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Los Zetas: Massacres, assassinations, and infantry tactics

One of Mexico's most ruthless, tactically proficient criminal gangs has spread from an original 31 mercenaries into a sizable private army and criminal enterprise

By John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan

Los Zetas are arguably Mexico's most ruthless and tactically proficient criminal gang. Essentially enforcers turned multipurpose cartel, they are waging a brutal war against competing cartels and the Mexican state alike. The Zetas' current situation is one of flux. They are under immense pressure from both the state and criminal competitors. As a result, they are waging an increasingly brutal campaign to retain relevancy and expand their power base.

They could emerge from their current situation stronger by consolidating power and expanding their reach, or, the backlash to their campaign could force them off the table. Either way, Los Zetas have changed the game forever in Mexico.


Los Zetas were initially established as an enforcement/protection arm for the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo/ CDG) in the late 1990s. Deserters from the Mexican special operations force, Known as GAFES (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales), they became the close protection detail for Gulf cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Under the command of "Z1" Arturo Guzman Decenas, the original 31 Zetas brought their skills and combat tradecraft to bear for the Gulf cartel's business interests. Their mercenary mastery of intelligence and operational tactics served their new masters well.1

Once in place, the original Zetas each trained a cadre of soldiers, recruited from state and municipal police forces And, in some cases, the rank and file of Mexico's army. This initial group of elite bodyguards catalyzed an evolution of lethal force and tactics used within Mexico's criminal underworld. Late model SUVs with tinted windows and no license plates became the normal method of transport. Tight shot groups in Los Zetas' victims indicated a high level of proficiency, though this particular high-skill level has diluted over the years.

Los Zetas brought ambushes, defensive positions, and small-unit tactics—all long-employed by military forces—to Mexico's criminal syndicates. They remain one of the few criminal groups in the Americas willing to deliberately take head on a military checkpoint or patrol. When Los Zetas arrived, they catalyzed an evolution of tactical knowledge and strategic intelligence gathering that over the past 10 years has become the norm.

From that initial foundation the Zetas grew, bringing in Guatemalan Kaibiles to expand their depth,2 reaching into other aspects of the cartel business, and ultimately merging with the Gulf leadership to form the Company (La Compania). They then threw off their master to form their own cartel cum private army. Along the way, the Zetas created a brutal mystique, and developed a brutally protected criminal brand, today synonymous with violence and fear across the Americas. Their core strengths include well-honed intelligence capabilities, exploiting grassroots networks, precision small-unit attacks, ambushes and raids, and symbolic violence and brutality.3 As a result, they are a dangerous force across Mexico, where they have a concentration of force, including the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León. In addition, they now pose a significant threat to the solvency of state organs where they operate, especially In the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Notable incidents allegedly tied to Los Zetas include the December 2008 execution of Mexican soldiers in Guerrero, a "violence-torn, impoverished southern state where a 'dual sovereignty' exists between the elected government and narco-criminals;"4 the February 2009 assassination of retired Brigadier Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones to ward off government interference; and their alleged participation in a September 2008 grenade attack in Morelia that killed eight and wounded more than 100.5 Los Zetas' weaponry includes rocket and grenade launchers, assault rifles (including the AK-47 and its variants known as the cuerno de chivo as well as modified AR-15s and M-16s), and .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles. Their allies include the Barrio Azteca, Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia, and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gangs, remnants of the Beltrán-Leyva organization and the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes organization, as well as a number of smaller drug trafficking organizations in Colombia and Venezuela.


By early spring of 2010, the Zetas split from the Gulf cartel's control, triggering a tectonic shift in Mexican cartel alliances. The Gulf-Zeta split broke the duopoly known as the Company, which had been maintained by both factions to pursue drug trafficking and distribution, human trafficking, product piracy, kidnapping, and petroleum theft. This shift—announced by posting banners known as narcomantas in several Mexican states—is currently fueling the high levels of violence throughout much of Mexico, especially those areas (plazas and corridors) being contested by the Zetas.6 The result was a war of "all against all"—cartels vs. Zetas vs. the police, military, and increasingly, the state itself. "The result of the Gulf-Zeta split is a new battle for primacy among Mexico's criminal enterprises. The Zetas, formerly enforcers, muscle or a 'praetorian guard,' turned on their masters."7


The Zetas are known to have pilfered large quantities of oil from PEMEX (Petroleos Mexicanos) to fund their enterprises. Gangsters have siphoned more than $1 billion worth of oil from Mexico's pipelines over the past two years.
Much of this clandestine oil business has been linked to the Zetas who now dominate criminal enterprises in the oilrich states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.

In Veracruz alone, the Mexican Justice Department has opened investigations into 70 different companies suspected of having purchased stolen diesel from Los Zetas' representatives, concentrated in the Veracruz city of Poza Rica.

Meanwhile, a firefight between Los Zetas' gunmen and the Mexican military left five dead on July 27, when Los Zetas fought to retain control over a PEMEX well near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. The petro theft constitutes a symbolic and a financial threat to the Mexican government while providing a vast stream of income, perhaps as much as $715 million a year, that gangsters use to buy weapons, bribe officials, and bankroll their brutal assault against the Mexican government.


