this is the technique of narcobloqueos, where the Zetas hijack cars and use them to block major highways.  On August 14, 2010 the Zetas demonstrated their power of everyday life by setting up a narcobloque in Monterrey Mexico that cut off access to thirteen major roads in the city.[9]

Unfortunately, the Zeta’s terrorist violence isn’t restricted to other criminals or state officials, but has been used extensively on civilians as well.  One example of this is the Zetas practice of kidnapping and extorting Central American immigrants that are trying to go to America.  According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in 2009 the Zetas kidnapped 10,000 migrants in just 6 months.  The gang kidnaps a large group of migrants at a single time, and then takes them to a ranch and holds them until their families send the ransom.   In order to control the captives, individuals are selected and tortured or executed in front of the rest of the prisoners.  In 2010 the level of depravity reached a new height in the San Fernando Massacre, where the Zetas killed 72 kidnapped Central and South American captives at the San Fernando Ranch in Tamaulipas State.[10]

The Zetas have lost most of their original members, either to jail or death, so now many of the newer members are ordinary gangsters instead of highly trained ex-soldiers.  Despite these losses, the Zetas have been able to continue their expansion, and with chief rival Joaquin Guzman currently in jail, there is no indication that they are in danger of falling apart or being destroyed by Mexican forces.  It is possible that as the Zetas consolidate their control over their territories, the need to use violence will fall, and the criminals will be able to control their smuggling routes without resorting to terrorism.  However, if the Zetas feel threatened by other criminals or by the State, they have already shown a willingness to move up the escalation ladder of terror until they reach a point of unacceptable outcomes for their rivals.


[1] Ioan Grillo, El Narco, the Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2011), 39.

[2] Mexico (Cartels)(accessed March 8, 2014); available from https://acd.iiss.org/en/conflicts/mexico–cartels-cc7f

[3] Ioan Grillo, Special Report: Mexico’s Zetas rewrite drug war in Blood, Reuters, May 23, 2012.

[4] Samuel Logan and John P Sullivan, “The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian Revolt,” International Relations and

Security Network, April 7, 2010 (accessed March 8, 2014); available from http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=114551

[5] Steven Dudley and Viridiana Rios. “Why Mexico’s Zetas Expanded Faster than their Rivals,” In Sight Crime, April 21, 2013 (accessed March 8, 2014) available from http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/why-mexicos-zetas-expanded-faster-rivals

[6] Ioan Grillo, El Narco, 97.

[7] Ginger Thompson, “Mexico Fears Its Drug Traffickers Get Help From Guatemalans,” The New York Times, September 30, 2005.

[8] Max Manwaring, Gangs, Psuedo-militaries, and other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 136-137

[9] John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “Los Zetas: Massacres, Assassinations and Infantry Tactics,” The Counter Terrorist, November 4, 2010 (accessed March 8, 2014); available from http://www.homeland1.com/domestic-international-terrorism/articles/913612-Los-Zetas-Massacres-Assassinations-and-Infantry-Tactics/

[10] “President Calderon condemns Mexico migrant killings,” BBC News, August 26, 2010. (accessed March 8, 2014); available from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-11101398

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About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
Aside | This entry was posted in Crime, International Relations, Terrorism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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