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Trump’s Border Policies Strengthen Organized Crime. Here’s How.

The Trump administration’s stated purpose of “zero tolerance” of illegal immigration on US borders is to lower crime rates, but research shows that the net effect may be the opposite. The policy is to prosecute all those who cross the border illegally and the Trump administration has taken the unprecedented step of separating children from their parents in order to deter families from making the journey. (Soon after this story was published, President Trump signed an Executive Order taking steps to keep families together while in detention. “It is…the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources,” the order read.) The so-called zero tolerance approach is supposed to act as a deterrent. Administration officials have also doubled-down on the strategy by shutting off individual’s access to request asylum (at least until after they have been prosecuted for crossing into the country illegally), and by blaming parents for putting their children in danger by taking the risky journey through places like Mexico where they are routinely victimized by criminal organizations and officials alike. The Trump administration’s policy, however, is shortsighted, in part because research shows that it may, in the long run, strengthen criminal groups. Here are five ways that happens:

1. It Pushes People Into the Illegal Market

As the United States and other countries around the world have worked to stiffen border enforcement, organized crime groups that thrive from it have gotten stronger. Human smuggling — once the purview of small-time, mostly family run organizations — has become one of the most lucrative businesses in the underworld at an estimated $35 billion per year in earnings. Its criminal derivative, human trafficking, is also hugely lucrative, with a market value of $32 billion, according to the United Nations. In Mexico, large, sophisticated criminal groups like the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have made it a core revenue stream. It can also move in the other direction: several prominent Central American drug trafficking groups had their origins in human smuggling and then transitioned into trafficking other illicit goods because they already had the infrastructure, contacts and control over the routes. More powerful criminal groups means more corruption, more instability and, contrary to the Trump administration’s wishes, more migration. Guadelupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Washington and the author of a recent book on the Zetas, says stricter borders “help” groups like the Zetas. “It’s just going to magnify what we have already seen,” she told InSight Crime, referring to the steady growth of these criminal groups. This criminal activity is not limited to places south of the US border. In the United States, people are also victimized by criminal groups who have a clear understanding that going to the authorities is not an option. From the street vender who is extorted by gangs in Long Island to the California day laborer who thought he was going to do some landscaping only to find himself offloading marijuana on the coast, criminal groups take advantage of enforced anonymity.

2. It Raises the Price for Criminal Services

Part of the reason these criminal groups move into markets like human smuggling is that zero tolerance doesn’t just raise the number of clients organized crime groups have, it raises the prices for their criminal services. More enforcement equals more risk, as well as more sophistication and resources needed to succeed in any criminal venture. Estimates along the Mexico border illustrate this tendency. In a study published by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2010, researchers using four different data sources found that prices for human smuggling rose as enforcement increased.

3. It Sets the Table for Future Criminal Activity

Numerous academic and news responses to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents at the border stated that it leads to trauma, as well as physical and cognitive effects. Researchers in other parts of the world have shown that it could also lead to criminal activity. Gang researchers on this side of the ocean, such as James Vigil, who wrote the seminal book on Latino gangs in Los Angeles, have also surmised that this is one of a number of factors that often leads to criminal activity. Vigil calls his theory multiple marginality, and it includes other factors inherent in the Trump administration’s policies approach towards migrant communities. This is something we also noticed while doing our three-year study on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) in the region. We talked to dozen of past and current gang members. Family upheaval was always part of a gang member’s personal story. What’s more, deportations along the border also push many into the criminal ranks, says Angelica Durán-Martínez, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the author of a recent book on the politics of drug violence in Colombia and Mexico. “While not all deportees end up engaging in criminal activities, a portion of them do, given that they are often released into border areas where OC (organized crime) has a strong presence, and where they have little social networks or possibilities for legal employment,” she told InSight Crime in an email exchange.

4. It Destroys Trust Between Authorities and Migrant Communities Where Organized Crime and Gangs are Prevalent

There are two ways to measure this. The first is anecdotal. In this case, police chiefs in the United States working on the front lines to lower gang violence and crime rates say that vilifying migrant communities cuts off important channels of intelligence, as well as lowers chances that witnesses and potential collaborators will assist investigations. The second is via proxy data. For example, there has been a drop in complaints about domestic abuse coming from Latino communities since President Donald Trump came into office. Domestic abuse complaints are relatively static.

5. It Reduces Remittances, Which Could Increase Crime Rates

Trump’s overall strategy — which includes ending measures such as Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans and El Salvador — could greatly reduce the number of undocumented migrants in the United States. These migrants send money back to their countries. Reduce their numbers, and you reduce these remittances. Remittances are, as this World Bank study notes, a mixed bag. They can help to reduce poverty and inequality, but they can deplete the local labor supply and “income-generating capacity” of the migrant households. But a recent Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study also concluded that remittances “reduce homicide rates.” This, the authors argue, is partly the result of reducing poverty, increasing family investment in education, and creating jobs. In the end, if the Trump administration’s goal is to lower crime, they might want to rethink the zero tolerance strategy.

