The Rise and Fall of Los Zetas
Three books look into Mexico's most explosive drug cartel
This article originally appeared at InSight Crime.
At the time of the Zetas formation in the early 2000s, as an armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, little seemed to distinguish the group from scores of predecessors and contemporaries. Mexico‘s cartels have long deployed teams of shock troops willing to engage in all manner of brutality to further the collective cause. The Zetas seemed like yet another permutation of what had become a standard feature of the Mexican underworld.
But there were early signs that the Zetas were not a run-of-the-mill outfit of toughs. Their roots in the special forces of Mexico’s army, including reports that founding members had received training from the United States, bestowed upon them an air of sinister competence. This was coupled with an unprecedented emphasis on firepower.
The Zetas’ outsized arsenals — grenades and automatic weapons became standard — sparked something of an arms race across Mexican criminal groups, which multiplied the group’s destructive impact far beyond its specific area of operation.
The Zetas’ emergence also offered a hint of the challenge for the Mexican state. Not only were the country’s best and brightest forces incapable of defeating the cartel threat, they were also working on the wrong side of the law.
Circumstances helped pave the way for the Zetas’ growth. After the 2003 arrest of Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas, the Zetas no longer had their founding patron directly overseeing them, providing Heriberto “Z3” Lazcano and his lieutenants newfound autonomy. During this period, the Zetas were key in beating back an attempt by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel to wrest control of their home state of Tamaulipas, through which they made their reputation as a group capable of standing up to anyone.
By the latter part of 2006, as Pres. Felipe Calderón initiated a new era of conflict between the government and organized crime, the Zetas were among the country’s most feared groups. And while the Calderón administration first turned its attention to the Familia Michoacana, it wasn’t long before a good portion of the tens of thousands of soldiers deployed on domestic security duty were focusing on the Zetas. By the end of Calderón’s term, security officials were telling reporters the Zetas were the government’s top priority.
The burning casino in Monterrey in August 2011. Photo via Wikimedia.
The Zetas responded in kind, bolstering their notoriety through a series of provocations that grew more and more reckless. They tossed grenades into an Independence Day celebration in the Michoacán state capital of Morelia, murdering revelers in a roundabout attempt to bring disrepute upon the Familia Michoacana. They set fire to a casino in Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo León, killing 52 civilians. They tossed a grenade into the U.S. consulate in the same city, killing a U.S. federal agent and wounding another along a San Luis Potosí highway. They abducted busloads of travelers passing through Tamaulipas, massacring scores at a time and reportedly obliging survivors to fight to the death to win their survival.
Their savagery seemed not only limitless, but also terrifyingly creative. They left the public in a position not unlike an audience watching a gripping but grizzly theatrical performance: What would the Zetas do next?
The Zetas’ fireworks also came amid a backdrop of relentless expansion. From their base in Tamaulipas, they took over most of Nuevo León, Veracruz, Tabasco, Coahuila and San Luis Potosí. They also made inroads in more distant states like Guerrero and Sinaloa, the backyard of their foremost enemy, as well as in far-flung foreign nations. Coupled with the list of atrocities, this territorial spread gave the Zetas the image of an unstoppable juggernaut.
For years, the parade of arrests and shows of military force seemingly accomplished nothing. Mexico, and the Zetas specifically, only became more violent. The Zetas weren’t the only gang distressing Mexico and perplexing policymakers, but more than any other, they seemed to be relentlessly pushing Mexico closer and closer to a precipice.
Ultimately, however, the pressure from the government and rival gangs paid off. The Zetas’ founders are dead or in prison, and the gang’s influence is gravely diminished. The newspapers today publish story after story about the rise of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation and the long fade-out of the Sinaloa Cartel. But they run comparatively few articles about the Zetas remnants that remain active. Violence in Mexico certainly has not disappeared. On the contrary, 2017 will likely be as violent as any year during the Zetas’ peak. But the Zetas are no longer the reason.
So now, years removed from the zenith of the group’s notoriety, what are we to make of the rise and apparent fall of the Zetas? What was unique about the group? What gave the Zetas their singular sense of menace?
Three new books provide a wealth of insight into these questions.
Bloodlines, bones and Los Zetas
This first two books — Melissa del Bosque’s Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty and Joe Tone’s Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream — are journalistic accounts of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the Zetas’ rise to prominence in the American quarter horse industry, though neither limits itself solely to that specific case.