The Zetas have steadily expanded their reach across Mexico and beyond. They operate camps (known Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador, and Brazil) refused, and were executed.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the lead investigator and another police officer were reported missing. Car bombs exploded near a police station and a Televisa office; a grenade exploded in a Puerto Vallarta bar; and, the mayor of Hidalgo was assassinated. The Zetas are suspected in those actions, too. Such is the tempo of extreme violence in areas contested by the Zetas: primitive car bombs, grenade attacks, assassinations, and massacres. Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Jalisco—states contested by the Zetas—are deluged by the spate of violence.

Urban blockades, or narcobloqueos, are a quasi-political tool recently employed by Los Zetas in Monterrey and Reynosa. For example, on August 14, 2010, members of the Zetas blocked off at least 13 major roads in Monterrey, preventing access to the city's international airport and major highways entering and exiting the northern industrial city. The narcobloqueos were deployed in the aftermath of a shootout between the military and Los Zetas that killed reputed Monterrey Zeta leader "El Sonrics." Drivers were carjacked and their cars were used to close the roads. These blockades are a "show of force," a demonstration of the Zetas' power.

Mass attacks are another favored tactic. Recent attacks in Torreon (Coahuila) left 17 dead, the majority from 5.56mm Weapons. The aforementioned San Fernando attack left 72 dead. In July 2010 a mass grave with 51 bodies was discovered near Monterrey in Nuevo León. The May 12, 2010, raid by Mexican forces on a Zeta camp in Higueras also helps frame an understanding of Zeta capabilities. In the camp, troops found grenade launchers, grenades, 50-caliber machine guns, and AR type rifles, as well as uniforms and SUVs marked with Zetas insignia, and votive candles venerating Santa Muerte, "Holy Death." More recently, grenade attacks against Mexican navy headquarters in Matamoros, drive-bys on police stations and prosecutor general of the Republic, Mexico's attorney general offices, and bombings of Televisa media facilities have joined running gun battles and kidnappings in the Zeta bag of tricks.


Los Zetas have spread from an original 31 mercenaries into a sizable private army and criminal enterprise. On the business side of the house, they specialize in drugs, human trafficking , small arms trafficking , extortion (street taxes), kidnapping (levantones), murder, petroleum theft, and CD/DVD piracy. Indeed, drug trafficking likely comprises less than half their criminal revenuegenerating portfolio. Their current allies include factions of the Beltrán-Leyva organization, the Juarez and Tijuana cartels, Bolivian drug clans, thirdgeneration (transnational street/prison) gangs, and the Italian 'Ndrangheta. They conduct raids and ambushes, and employ small unit infantry tactics supported by intelligence operations to engage in close quarters battle with state security forces. Assassinations of police and political figures, including mayors and candidates for state office, and threats against journalists and judicial officials, round Out their violent range of actions.

They employ these means to thwart competition from other gangs, to control economic spheres of influence, and increasingly to control territory to avoid interference from the government and determine who runs the state. In short, the Zetas are waging criminal insurgency against their competitors and state institutions. To do so, they increasingly employ threats (in March 2009 they threatened to kill Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom; in August 2010 they killed two Mexican mayors). These violent attacks are also being joined by more and more barbaric means, including a June 6, 2010, torture/mass murder where six victims were found in a Cancun cave with their hearts cut out and "Z" carved in their abdomens, a violent prelude to the recent San Fernando massacre. The Zetas are a violent threat to the state. They have the tactical skills to produce insurgent-style, high-order street violence. They also pose a significant threat to state security forces. It remains to be seen if they can consolidate their reach and sustain their onslaught before meeting a more proficient rival (licit or illicit).


Mr. Sullivan is a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST). He serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs, criminal insurgency, and their impact on policing, intelligence, and sovereignty.

Mr. Logan is author of This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Hyperion, 2009). He is also a Latin American analyst for iJET Intelligent Risk Systems. He is the founding editor of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, and has reported on security issues in Latin America since 1999.


1 Logan, Samuel. "Los Zetas: Evolution of a Criminal Organization, ISN Security Watch, ETH Zurich, 11 March 2009 at http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?id=97554&lng=en.

2 Grayson, George W. "Los Zetas: the Ruthless Army Spawned by a Mexican Drug Cartel," E-Notes, Foreign Policy Research Institute, May 2008 at http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200805.grayson.loszetas.html.

3 See Grayson, 2008 and Manwaring, Max G. A "New" Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies, Carlise Barracks: Strategic Studies institute, September 2009 at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=940.

4 Grayson, George W. "Los Zetas and other Mexican Cartels Target Military Personnel," E-Notes, Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 2009 at http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200903.grayson.loszetasmilitary.html.

5 Grayson, 2009.

6 Logan, Samuel and John P. Sullivan. "The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian Revolt," ISN Security Watch, ETH Zurich, 07 April 2010 at http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?id=114551&lng=en.

7 Logan and Sullivan, 2010.         

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