Mexico’s Zetas: From Criminal Powerhouse to Fragmented Remnants

The Zetas were once Mexico’s most feared and violent organized crime threat. Now, the group is a fragmented shadow of its former self. InSight Crime looks at what happened, and what’s next for the once-powerful cartel. The founders of the Zetas were defectors from the Mexican Army’s Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales – GAFES), a US-trained unit considered one of the most elite in the region. Originally they acted as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel, but in the mid-2000s, the ex-soldiers broke away and formed their own autonomous group. By 2010, the Zetas had used extraordinary levels of violence to rapidly expand and become one of Mexico’s most notorious criminal groups. But a series of arrests and deaths of important figures sent the group into a downward spiral. A lack of clear leadership caused the Zetas to splinter, allowing rival groups to assert dominance over Mexico’s organized crime landscape. InSight Crime spoke with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, the author of the 2017 book “Los Zetas Inc.,” to discuss the genealogy of the Zetas, how they rose and fell from power, and where the group stands today in the context of Mexican organized crime.* InSight Crime (IC): The Zetas organization was founded by a group of deserters from the special forces of the Mexican Army. Why did they defect to form a crime group? Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera (GC): To understand the Zetas it’s important first to understand the Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel started smuggling alcohol in the 1930s during prohibition in the United States. But the capacity of this group to build, network and develop connections with the government at all levels, specifically in Tamaulipas, gave them the ability to expand in a way that not many groups had. When cocaine routes changed from the Caribbean to land routes in Mexico in the late 1990s, the Gulf Cartel transformed into a drug trafficking organization by utilizing the networks they had created earlier. They were now dedicated to drug trafficking at a time when cocaine was a very lucrative business. The Gulf Cartel was allegedly protected by authorities and there were even allegations that the Mexican government had connections to the cartel and provided protection to its leader Juan Garcia Ábrego. But after Garcia Ábrego was extradited to the United States in 1996, there was a fight for control and the winner happened to be Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The origins of the Zetas are in the special forces of the Mexican Army that were trained in the counterinsurgency against the Zapatistas [leftist militant group] in southern Mexico. But these forces were not used at that time and were instead sent to northern Mexico to conduct operations against drug trafficking when the Mexican government started to work more closely with the United States to fight the so-called war on drugs. Soon after Cárdenas Guillén took control of the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990s, he met a group of 31 special forces members from the Mexican Army led by Lieutenant Arturo Guzmán Decenas, alias “Z1.” This group would eventually form the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel before later becoming the Zetas. This special forces group stopped being a part of law enforcement and became the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel to help protect Nuevo Laredo, the most important city for the cartel. Nuevo Laredo is a very important passageway in the state of Tamaulipas for drugs heading to the United States because of its connection to routes leading to northeastern US cities, and also because of the fact that US customs does not have the capacity to verify every shipping container that passes through. This is why the Zetas started to assist the operations of the Gulf Cartel in Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas helped the Gulf Cartel consolidate control of the main trafficking plaza. IC: And when did the Zetas start to break away from the Gulf Cartel? GC: In 2003, Cárdenas Guillén was arrested and sent to prison in Mexico where he still controlled the Zetas. But when he was extradited to the United States in 2007, he could no longer control the Zetas and this is when the group started to break away from the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas started to consolidate power and control over drug trafficking operations in Nuevo Laredo under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, alias “El Lazca” or “Z3.”
(A timeline of the Zetas’ leadership. Credit: Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera)
The Zetas transformed the face of organized crime in Mexico because they had military training. They diversified and started to commit extortion in exchange for offering protection. The utilization of bribing local police in the city started to drive more violence than in the past. This transformed the criminal model in Tamaulipas. The Zetas and Gulf Cartel were called “La Compañía,” or the company, because they had become so powerful that they were collaborating with each other. But the Zetas soon achieved independence. They continued working with the Gulf Cartel, but because of the growth and importance they achieved, they eventually became “La Compañía” all by themselves. By 2010, the Zetas wanted to control more of the drug trafficking in Tamaulipas. After a Zetas leader was assassinated by a Gulf Cartel leader in 2010, the Zetas and Gulf Cartel allegedly separated, but in reality the Zetas’ structure had already grown to the extent that they could operate independently and control routes and plazas that were formerly headed by the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas wanted to control the criminal businesses that they had opened and wanted to open up the plaza owned by the Gulf Cartel to other businesses like human smuggling, which would later translate into several different massacres, including the execution of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. IC: What caused the Zetas to fall from power and eventually fragment into other splinter groups? GC: The Mexican government had already declared war on drugs and organized crime by the time the war between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas began, and the cartel war attracted the Mexican government. Lazcano, who led the Zetas’ transition towards independence and away from the Gulf Cartel, was arrested and allegedly killed in 2012 by Mexican security forces — his body later disappeared. This was an important moment when the Zetas started to fragment. When these things happen you see a lot of instability and a desire from others to take these leadership roles.

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile

The Treviño brothers, Miguel, alias “Z40,” and Alejandro, alias “Omar” or “Z42,” were considered very violent leaders of the Zetas after Lazcano’s death and had been connected to several massacres such as the March 2011 Allende massacre. But this gradual fragmentation of the Zetas became even more visible after Z40 was detained in 2013 and Z42 was detained in 2015. This was in part due to the militarization of Mexico’s war against organized crime, which further fragmented and weakened the group to the extent that we see today. At the beginning of current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term in late 2012 and early 2013, a new, violent group that controlled important parts of territory was not the Zetas anymore, but now the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). IC: The Northeast Cartel is one of several splinter cells of the Zetas and was originally headed by the Treviño family. Does this faction have any chance of becoming as dominant as the Zetas once were? GC: The Northeast Cartel has control over operations in the state of Coahuila because the Treviño brothers had a very special role in activities there because of the protection they had from security forces. But the Northeast Cartel has also fragmented and has lost a lot of power in Piedras Negras in Coahuila, among other places. Today it seems that this fragmentation has become much more evident. There aren’t any indications that the group has extended its presence in the way that the Zetas used to in past years. It’s possible the Northeast Cartel, much like the Zetas before them, doesn’t have the capacity to expand any more due to the significant fragmentation they’ve experienced. IC: What is the outlook for the Zetas’ criminal operations in Mexico? The Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are arguably the most talked-about and strongest cartels in Mexico, but where do the Zetas fit into this conversation? GC: Today, the Zetas are not what they used to be. The fragmentation of the Zetas has been enormous. The Zetas Old School (Zetas Vieja Escuela) and the Northeast Cartel are now the most important factions of the Zetas. But it’s hard to identify, due to this severe fragmentation, whether or not some elements of these groups were even part of the original Zetas. It’s difficult to link them to the personnel of the initial members because most of them are dead or in jail now. It’s difficult to keep track of all of these groups and establish a genealogy as clear as we could before when we knew who was in the hierarchy of this organization. The Zetas structure was never very hierarchical, but there were some very obvious leaders that we could identify. Now we’re talking about groups that are dedicated to one criminal activity, and not a criminal corporation that was controlling different criminal businesses with different cells throughout Mexico. * This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Is Mexico’s CJNG Following in the Footsteps of the Zetas?

