Los Zetas' Spawn

The Long Afterlife of Mexico's Most Ruthless Drug Gang

A Los Zetas medal on display in Mexico city. Courtesy Reuters

For all its reputed sophistication, Mexico’s premier criminal organization is finally faltering. The Zetas was dealt a heavy blow on July 15, when its leader, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, was arrested. But it is much too soon to write the Zetas’ obituary -- not least because the group has left an enduring legacy in the region. Throughout Central America, criminal groups have been following the Zetas’ fearsome blueprint for criminal enterprise. Even if it fades away, the organization’s ruthless business model will live on.

The U.S. State Department has described the Zetas as “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.” The group was formed in 1997 by soldiers who defected from the Mexican army’s elite Air-Mobile Special Forces. The original crew initially served as the armed wing of another group, the Gulf cartel, working as hit men and bodyguards; some eventually graduated to become drug traffickers. The Gulf Cartel began falling apart in 2003, after the arrest and extradition to the United States of its top leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Soon, the Zetas began competing for the Gulf Cartel’s territory. The Zetas’ military background, as well as its access to state-of-the-art weaponry and communications technology, allowed it to gain early victories against its rivals. Starting in 2010, the gang initiated an all-out turf war that fueled an exponential increase in violence in northeastern Mexico. Soon, it controlled territory stretching all the way from the Mexican highlands to Central America along the Gulf Coast.

The Zetas are not the archetypal drug-smuggling organization. Three characteristics distinguish the Zetas from other cartels. First, it has managed to diversify its sources of revenue. Rather than concentrating on trafficking drugs, the Zetas’ portfolio includes everything from piracy, extortion, kidnapping, and migrant smuggling to theft from oil pipelines and levying taxes on other criminal organizations. Some of these activities provide the group with greater profits than they receive from drugs. And the Zetas’ drug trade is itself diversified. Not

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