Are Zetas operating as police impersonators in the United States?

Whether or not Zetas are conducting paramilitary, police-impersonation operations here in the US, the incident in Houston is a watershed event indeed


Editor’s Note:

Editor's Note: Throughout the course of the day today I will continue collecting the comments of some of my contacts and adding those thoughts to this column. Check back later today for additional commentary, but in the meantime, add your thoughts below.

The news out of Houston that a group of criminals is staging armed raids on illegal gaming rooms in that city contains a very important wrinkle for our consideration — these violators are also police impersonators, and by all indications in the video these thugs have stepped things up quite considerably in their tactics — and tactical training. We’ve reported extensively here on PoliceOne in recent months on the variety of issues related to police impersonators, but today’s news presents us with an array of additional considerations to contemplate — not the least of which is the idea that HPD investigators are considering the possibility that these perpetrators are Zetas.

The experts with whom I’ve spoken on this matter don’t feel that these men in the Houston incident were, in fact, Zetas. Regardless, this is a very significant episode, whether or not it is found out that Zetas are conducting these types of operations here in the Untied States. At best, these offenders are ‘frequent fliers’ who have witnessed firsthand the movements and procedures of a tactical team taking down a room. At worst, well, we’re seeing a watershed event indeed.

Lest we forget, the Zetas did not start out as an independent cartel — they began as hired guns for the OTHER cartels. Many of those who self-identified as Zetas were retired from various branches of the Mexican military — most notably the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) special forces soldiers who had received excellent tactical training and conducted extensive operations in which their combat experience refined their skills to very high levels of effectiveness.

Check out this video, and then resume reading below.

Spillover in Tactics
This afternoon I connected via phone with my friend Fred Burton, who has written a number of outstanding columns for PoliceOne, and has a wealth of knowledge related to the Mexican drug cartels as well as major trends and issues affecting American cops.

“We have a lot of problems in Texas in general — with gang violence and spillover crime. When you look at that kind of event — much like we had with the three-car ambush of the undercover informant the week before last in Houston — this is just indicative of the kind of criminal enterprise that we’re seeing,” Burton told me. “I don’t think this is actually Zetas, but what you do have is a lot of copycat activity with street gangs claiming to be Zetas because of that ‘street cred’ if you know what I mean.”

Think about that for just a moment. You have one group, pretending to be another group, pretending to be another — an American street gang, claiming to be Mexican Zetas, dressing up and presenting themselves as United States law enforcers.

“In reality, that kind of scenario as you saw [in the above video] we’ve seen in Mexico in the past. What you’re seeing is a lot of spillover in tactics. If you rewind a couple of weeks before this incident, you’ve got the ambush of the undercover informant, and now you have this MO where they look like cops — we see that fairly regularly in Mexico. ...No city is immune to this as we all know, but the closer you get to the border, I think you have more likelihood that you’ll have similar modus operandi coming across, bleeding across, because of the drug supply chain.”

Not Just Zetas
While there is a very real possibility that the individuals in that video are Zetas — their tactical acumen and their location near to the Mexican border do increase such a possibility — we must also be mindful of the fact that a variety of groups have been working hard on their training.

Let’s remember that street gangs in the United States generally — and in the American-Mexican border specifically — are frequently just one (or none!) degree of separation from those Cartels proper. Even the street gangs not directly affiliated with the Cartels are dealing the drugs those Cartels have sent across the border. Furthermore, these criminal enterprises — both American gangs and Mexican Cartels — do not limit themselves to drug trafficking. They’re into extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, stolen vehicles, you name it.

“What you’re seeing here is just a spillover in tactics” from Mexico to the United States, Burton reiterated. “This is an emerging threat that 2012 law enforcement needs to be cognizant of — and on top of — not only tactically but also in terms of firepower as well. When you think about it in context, it’s not just Zetas or Zeta wannabes, you also have a tremendous number of potential US military, combat-trained soldiers that are rotating back into the Unites States.”

It’s not news that a number of individuals now known to be affiliated with criminal gangs have joined the United States military so they can be trained and sent overseas to get battlefield experience which can subsequently be brought back to the streets. We know there are “training camps” all over the country in which “Militias” of Sovereign Citizens are working on their tactics and throwing thousands of rounds downrange to sharpen their skills. And we know that through the broad availability of surplus police vehicles, look-alike and actual police uniforms and equipment, as well as unscrupulous or unwitting trainers providing bad guys with training, we have a serious problem looming ahead.

SWAT Versus SWAT
Imagine the scene in which you have a legitimate law enforcement SWAT team called out to that incident in Houston. The TV news reporters viewing the footage would be tempted to report that sort of an event as a SWAT team versus a SWAT team.

“Due to the fact that our tactics and uniforms are known to everyone, copying us is quite easy,” said my friend and colleague Marty Katz. “Anyone can buy whatever they need to look just like a police office. To make matters worse, some police academies will teach people not hired already by an agency. Change is needed with limited ability to copy uniforms. Movies and television have become reality and reality looks just like film. We gave away our secrets and until we enhance what we do, we are in trouble.”

“This makes police work on the border so much more dangerous on so many levels,” added my good friend Dan Marcou in an email to me late in the day. “We need to find out if this is a U.S. Criminal gang. If not is it a cross border incursion by, Mexican criminals, a Cartel, or rogue Mexican authorities? If it is, this is ‘Pancho Villa-like’ — which you may remember triggered not law enforcement response, but a military one. In the meantime, local law enforcement needs to get together and work out a response and communication protocol to determine friendly from unfriendly at these scenes. Wow! Be careful out there!”

“This is going to be one of those emerging issues that nobody really likes to talk about, but the street cops in 2012 are going to have to be ready to deal with,” Burton concluded.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.

Contact Doug Wyllie

  1. Tags
  2. Officer Safety
  3. Border Patrol
  4. Gangs
  5. International Law Enforcement
  6. Patrol Issues

Recommended Drug Interdiction / Narcotics

Join the discussion