The alleged abduction and murder of federal agents in Mexico by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) resembles the type of operation the Zetas were known for at their zenith. But what do the two groups have in common? On February 11, a video began circulating online depicting two agents from the organized crime unit of Attorney General’s Office, known by the acronym SEIDO, seated with their hands tied in front of armed men — presumably members of the CJNG. Agents Alfonso Hernández Villavicencio and Octavio Martínez Quiroz were abducted on February 5 in the Pacific state of Nayarit. In the video, they are forced to criticize the Mexican government’s current security policy and denounce abuses committed by the military.

(Video released on social media, allegedly by the CJNG)

The bodies of the two SEIDO agents were found later found in the city of Xalisco in Nayarit, the Attorney General’s Office said on February 18.

Zeta Strategy?

The kidnapping and murder of the SEIDO agents resembles the type of actions of another infamous Mexican crime group, the Zetas. Initially formed by about 30 former members of an elite Mexican army unit, the gang used fear and intimidation to conduct business in defiance of government operations. The Zetas’ actions were planned based on military strategy, and security forces were often the target of their aggression.

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

Although it is still not certain, all indications are that the slaying of the SEIDO agents is likely the work of the CJNG. In the past, criminal groups in Mexico and other countries in the region have abstained from brazenly attacking security forces to avoid becoming a target of the state. However, Guadalupe Correa, the author of the book “Zetas Inc.,” told InSight Crime that in the case of the Zetas, the spectacle of the group’s violent tactics was due in part to the context of Mexico’s war on drugs under Felipe Calderón, who served as president from 2006 to 2012. During those six years, the cornerstone of the administration’s security policy was to aggressively attack organized crime, and the Zetas quickly became public enemy number one. Correa added that it is also important to consider the role of certain state governments in fueling the Zetas’ acts of violence by allowing the group to rapidly expand across almost half the country. She believes the situation with the CJNG is no different; it attracted attention towards the end of Calderón’s six-year term and is also known for its violent and aggressive expansion. In less than a decade, the group managed to establish a presence in 14 Mexican states. For a while the CJNG managed to avoid the government’s attention. But in 2015, the group changed the rules of the game when they downed an army helicopter with a rocket launcher. No other criminal organization had done anything like it, and the CJNG joined the Zetas in taking the federal government by surprise. This was a sign that the CJNG would continue to use the Zeta strategy of intimidation to break into new markets and territories. In fact, one of the CJNG’s first actions to be made public was the massacre of 35 people in the state of Veracruz in 2011 using military tactics.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s CJNG: Local Consolidation, Military Expansion and Vigilante Rhetoric

In the territories that it already controls, the CJNG cartel has carried out violent activities, such as police massacres, forced disappearances and leaving dead bodies on the road. The CJNG, like the Zetas, has also been reported to use the “stewing” method (dissolving a corpse in acid) to discard the bodies of their victims. In the long term, however, these types of tactics brought the Zetas to its end. “The Zetas were victims of their own success. They grew too much too fast. Their calling card was brutality. All public, all on display. That inevitably brought them unwanted attention; they became the primary target of the government,” security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in a column for El Universal. Today, the majority of the Zetas’ leaders have been neutralized, and the group has splintered. But for Correa this has not meant the end of their criminal model, because it was adapted by other groups, including the CJNG.

The Zeta Legacy

Territorial control was always at the heart of the Zetas’ criminal model. To achieve this goal, the group used extortion, collecting “piso,” a payment for any kind of economic activity in their territory, legal or illegal, which allowed the group to become the first to diversify its criminal portfolio beyond the drug trade.

SEE ALSO: What Three New Books on the Zetas Tell Us About the Legendary Crime Group

“With this diversification the Zetas transformed organized crime in Mexico,” Correa told InSight Crime. As the Zetas expanded and diversified, the group began to recruit members from local gangs and delegate new criminal activities to lower-level members. This ended up being counterproductive and causing divisions within the group, which led to its weakening. While the CJNG adopted the Zetas model, it did so with some modifications. For one thing, the CJNG managed to diversify its criminal portfolio to include oil theft and extorting farmers. However, according to Hope, the CJNG’s modus operandi is still largely based on drug trafficking, and it has not fully mastered extortion. Unlike the Zetas, the CJNG expansion strategy has not been based on forced recruitment, but rather on alliances with local actors and weakened cartels in advantageous territories like Baja California and Michoacán. Part of the CJNG’s operations now depend on these new groups, which already know the terrain but are not necessarily part of the cartel. Until now, the CJNG has remained relatively stable. But according to Hope, this group too has schisms in its future. There are already reports of an alleged dissident faction laying claim to territory in the state of Guanajuato. Hope believes that when its leaders fall, the CJNG as we know it will end, and only fragments will remain.

