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The Zetas, once the military wing of the Gulf Cartel, are now among one of the most violent groups in MexicoThe Zetas started out as an enforcer gang for the Gulf Cartel, taking their name from the radio code used for top-level officers in the Mexican army. 

Not only are they highly organized, but their use of brutality and shock tactics — petrol bombs, beheadings, and roadblocks — has led the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to describe them as perhaps “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups.” 

In terms of technology, the Zetas are known to favour AR-15 assault rifles, grenade launchers and even use helicopters. In terms of sophistication, thanks to their widespread intelligence networks encompassing individuals from street vendors to federal commanders, the group is able to launch full-scale attacks against police stations and prisons seemingly at will. And in terms of shock-and-awe violence, the Zetas are perhaps unmatched.

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.

The Zetas now operate in a series of isolated, semi-independent cells, stretching from the Gulf coast down to Central America, with their stronghold the corridor stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Many of the original 31 members have been killed off, but what the thousands of new recruits may lack in Special Forces training, they make up for in brutality and shock tactics. Sub-groups within the Zetas include a wing dedicated to arms trafficking, known as the “mañosos,” youths who provide street intelligence, known as “halcones” and “ventanas,” and “officers” who coordinate kidnappings and killings with sophisticated communications technology, known as “la direccion.”

The sophistication and brutality of the original Zetas forced other drug cartels in Mexico to react and form their own paramilitary wings, as was the case with Familia Michoacana, which also received training from the Zetas. The Zetas appear particularly unafraid to launch bold attacks 
against the state, or to engage in war-like firefights with the security forces. This has made them one of the principal threats to the Mexican government, which is currently struggling to establish its authority in the various zones where the Zetas operate. 

The Zetas are currently working alongside the Beltran Leyva Organization, and have also established alliances across the hemisphere, including possibly with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, with Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” from the Oficina de Envigado in Colombia, and U.S. gangs based in the Southwest, especially Texas.

But unlike other cartels, the Zetas do not buy their alliances so much as they terrorize their enemies. They torture victims, string up bodies, 
and slaughter indiscriminately, as was the case in August 2010, when 72 illegal migrants were killed by Zetas and dumped in a hole in Tamaulipas; or the assassination of a mayor that same month; or the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate in June. For now, the Zetas are not as well known for bribing government officials into cooperation. Rather than building up alliances, the Zetas prefer to take military-style control of territory, keeping it through sheer force. Intimidation seems to be their preferred tactic.

It might not be an exaggeration to say the Zetas are among the most vicious drug cartels ever to emerge. Not only have they been able to 
establish drug-trafficking routes through Guatemala and Nicaragua into Mexico, but recent reports indicate that they may have also coopted a 
cocaine trafficking route into Europe via Venezuela and West Africa, representing yet another lucrative market for the organization. 

The Zetas have long been better equipped and better trained than their rival cartels. And anxieties have long existed that the Zetas may in fact be better equipped than the police and military forces, deployed to stop the group’s expansion. Indeed, their only true rivals may be the Sinaloa Cartel, who has formed a strategic alliance with their old bosses, the Gulf Cartel, and the Familia, in an effort to slow the rise of this powerful organization.

Categories: The Cartels
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