The third book — Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico, by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera — offers an academic analysis of the Zetas as a money-making enterprise.
Each of these works paints the Zetas as a unique organization. Correa-Cabrera describes them as transformative in her opening pages, while Tone labels the Zetas as “disrupters” who had “come to fuck things up” in Mexico. Tone also depicts them as abrogating an informal social contract under which drug gangs previously avoided targeting the civilian population.
These descriptions are, of course, inseparable from the group’s penchant for violence, which lurks in the background of all three works. Put simply, the Zetas were different most obviously because they were more bloodthirsty than their peers.
From the Zetas’ perspective, the spectacular violence was useful, at least for a time, even beyond their obvious interest in defeating their rivals: It generated new profits.
Their kidnapping and human trafficking, for instance, was built upon a foundation of violence. A credible threat of retaliation allowed them to demand protection money from criminal enterprises and legitimate businesses alike. This violence, turned into a calling card, also fed what Correa-Cabrera describes as a “reverse franchise” model, in which small-time crooks sought to operate under the fearsome Zetas brand.
It wasn’t just that the Zetas were more bloodthirsty than their peers, but that they used this attribute to evolve into a new sort of entity. The Zetas’ taste for violence was intimately linked to their existence not as a mere drug trafficking organization, but as a criminal conglomerate, with an appropriately diverse range of activities: extortion, human trafficking, retail drug sales, piracy, kidnapping and black-market oil and gas sales.
If a talent for violence and a diversified approach to crime were two pillars of the Zetas, the third was the group’s intimate relationship with the government.
The existence of ties between the Zetas and the government is not exactly novel. “Silver or lead” is the perennial dilemma that cartels impose upon security officials. But the Zetas adopted a new approach. There are relatively few examples of the Zetas colluding with federal officials, unlike their counterparts from Sinaloa.
Rather, the group dominated politics at the state level, essentially absorbing the governments of Humberto Moreira in Coahuila and Fidel Herrera in Veracruz, among various others, into their organizational hierarchy.
References to governors pepper the three books. The Zetas reportedly invested millions in Herrera’s campaign in 2005, thereby ensuring his collusion for the duration of his six-year term. ADT Petroservicios, founded with Zetas money and owned by money launderer and Herrera pal Francisco Colorado Cessa, received millions in Veracruz oil servicing contracts during Herrera’s term.
Del Bosque details how Herrera’s political team helped support the Zetas’ kidnapping racket, including one victim who provided millions in cash to support their horse investments. The group had a similarly intimate relationship with Moreira, who helped pave the way for their takeover of Coahuila.
These three salient aspects of the Zetas operations — the wholesale capture of state governments, the unprecedented business diversification and the appetite for spectacular violence — worked in concert. Increased violence was required for business diversification; diversification required collusion with government officials; government collusion allowed gang members to commit atrocities with impunity; the threat of violence encouraged officials to work with the Zetas.
These mutually-reinforcing characteristics amplified the Zetas’ influence, and increased public terror. But it’s not clear that it reflected the gang’s strength. On the contrary, much of the violence seemed the product of a frayed chain of command and a lack of talent in the ranks: Both the Casino Royale massacre and the attack that killed Jaime Zapata were reportedly mistakes.
The three-way dynamic sparked a backlash that accelerated the group’s demise. The murder of innocents intensified demands for action by the Mexican authorities. In Piedras Negras, their mania for violence was turned toward subordinates, many of whom fled to the United States and began working with prosecutors. Their relationships with governors, whose subordinates laundered millions in bribe money abroad, provoked the interest of foreign prosecutors.
Ultimately, in their ambition, the Zetas illustrate the wisdom of an old business maxim: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.
While they describe a fearsome gang, this trio of books also leaves readers with the impression that the group’s sheen of big business professionalism was overstated. While initially helpful, military expertise was not a requirement for Zetas leadership.
Miguel Ángel Treviño, who had no military experience whatsoever, edged out several army veterans in his rise up the ranks, and ended his career as the group’s top leader. Whatever he may have lacked in tactical know-how, he made up for in ambition and ruthlessness, which makes him not unlike many other gangsters that came before him.
Nor is there much evidence of a militaristic obsession with competence. Many of the Zetas agents whom we come to know most intimately in Tone’s and Del Bosque’s books seem bumbling and out of their depth. Treviño’s brother José is perhaps the best example: He aimed to become a titan of quarter horse racing, but he lacked basic knowledge of the industry, and he seems painfully unaware of the legal vulnerability his ambitions inevitably entailed.