Mexico Trumpets Arrest of ‘Most-Wanted’ Zetas Leader

Armed forces in Mexico arrested an alleged leader of the Zetas who was on the country’s most-wanted list, but the longstanding policy of targeting top crime bosses could be contributing to the country’s rising violence. On February 8, Mexican marines arrested José María Guizar Valencia, alias “Z43,” the alleged leader of a Zetas faction operating along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. In a statement to the press, National Security Commissioner Renato Sales Heredia said that Z43 was among the Mexican government’s 122 most sought-after criminal suspects, and described him as “one of the principal generators of violence in the southwest of Mexico.” Z43 is a California-born US citizen belonging to the Guizar family thought to have a presence in the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz, as well as in the United States. Officials accuse him of involvement in trafficking drugs from South America. Z43 is likely related to Mauricio Guizar Cardenas, alias “El Amarillo,” the first Zetas commander in charge of Guatemala. El Amarillo was arrested in 2012 and accused of ordering a 2011 massacre in the Guatemalan department of Petén, a key drug trafficking region on Mexico’s southern border. Since 2014, the US State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Z43’s arrest. According to the US government, Z43 “assumed complete command and control of his own faction of Los Zetas in the Southern region of Mexico” following the successive deaths and arrests of his predecessors. The US government has accused Z43 of ordering the murders of Guatemalan civilians during his Zetas faction’s takeover of the Mexico-Guatemala border region in recent years, as well as trafficking cocaine and methamphetamine into the United States. Three US courts have indicted Z43 on drug trafficking charges.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Zetas have largely lost their one-time reputation as one of Mexico’s most powerful and feared cartels, in part due to the demise of a number of top leaders like Z43 in recent years. But Mexico’s crime-fighting approach of capturing high-profile cartel leaders like Z43 has proven to have little long-term success in disrupting criminal activities, and may be contributing to rising violence.

SEE ALSO: Zeta News and Profiles

Throughout the 2000s, the Zetas’ roots in the special forces of Mexico’s army and their emphasis on bloodshed helped the group to rapidly and relentlessly expand. But with the Zetas’ founders and subsequent leaders dead or in prison, the criminal organization is becoming increasingly fractured and weak. Yet Mexico’s kingpin strategy of picking off leader after leader is not a sustainable or effective policy for bringing down criminal groups or reducing violence. As InSight Crime recently reported, “the problem with this approach is that ‘success’ begets more violence, as a fallen capo’s erstwhile lieutenants and rivals scramble to fill the vacuum left by his departure.”

New Study Offers Insight Into Zeta Tyranny

A new study of the Zetas’ operations in northern Mexico offers a detailed examination of the roots of the organization’s power as well as the extent of its reign of terror in 2011. The paper, called “El Yugo Zeta: Norte de Coahuila, 2010-2011,” was written by Sergio Aguayo and Jacobo Dayán, researchers at Colegio de México and Universidad Iberoamericana, respectively. They examine the Zetas’ operations in the northern state of Coahuila, which lies just south of Texas. During the period in question, previously tranquil Coahuila witnessed one a severe downward spiral into violence. Much of the study focuses on the Zetas’ control of the prison facility in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, a border town across the Rio Grande from McAllen. The penitentiary was one of many in the area that suffered from what federal authorities labeled as “self-government” or “co-government”; that is, the inmates controlled the prison. As the authors describe in abundant detail, the jail operated as a self-contained criminal ecosystem. Operating under a chief known as David Loreto Mejorado, the Zetas functioned as the prison’s maximum authority. Loreto had at his disposal nearly 100 inmate employees, who served as bodyguards, smugglers, lieutenants, and even carpenters.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

This group constructed a criminal empire modeled after that of the Zetas’ outside the prison walls. They sold drugs and other contraband to inmates. They charged for access to minor perks, such as use of cell phones, space for conjugal visits, and junk food. Loreto Mejorado’s men also extorted other inmates, particularly those whose families displayed signs of wealth. They made millions of pesos a year from the jail-based commerce, most of which they turned around and paid to prison authorities, in order to ensure their ongoing freedom of action. The Zetas enforced their role through a regime of physical punishment, ranging from beatings with bludgeons to assassinations. While the Zetas in the Piedras Negras prison created a self-contained economy, they operated under the orders of the local Zeta bosses on the outside, and much of their work served to support the larger organization. One of the jailhouse Zetas’ core functions was running a garage within the walls of the prison, in which they built hidden compartments into cars to ship drugs across the border. The Piedras Negras jail also served as a safe house for Zetas boss Omar “Z-42” Treviño Morales, for use during Marine raids on the city. On multiple occasions, the facility hosted parties for Zetas bosses. At some point during Loreto’s unofficial tenure, the Zetas began using the prison as a site for executions. Aguayo and Dayán also spent much of their paper describing the Zetas’ wave of attacks in March 2011, following the defection of one of their chief lieutenants, Mario Alfonso Cuéllar, who became a witness for U.S. prosecutors. The Zetas responded by ordering attacks against anyone and anything associated with Cuéllar, which resulted in scores of disappearances and killings. Many of those who were targeted had nothing whatsoever to do with organized crime, and only the scarcest connection to Cuéllar. This episode has been covered in the past, but the focus has typically been on the city of Allende, Coahuila. Aguayo and Dayán argue that the violence was likely as severe, if not more so, in Piedras Negras. They relay witness accounts of the mass execution of 40 people in Piedras Negras. They also describe the dramatic spike in emergency calls within Piedras Negras, in which citizens reported fires, gunfights, and other evidence of Zetas reprisals. Ultimately, the authors estimate the number of dead could reach as high as 300. InSight Crime Analysis This study sheds new light on two well-known phenomena: The terrible state of Mexico’s prisons and the predatory nature of Zetas’ criminal operations. Analyses of Mexican jails typically focus on the most spectacular symptoms, ranging from mass escapes to massacres. “El Yugo Zeta” provides a deeper look at the roots of the problem. What we see is a penitentiary whose leaders not only look the other way for the Zetas, but have been entirely co-opted, so they operate as one more division of the criminal empire. The larger group has exploited this collusion to alter the fundamental role of prison, and criminals’ expectations for it. No longer are prison sentences punishments to be endured with a minimum of discomfort; they simply provide a new locale for the same old criminal activities. The basic goal of a Zetas’ work whether inside or outside of prison didn’t change: It was to protect and maximize the group’s profits, whether through providing safe harbor for the bosses or by creating hidden compartments in minivans for cocaine mules.

