The signature crimes of the most violent drug cartel in Mexico are its beheading and dismemberment of rival gang members, military personnel, law enforcement officers and public officials, and the random kidnappings and killings of civilians who get caught in its butchery and bloodletting.
But this disparate band of criminals known as Los Zetas is no longer just a concern in Mexico. It has expanded its deadly operations across the southwestern border, establishing footholds and alliances in states from New York to California. Just last year, federal agents tied a cocaine operation in Baltimore to the Zetas.
Trained as an elite band of Mexican anti-drug commandos, the Zetas evolved into mercenaries for the infamous Gulf Cartel, bringing a new wave of brutality to Mexico’s escalating drug wars. Bolstered by an influx of assassins, bandits, thieves, thugs and corrupt federal, state and local police officers, the Zetas have since evolved into a well-financed and heavily armed drug smuggling force of their own.
Known for mounting the severed heads of their rivals on poles or hanging their dismembered bodies from bridges in cities throughout Mexico, the Zetas have easily become the most feared criminal gang in Mexico–where 35,000 people have been killed in a continuing drug war. Everyone is a potential victim: men, women and children.
What the Zetas are capable of doing was never more clear than the carnage they left behind in December 2009 on a squalid back street in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. The bodies were no longer human, their torsos scarred by deep lacerations and punctures; the severed heads were badly beaten. Crudely butchered limbs lay scattered across a blood-stained tarmac.
“See. Hear. Shut up, if you want to stay alive,” read a note written like so many others in block letters on blood-splattered poster board.
Over the past few months, Mexican authorities have unearthed more than 140 bodies from mass graves in the state of Tamaulipas. Many of the victims were kidnapped off buses and killed when they refused to work for the Zetas. Tamaulipas, in northeastern Mexico, is across the border from Brownsville, Texas.
While the beheadings and dismemberments are used to punish those who oppose or betray them, to establish turf, to terrorize the citizenry against testifying against them, and to press political leaders to collaborate, random killings also have become the gang’s trademark–used by the Zetas, Mr. Grayson said, to demonstrate that no one is beyond their reach, that they can kidnap, torture and kill anyone they choose.
Sheriff Gonzalez said U.S. authorities on the border are outgunned and outmanned by drug smugglers armed with automatic weapons, grenades and state-of-the-art communications and tracking systems. He said drug profits have allowed the cartels, particularly the Zetas, to develop “experts” in explosives, wiretapping, countersurveillance, lock-picking and Global Positioning System technology.
Sheriff Gonzalez said Middle Eastern terrorists brought the practice of beheading their enemies to Central America and later Mexico. He said it also has become a tactic of U.S. street gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which, according to the FBI, has now spread across 42 states, with active operations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., as well as California, Texas and New York.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department has said that Mexican drug cartels, including the Zetas, have infiltrated 276 U.S. cities and represent the nation’s most serious organized-crime threat.
According to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials, the Zetas also have reached across the Mexican border into Central America for new recruits, including former members of Los Kaibiles, an elite special operations force of the Guatemalan military trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics.
Guatemalan officials said the Zetas have established bases in several jungle areas and formed alliances with Central American gangs to take control of cocaine shipments from Guatemala to Mexico. Other links have been forged between the Zetas and the Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most powerful crime syndicates that specializes in cocaine distribution and arms trafficking.
The Zetas also have pushed their way into legal and illegal businesses by killing, kidnapping or extorting those in control, a scheme known as “plata o plomo,” Spanish for “money or lead.” According to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence reports, they use their massive supply of weapons and high-tech equipment to instill fear to take over numerous businesses.
Mr. Grayson said the Zetas use blatant violence to take over lesser-equipped criminal gangs and extortion to assume control of legitimate businesses. He said they extort business owners with threats of kidnapping family members “and think nothing of cutting them up if they don’t get their money.”
The Zetas, seeking to grab a larger portion of the $25 billion cocaine, heroin and marijuana market in the United States, are estimated to have between 1,000 and 3,000 hard-core members and 10,000 loyalists across Mexico, Central America and the United States. Authorities said the gang has organized a sophisticated supply and distribution network operating through established territories.
“The Zetas are quite diversified and they are good bookkeepers,” Mr. Grayson said. “They will go where they can make money and will do what they have to do to make it happen.”