The Zetas’ relative lack of economic power is also striking, and inconsistent with the prevailing image of the gang. Over and over again, Tone’s and del Bosque’s readers see the group struggling to keep up with obligations stemming from the horses, occasionally bouncing checks and often way behind on payments for feed and stables.
Overall, the Zetas received between $15 and $20 million a month from its chief distributor of cocaine to the American Midwest, and they typically sat on a cash reserve in Mexico of between $30 and $50 million. According to one former commander, the organization’s overall revenues from U.S. drug sales reached approximately $350 million. But that money was revenues, not profit, and much of it was destined for their Colombian suppliers.
An enduring legacy
Each of these books is a valuable addition to the literature on the Zetas and modern Mexican drug trafficking. Tone’s Bones and Del Bosque’s Bloodlines traverse very similar terrain: The books use a comparable number of pages to detail the investigation and trial of José Treviño Morales, the brother of the Zetas boss who went from Texas bricklayer to Oklahoma quarter horse magnate, culminating in his 2013 conviction for money laundering.
Both books have benefited from unusually strong source material. The case is intrinsically fascinating to anyone interested in drug trafficking, and both authors secured interviews from several of the investigation’s protagonists. The case’s disclosures offer a more comprehensive view of a criminal enterprise than one typically encounters in 20 narco-books, and both authors do an admirable job filtering the oceans of information, including thousands of pages of court filings, into a digestible narrative.
Del Bosque goes into greater depth while describing the investigation’s particulars. Her portrayals of the protagonists — the lead agent on the case and his key witness, a young rancher who helped the FBI infiltrate the Zetas’ quarter horse network — are indelible. It is not easy to turn a case that hinged on beneficial ownership of shell companies into a genuine page-turner, but she pulls it off without stripping away any substance.
Tone’s narrative is comparatively complicated, and his prose more stylized. He includes, for instance, an extended second-person riff on how to launder drug money through the international financial system. He adopts a much more jaundiced view of the whole affair, where Del Bosque provides a more conventional cops and robbers tale. Tone manages to work in dozens of references to the biases embedded in the criminal justice system, including insinuations that the FBI was motivated by race in selecting its targets.
This meditating on justice provokes questions of the reader long after the book is finished, which is to its credit. Ultimately, however, the implication that investigators and prosecutors were influenced by race often comes across as unfair, and associates of the Zetas do not make for sympathetic victims of a biased justice system.
As an academic book, Los Zetas Inc. is more theoretical, and less tied to any narrative. This makes it a more challenging read, though it is certainly worth the effort. Correa-Cabrera’s research is vast, and the breadth of her thesis is impressive. In her comparison of the Zetas to a corporation, she covers largely untrodden ground in describing the group’s social media outreach, its accounting and human resources departments, and its corporate structure.
In particular, her investigation of the relationship between resource extraction and Mexican criminal organizations is fascinating, and has implications for decades to come. The Zetas were fortunate enough to emerge in an area of the country with major oil and gas fields, including the Burgos Basin in Tamaulipas, the Sabinas Basin in Veracruz, and the Tampico-Misantla Basin in Veracruz. Mexico’s shale deposits, likely the engine of profits within the industry in the coming decades, are also concentrated in the Zetas’ territory.
The Zetas invested much effort in securing a piece of this this lucrative industry. They invested in oil service contractors, such as ADT Petroservicios in Veracruz. They kidnapped and harassed employees of Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil behemoth, as well as other energy companies, thereby slowing production while demanding a portion of the profits for themselves. They stole oil and gas from Pemex facilities, and erected a network of front companies and legitimate collaborators to sell the stolen product on both sides of the border.
Some of Correa-Cabrera’s conclusions are better supported than others, and in general the idea that the Zetas are exploiting changes in the energy sector is more convincing than that of a grand conspiracy between the Zetas and multinational energy companies, which is purportedly driving energy policy. But as the author details, the energy-sector opportunities that the Zetas have exploited are also open to other criminal groups, and her book leaves the impression that others will likely follow their example.
This may turn out to be the Zetas’ most enduring legacy. Even if future criminal groups eschew the counterproductive violence that made the group a nationwide source of fear, they can still leave an increasing footprint on the legitimate economy. This represents a long-term challenge to Mexican society, in some ways even more insidious and daunting than the Zetas.
This article originally appeared at InSight Crime.