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

This amounts to jailhouses serving as colonies of larger criminal organizations. In such a context, the idea of the justice system serving as an effective deterrent is laughable. The group’s approach to operating within prison mimicked its broader modus operandi, which saw society as a resource to be exploited. The authors repeatedly refer to northern Coahuila as the Zetas’ “criminal enclave,” in which the group demanded loyalty from the whole of society, from prison wardens to municipal police forces to the relatives of their wayward lieutenants. This parasitic integration into the community made the Zetas a unique problem, in that threats to the group implied reprisals against the whole of society. Such threats could come from rival groups, from citizen resistance, or from government agencies, whether in the U.S. or Mexico. In any such case, the Zetas’ response would be directed both at the origin of their peril and the civilian population. This is the worst possible state of affairs from the standpoint of public security, because the status quo is already dreadful, but any steps to address it will arguably make things worse.

Zetas-Gulf Cartel Conflict Continues to Rock Mexico’s Northeast


The ongoing decline of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas has left northeastern Mexico without a single dominant criminal force. But the crime groups’ longstanding rivalry has continued to see blood spilled in the key trafficking region.

On the surface, the state of play in Mexico’s northeast is as it has been for most of the past decade: Both the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas maintain tight control over different parts of Tamaulipas — the crucial border state that birthed both groups — but neither is strong enough to defeat the other.

Government forces, particularly the marines, have maintained a degree of consistent pressure on crime groups operating in Tamaulipas.

A major financial operator of the Gulf Cartel, who was also on the DEA’s most wanted list, was detained in Mexico City in September. The same month, a leading figure in the Cartel of the Northeast, an offshoot of the Zetas, was arrested as well. Authorities have also targeted a raft of assets belonging to these groups, ranging from casinos to safe houses.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

The government offensive, combined with other factors, has left a tangle of different cells aligned with the two groups scattered around Tamaulipas, which includes two of the largest border crossings in Mexico, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. According to a May report from Milenio, seven cells of the Gulf Cartel are fighting three Zetas cells for dominance in the state.

The Gulf Cartel cells tend to concentrate within specific cities, suggesting a degree of independence. And in recent months there have been reports of internecine battles among different Gulf cells. The region has also seen the emergence of Zetas splinter groups, such as the Cartel of the Northeast, which first cropped up in 2015, though none of these appear to have displaced either cartel.

Though weakened, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas also remain key actors in large swaths of Coahuila and Nuevo Léon, two border states just west of Tamaulipas.

Violence in Veracruz

In one key portion of the Gulf region, however, the calculus is a bit more complicated. The Zetas have long dominated Veracruz, the populous state with ample Caribbean coastlines just south of Tamaulipas, while the Gulf Cartel never enjoyed as much of a presence there.

The Zetas’ control has nonetheless been tested by a multitude of factors, particularly the incursion of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). The group — which formed out of the embers of late Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio Coronel’s organization and has made in-roads in regions around the country — has been engaged in a battle with the Zetas in Veracruz for most of 2017.

SEE ALSO: Profile of CJNG

One of the CJNG’s earliest public appearances as a group was styling itself as the Zeta Killers, publishing videos from Veracruz in the early 2010s. In that sense, the CJNG appears to have returned to its roots, and it represents a far formidable ally than the Zetas’ rivals in other parts of the northeast.

Not coincidentally, public security has declined in Veracruz far more dramatically than in other northeastern states. The number of murders in Veracruz leapt from 487 in 2014 to 1,258 in 2016, and the figure is on pace to jump to more than 1,600 this year, an increase of more than 300 percent in just three years.

In contrast, the total number of murders in Tamaulipas is on pace to be around 700 for 2017, a relatively mild increase since the 2014 total of 628. In Nuevo León, the figure is projected to jump from 490 in 2014 to around 650 this year. In Coahuila, the number of murders this year will likely register a decline of nearly 40 percent since 2014.

Disrupted Alliances

One of the explanations for the anomalous spike in violence in Veracruz may stem from the Zetas unique level of interconnection with the recently departed state government, formerly headed by ex-Governor Javier Duarte. While criminal organizations have long paid government officials for their support, in Veracruz, the line between the Zetas and the Duarte government was blurred, with the government often deployed as little more than a mere offshoot of the crime group.

The scandal surrounding Duarte’s tenure, which ended in 2016, has placed a bullseye on the Zetas’ operations, and there is evidence that government forces have redoubled efforts to bring the group to heel in Veracruz. This simultaneous collapse of the political regime — Duarte was replaced by an opposition governor for the first time in Veracruz’s modern history — and the dominant criminal power appears to have left a vacuum of chaos in the state.

With so many new actors on the scene and so many different factors at play, it is unlikely that an enduring balance of criminal power will fall into place in Veracruz, meaning the current bout of bloodshed could continue and perhaps even worsen.

What Three New Books on the Zetas Tell Us About the Legendary Crime Group


No criminal organization illustrates the life-and-death struggle that has embroiled Mexico over the past decade better than the Zetas. Three new books offer a look back at the group’s violent legacy.

At the time of the Zetas formation in the early 2000s, as an armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, little seemed to distinguish the group from scores of predecessors and contemporaries. Mexico’s cartels have long deployed teams of shock troops willing to engage in all manner of brutality to further the collective cause. The Zetas seemed like yet another permutation of what had become a standard feature of the Mexican underworld.

But there were early signs that the Zetas were not a run-of-the-mill outfit of toughs. Their roots in the special forces of Mexico’s army, including reports that founding members had received training from the United States, bestowed upon them an air of sinister competence. This was coupled with an unprecedented emphasis on firepower: The Zetas’ outsized arsenals — grenades and automatic weapons became standard — sparked something of an arms race across Mexican criminal groups, which multiplied the group’s destructive impact far beyond its specific area of operation. The Zetas’ emergence also offered a hint of the challenge for the Mexican state: Not only were the country’s best and brightest forces incapable of defeating the cartel threat, they were also working on the wrong side of the law.

