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 only does it smuggle drugs into the United States, where there is a considerable markup in prices; it also supplies local drug markets along the entire route to the United States from Central America.
A second hallmark is the Zetas’ organizational structure. Instead of developing a strong vertical hierarchy, they have built a horizontal, decentralized one. The Zetas do have identifiable leaders, but its individual cells have always been empowered to exploit opportunities available in their respective locales. They do not have to wait for a top commander to issue orders.
The third distinguishing feature is a penchant for indiscriminate, brutal violence. From beheadings to dissolving corpses in acid (the idea is not original to Breaking Bad), the group will often indulge in brutality that has no operational necessity, simply for the sake of intimidation. In one infamous incident, it killed a band of musicians merely for playing at a party for a rival organization. Although other cartels have mirrored these tactics in recent years, the Zetas are still widely regarded as the most ruthless.
Together, these three characteristics have made the group a devastating force. The Zetas’ organizational structure is well adapted to supporting its diversification strategy, and its brutality serves as a trademark that eases its entry into new markets. Because all of the Zetas’ businesses benefit from geographical economies of scale, the group also has an insatiable appetite for territory. And the decentralized structure, with minimal investment in supervision and control, is designed to feed such an appetite. The reputation for ruthless violence provides a credible threat that lowers the cost of penetrating a new area, especially if local (state and municipal) law enforcement forces are poorly equipped and trained. The Zetas’ blindingly fast expansion throughout Veracruz state in 2011 is the best example of how a few cells became established in key cities and quickly brought the local authorities to heel along drug- and migrant-trafficking routes. This is the Zetas’ business model: It is lucrative, efficient, and has quickly become one of the most destabilizing forces in the Western Hemisphere.
For all its success, there are limits to the group’s strategy. Some rent-extraction activities cannot be sustained indefinitely; in any given area, there are only so many businesses one group can profitably extort before all business starts shutting down. The group’s lack of oversight is also prone to instability. Lower-level leaders can easily profit from their peers’ misfortune, which incentivizes the double-crossing of peers. Competition hampers coordination, particularly when the top leadership is compromised. The Zetas brand has also become a victim of its own success. In some areas, local gangs have begun posing as Zetas members to facilitate their own operations. In other cases, street gangs have mimicked the group’s use of disproportionate violence, a move that invites even more extreme violence by both the Zetas, in order to bring these smaller groups into the fold, and their rivals, who often claim the mantle of vigilantes protecting the rest of society. For example, in September 2011, Veracruz State witnessed the appearance of the Zetas Killers gang, allied to the Sinaloa cartel. In addition to posting an anti-Zeta manifesto on its Internet and, the group, in one of its more disturbing acts of bravado, dumped 35 bodies in a downtown Veracruz underpass in broad daylight. Meanwhile, the Zetas' rapid growth has forced it to welcome new recruits who do not meet the original standards for military discipline and efficiency.
The arrest of Treviño may prove a devastating blow for the Zetas in Mexico. The group has suffered a litany of recent defeats there. All of its original leaders have been captured or killed; the recent arrest of two Treviño brothers, one of whom authored the group's most violent tactics, may have deprived the group of their last top-level coordinator and financier, as well as its most developed drug-smuggling connections across the U.S. border. And a resurgent Gulf cartel has managed to restrict the Zetas' reach in Mexico. The gang may now launch an offensive on Nuevo Laredo, which, as the busiest land cargo crossing point on the border, is a drug-smuggling chokepoint and extortion hub. If the Zetas lose control there, their drug-smuggling profits will almost certainly experience a further decline.
Nonetheless, the Zetas continue to make their destructive push into Central America. The mere threat of the group's extortion has already scared off foreign investors. In July 2013, Guatemala cut short its largest attempt to auction off oil-drilling rights in the Petén region because investors were wary of being in the Zetas' backyard. It is hardly a coincidence that the one bloc that received no bids was La Libertad, the site of an infamous 2011 massacre in which the Zetas beheaded 27 farm workers. There are already reports that the organization has used members of MS-13 -- the notorious transnational street gang -- to conduct kidnapping and extortion operations in Guatemala and Honduras.
Governments in Central America need to take the threat from the Zetas more seriously. But even if the group is defeated in that region, its modus operandi will likely live on. Indeed, ambitious smaller cartels in Mexico have already sought to mimic the Zetas' model; it is only a matter of time before similar groups in Central America do the same. Unfortunately, the issue is no longer the group itself but rather what it has spawned. And for that problem, there is no easy solution.