Circumstances helped pave the way for the Zetas’ growth. After the 2003 arrest of Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas, the Zetas no longer had their founding patron directly overseeing them, providing Heriberto “Z3” Lazcano and his lieutenants newfound autonomy. During this period, the Zetas were key in beating back an attempt by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel to wrest control of their home state of Tamaulipas, through which they made their reputation as a group capable of standing up to anyone.

By the latter part of 2006, as President Felipe Calderón initiated a new era of conflict between the government and organized crime, the Zetas were among the country’s most feared groups. And while the Calderón administration first turned its attention to the Familia Michoacana, it wasn’t long before a good portion of the tens of thousands of soldiers deployed on domestic security duty were focusing on the Zetas. By the end of Calderón’s term, security officials were telling reporters the Zetas were the government’s top priority.

The Zetas responded in kind, bolstering their notoriety through a series of provocations that grew more and more reckless. They tossed grenades into an Independence Day celebration in the Michoacán state capital of Morelia, murdering revelers in a roundabout attempt to bring disrepute upon the Familia Michoacana. They set fire to a casino in Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo León, killing 52 civilians. They tossed a grenade into the US consulate in the same city, killing a US federal agent and wounding another along a San Luis Potosí highway. They abducted busloads of travelers passing through Tamaulipas, massacring scores at a time and reportedly obliging survivors to fight to the death to win their survival.

Their savagery seemed not only limitless, but also terrifyingly creative. They left the public in a position not unlike an audience watching a gripping but grizzly theatrical performance: What would the Zetas do next?

The Zetas’ fireworks also came amid a backdrop of relentless expansion. From their base in Tamaulipas, they took over most of Nuevo León, Veracruz, Tabasco, Coahuila, and San Luis Potosí. They also made inroads in more distant states like Guerrero and Sinaloa, the backyard of their foremost enemy, as well as in far-flung foreign nations. Coupled with the list of atrocities, this territorial spread gave the Zetas the image of an unstoppable juggernaut.

For years, the parade of arrests and shows of military force seemingly accomplished nothing. Mexico, and the Zetas specifically, only became more violent. The Zetas weren’t the only gang distressing Mexico and perplexing policymakers, but more than any other, they seemed to be relentlessly pushing Mexico closer and closer to a precipice.

Ultimately, however, the pressure from the government and rival gangs paid off. The Zetas’ founders are dead or in prison, and the gang’s influence is gravely diminished. The newspapers today publish story after story about the rise of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and the long fade-out of the Sinaloa Cartel. But they run comparatively few articles about the Zetas remnants that remain active. Violence in Mexico certainly has not disappeared. (On the contrary, 2017 will likely be as violent as any year during the Zetas’ peak.) But the Zetas are no longer the reason.

So now, years removed from the zenith of the group’s notoriety, what are we to make of the rise and apparent fall of the Zetas? What was unique about the group? What gave the Zetas their singular sense of menace?

Three new books provide a wealth of insight into these questions.

Bloodlines, Bones and Los Zetas

This first two books — Melissa del Bosque’s “Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty” and Joe Tone’s “Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream”are journalistic accounts of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the Zetas’ rise to prominence in the American quarter horse industry, though neither limits itself solely to that specific case. The third book — “Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico,by Guadalupe Correa-Cabreraoffers an academic analysis of the Zetas as a money-making enterprise.

Each of these works paints the Zetas as a unique organization. Correa-Cabrera describes them as transformative in her opening pages, while Tone labels the Zetas as “disrupters” who had “come to fuck things up” in Mexico. Tone also depicts them as abrogating an informal social contract under which drug gangs previously avoided targeting the civilian population.

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile

These descriptions are, of course, inseparable from the group’s penchant for violence, which lurks in the background of all three works. Put simply, the Zetas were different most obviously because they were more bloodthirsty than their peers.

From the Zetas’ perspective, the spectacular violence was useful, at least for a time, even beyond their obvious interest in defeating their rivals: It generated new profits. Their kidnapping and human trafficking, for instance, was built upon a foundation of violence. A credible threat of retaliation allowed them to demand protection money from criminal enterprises and legitimate businesses alike. This violence, turned into a calling card, also fed what Correa-Cabrera describes as a “reverse franchise” model, in which small-time crooks sought to operate under the fearsome Zetas brand.

It wasn’t just that the Zetas were more bloodthirsty than their peers, but that they used this attribute to evolve into a new sort of entity. The Zetas’ taste for violence was intimately linked to their existence not as a mere drug trafficking organization, but as a criminal conglomerate, with an appropriately diverse range of activities: extortion, human trafficking, retail drug sales, piracy, kidnapping, and black-market oil and gas sales.

If a talent for violence and a diversified approach to crime were two pillars of the Zetas, the third was the group’s intimate relationship with the government.

The existence of ties between the Zetas and the government is not exactly novel. “Silver or lead” is the perennial dilemma that cartels impose upon security officials. But the Zetas adopted a new approach. There are relatively few examples of the Zetas colluding with federal officials, unlike their counterparts from Sinaloa. Rather, the group dominated politics at the state level, essentially absorbing the governments of Humberto Moreira in Coahuila and Fidel Herrera in Veracruz, among various others, into their organizational hierarchy.

“Silver or lead” is the perennial dilemma that cartels impose upon security officials.

References to governors pepper the three books. The Zetas reportedly invested millions in Herrera’s campaign in 2005, thereby ensuring his collusion for the duration of his six-year term. ADT Petroservicios, founded with Zetas money and owned by money launderer and Herrera pal Francisco Colorado Cessa, received millions in Veracruz oil servicing contracts during Herrera’s term. Del Bosque details how Herrera’s political team helped support the Zetas’ kidnapping racket, including one victim who provided millions in cash to support their horse investments. The group had a similarly intimate relationship with Moreira, who helped pave the way for their takeover of Coahuila.

These three salient aspects of the Zetas operations — the wholesale capture of state governments, the unprecedented business diversification and the appetite for spectacular violence — worked in concert. Increased violence was required for business diversification; diversification required collusion with government officials; government collusion allowed gang members to commit atrocities with impunity; the threat of violence encouraged officials to work with the Zetas.

These mutually-reinforcing characteristics amplified the Zetas’ influence, and increased public terror. But it’s not clear that it reflected the gang’s strength. On the contrary, much of the violence seemed the product of a frayed chain of command and a lack of talent in the ranks: Both the Casino Royale massacre and the attack that killed Jaime Zapata were reportedly mistakes.

The three-way dynamic sparked a backlash that accelerated the group’s demise. The murder of innocents intensified demands for action by the Mexican authorities. In Piedras Negras, their mania for violence was turned toward subordinates, many of whom fled to the United States and began working with prosecutors. Their relationships with governors, whose subordinates laundered millions in bribe money abroad, provoked the interest of foreign prosecutors.

Ultimately, in their ambition, the Zetas illustrate the wisdom of an old business maxim: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

While they describe a fearsome gang, this trio of books also leaves readers with the impression that the group’s sheen of big business professionalism was overstated. While initially helpful, military expertise was not a requirement for Zetas leadership. Miguel Ángel Treviño, who had no military experience whatsoever, edged out several army veterans in his rise up the ranks, and ended his career as the group’s top leader. Whatever he may have lacked in tactical know-how, he made up for in ambition and ruthlessness, which makes him not unlike many other gangsters that came before him.

Nor is there much evidence of a militaristic obsession with competence. Many of the Zetas agents whom we come to know most intimately in Tone’s and Del Bosque’s books seem bumbling and out of their depth. Treviño’s brother José is perhaps the best example: He aimed to become a titan of quarter horse racing, but he lacked basic knowledge of the industry, and he seems painfully unaware of the legal vulnerability his ambitions inevitably entailed.

The Zetas’ relative lack of economic power is also striking, and inconsistent with the prevailing image of the gang. Over and over again, Tone’s and del Bosque’s readers see the group struggling to keep up with obligations stemming from the horses, occasionally bouncing checks and often way behind on payments for feed and stables.

Overall, the Zetas received between $15 and $20 million a month from its chief distributor of cocaine to the American Midwest, and they typically sat on a cash reserve in Mexico of between $30 and $50 million. According to one former commander, the organization’s overall revenues from US drug sales reached approximately $350 million. But that money was revenues, not profit, and much of it was destined for their Colombian suppliers.

An Enduring Legacy

Each of these books is a valuable addition to the literature on the Zetas and modern Mexican drug trafficking. Tone’s “Bones” and Del Bosque’s “Bloodlines” traverse very similar terrain: The books use a comparable number of pages to detail the investigation and trial of José Treviño Morales, the brother of the Zetas boss who went from Texas bricklayer to Oklahoma quarter horse magnate, culminating in his 2013 conviction for money laundering.

Both books have benefited from unusually strong source material. The case is intrinsically fascinating to anyone interested in drug trafficking, and both authors secured interviews from several of the investigation’s protagonists. The case’s disclosures offer a more comprehensive view of a criminal enterprise than one typically encounters in 20 narco-books, and both authors do an admirable job filtering the oceans of information, including thousands of pages of court filings, into a digestible narrative.

Del Bosque goes into greater depth while describing the investigation’s particulars. Her portrayals of the protagonists — the lead agent on the case and his key witness, a young rancher who helped the FBI infiltrate the Zetas’ quarter horse network — are indelible. It is not easy to turn a case that hinged on beneficial ownership of shell companies into a genuine page-turner, but she pulls it off without stripping away any substance.

Tone’s narrative is comparatively complicated, and his prose more stylized. He includes, for instance, an extended second-person riff on how to launder drug money through the international financial system. He adopts a much more jaundiced view of the whole affair, where Del Bosque provides a more conventional cops and robbers tale. Tone manages to work in dozens of references to the biases embedded in the criminal justice system, including insinuations that the FBI was motivated by race in selecting its targets.

This meditating on justice provokes questions of the reader long after the book is finished, which is to its credit. Ultimately, however, the implication that investigators and prosecutors were influenced by race often comes across as unfair, and associates of the Zetas do not make for sympathetic victims of a biased justice system.

As an academic book, “Los Zetas Inc.” is more theoretical, and less tied to any narrative. This makes it a more challenging read, though it is certainly worth the effort. Correa-Cabrera’s research is vast, and the breadth of her thesis is impressive. In her comparison of the Zetas to a corporation, she covers largely untrodden ground in describing the group’s social media outreach, its accounting and human resources departments, and its corporate structure.

In particular, her investigation of the relationship between resource extraction and Mexican criminal organizations is fascinating, and has implications for decades to come. The Zetas were fortunate enough to emerge in an area of the country with major oil and gas fields, including the Burgos Basin in Tamaulipas, the Sabinas Basin in Veracruz, and the Tampico-Misantla Basin in Veracruz. Mexico’s shale deposits, likely the engine of profits within the industry in the coming decades, are also concentrated in the Zetas’ territory.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

The Zetas invested much effort in securing a piece of this this lucrative industry. They invested in oil service contractors, such as ADT Petroservicios in Veracruz. They kidnapped and harassed employees of Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil behemoth, as well as other energy companies, thereby slowing production while demanding a portion of the profits for themselves. They stole oil and gas from Pemex facilities, and erected a network of front companies and legitimate collaborators to sell the stolen product on both sides of the border.

Some of Correa-Cabrera’s conclusions are better supported than others, and in general the idea that the Zetas are exploiting changes in the energy sector is more convincing than that of a grand conspiracy between the Zetas and multinational energy companies, which is purportedly driving energy policy. But as the author details, the energy-sector opportunities that the Zetas have exploited are also open to other criminal groups, and her book leaves the impression that others will likely follow their example.

This may turn out to be the Zetas’ most enduring legacy. Even if future criminal groups eschew the counterproductive violence that made the group a nationwide source of fear, they can still leave an increasing footprint on the legitimate economy. This represents a long-term challenge to Mexican society, in some ways even more insidious and daunting than the Zetas.

Mexico Prison Massacre Linked to Zetas Takeover Allegations


At least 13 people have died in a prison mutiny in north Mexico that some witnesses claim was a backlash against an attempted takeover of the prison by the Zetas, highlighting the criminal control and corruption that are pervasive in the penal system.

Trouble at Cadereyta prison in the state of Nuevo Leon erupted when inmates took three guards hostage on October 10, reported AFP.

The situation deteriorated into rioting, with around 250 inmates burning rubbish and mattresses and taking to the prison roof with banners denouncing alleged links between prison director Edgardo Aguilar Aranda and organized crime group the Zetas, reported EFE.

Authorities confirmed that at least 13 inmates died in the clashes, with at least 8 more injured, two of them police officers. However, other reports suggest the number of injured stands at least as high as 25, while the number of dead could also rise.

The authorities responded by sending in 60 police patrols to restore order and state Interior Secretary Manuel González Flores to negotiate with the inmates, according to EFE.

Gonzalez told media that the rioting broke out over prison conditions. However, family members of the inmates say prisoners took action over a plan by the prison director to bring in Zetas members to assert control over the prison, a claim supported by a banner strewn across a wall declaring “We don’t want a Z director,” stated AFP.

According to EFE’s report, the prisoners behind the violence were connected to the Zetas’ former parent organization and long-time enemies the Gulf Cartel.

The incident is the second deadly prison riot of the year in Cadereyta, with four dying in disturbances in March.

InSight Crime Analysis

Mexico’s prison system, like many in the region, is underfunded and overpopulated, a situation that has led to prisoners themselves controlling the insides of up to 60 percent of institutions, according to some experts.

When prisoner rule is combined with rampant corruption, the conditions are ripe for organized crime to assert dominance, extorting inmates and controlling the flows of contraband.

SEE ALSO: The Prison Dilemma in the Americas

The Zetas in particular have proven adept at setting up internal criminal networks within prisons, most notably in the case of a penitentiary in the state of Coahuila, Piedras Negras. Investigations have revealed how the Zetas allegedly turned the prison into a base of operations. They used it to dispose of the corpses of an estimated 150 victims, and broke out over 130 inmates. They also manufactured uniforms, bulletproof vests, and modified cars inside the prison to hide drugs and weapons, all in complicity with state authorities.

In another case, prison authorities at Gómez Palacio prison in Durango allegedly allowed Zetas inmates out of prison to carry out murders, including the massacre of 17 people in 2010. 

Former inmates speaking to Vice earlier this year detailed how Cadereyta has not previously been subjected to organized crime rule. However, following the protests in March, which were reportedly against new security measures, it is easy to see how striking a deal with the Zetas would be a tempting proposition for the prison director, allowing the authorities to bring new levels of control over unruly inmates, as well as providing riches to the corrupt officials that facilitate their activities.

Former Boss of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel Pleads Guilty to US Drug Charges


A former leader of the Gulf Cartel has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States, a reminder that the once-powerful crime group has all but disappeared from Mexico’s criminal landscape.

Former Gulf Cartel leader Jorge Eduardo Costilla-Sanchez, alias “El Coss,” pleaded guilty in a US federal court on September 26 to drug trafficking charges and two counts of assault, according to a US Justice Department press release.

According to the Justice Department, Costilla-Sanchez assumed leadership of the Gulf Cartel following the 2003 arrest of Osiel Cardenas, once considered Mexico’s most powerful crime boss.

SEE ALSO: Profile of El Coss

From that time until his arrest by Mexican marines in September 2012, Costilla-Sanchez ran the legendary cartel, conspiring to import thousands of kilograms of marijuana and cocaine into the United States, according to the press release. He was extradited to the United States in 2015.

In addition to the drug trafficking charges, Costilla-Sanchez also pleaded guilty to his involvement in the assault of two US federal agents in 1999.

Costilla-Sanchez will be sentenced January 4, 2018, and faces between 10 years and life in federal prison.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Gulf Cartel’s fate was sealed after Costilla-Sanchez’s 2012 arrest, and it is unlikely his guilty plea will send any major shockwaves through Mexico’s criminal landscape. Indeed, by the time El Coss was captured in 2012, the Gulf Cartel had largely disintegrated, losing much of its territory and control to its armed wing, the Zetas, which had splintered from the cartel in 2010.

SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel News and Profile

Former Chief of International Operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Mike Vigil told InSight Crime that the Gulf Cartel is not considered a “true cartel” anymore.

“The Gulf Cartel was nothing more than a shell of what is used to be after the capture of El Coss,” Vigil said. “It was already extra weak, like a horse on two legs, once Osiel Cardenas was captured.”

According to Vigil, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) are the major criminal players right now in Mexico.

28-09-17-Mexican drug cartels main areas of influence 2017-InSight Crime-Map-01 1

“The Gulf side is not as prolific as it once was under the Gulf Cartel’s former leadership,” Vigil told InSight Crime, referring to drug trafficking activities on Mexico’s eastern Caribbean coast. “The Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG smuggle [drugs] through the Pacific, so that has become the prolific route of cocaine coming into Mexico.”