Los Zetas: A Look at Mexico’s Most Violent Cartel


    1.0 Introduction

    Los Zetas was a Mexican criminal organisation founded in 1997 to serve as the Gulf Cartel’s enforcement arm. They were founded by a group of Mexican special forces who defected to create the Gulf Cartel’s armed wing (source).

    Los Zetas are notorious for using brutal “shock and awe” tactics such as beheadings, torture, and indiscriminate murder. The Zetas continue to be active in Tamaulipas and the Gulf Coast (source).

    Due to the internal division of the group, the Zetas have lost considerable power over the last decade. Despite this, they still pose a danger to the authorities and the civilian population (source).

    Logo of the criminal organisation Los Zetas.

    2.0 History and Mission of Los Zetas

    Video about Los Zetas. Credits: CrimeCity.

    2.1 The Gulf Cartel: The Origins

    When in 1997, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén assumed control of the Gulf Cartel, he found himself in the middle of a brutal turf battle. He then hired Arturo Guzman Decena, a retired army lieutenant, to protect his organisation and leadership from rival drug cartels and the Mexican Army (source). 

    Decena, also known by his code name Z-1, enlisted the help of more than thirty deserters from the elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE). These men would serve as his bodyguards and, eventually, as his mercenary wing. The deserters were tempted with salaries well over what they were receiving from the military. Some of these former GAFE soldiers allegedly received commando and urban warfare training from Israeli and US Special Forces (source).

    2.2 Consolidating their Power

    Once he established his position, Guillen increased the responsibility of Los Zetas, which began to organise kidnappings, protection rackets, extortion, securing cocaine supply and trafficking routes known as plazas (zones), and killing its adversaries, often with severe brutality. In 2002, the Mexican authorities killed Decena in the border city of Matamoros (source) and captured Zeta’s second-in-command, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizana, known as “Z-2” (source). After this Heriberto Lazcano (“Z3”) took control of the group (source). 

    2.3 A New Ambition

    Following Guillen’s arrest in March 2003, the Zetas assumed a more active leadership role within the Gulf Cartel, and their influence within the organisation rose. In 2004 Los Zetas embarked on a new mission: independence from the Gulf Cartel. Lazcano directed the recruitment of elite Guatemalan Special Forces units known as Kaibiles to help safeguard his high-level agents and assist with training and recruitment (source).

    Los Zetas’ presence in 2020, according to the Mexican Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

    In 2005-06, they played a vital part in blocking the Sinaloa organisation’s effort to capture control of Nuevo Laredo. This town was a critical city for stockpiling cocaine and transporting it into the United States. Los Zetas earned a reputation for cruelty and bloodshed along the way (source).

    The Zetas’ logistical expertise and military experience facilitated their rise to dominance. They became known for their use of state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology, and for employing military-like discipline in planning operations and gathering intelligence (source).

    2.4 Civil War and Separation from the Gulf Cartel

    By 2010 Los Zetas became too powerful, outnumbering and outclassing the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence. As a result of this imbalance, the Cartel attempted to limit the influence of its enforcers, resulting in a civil war (source). The conflict initially favoured the Gulf Cartel, resulting in a retreat of Los Zetas. Later Los Zetas counterattacked, taking back some plazas (source). The conflict in the north led to a weakening of the Gulf Cartel (source).

    Los Zetas eventually broke away from the Gulf Cartel that year to form their organisation. By this time, Miguel Treviño Morales, the previous second-in-command of Los Zetas, purportedly took over the Zetas and removed Lazcano (source).

    2.5 The Fall of Los Zetas

    By 2011, just 10 of the original 34 zetas remained fugitives. Currently, the majority of them have been killed or caught by Mexican law enforcement and military authorities (source). 

    Los Zetas gunmen interrogating a member of the Gulf Cartel. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

    Despite their fast rise, the Zetas began to break by 2012, igniting a process of fragmentation and atomization that continues to this day (source). 

    One reason was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to centrally coordinate all of the local factions. But also the deteriorating relationship between the Treviño brothers, Miguel, alias “Z40,” and Alejandro, alias “Omar” or “Z42,” led to a split into rival factions. On the one side the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste) and the Zetas Old School (Los Zetas Vieja Escuela) (source).

    Pressure from the Mexican authorities and the emergence of other cartels, such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels (Los Mata Zetas or Zetas Killers), also greatly contributed to the weakening of Los Zetas (source).

    2.5 The Remnants

    In 2013, Miguel Treviño was arrested by the Mexican authorities. His brother Omar became his successor until 2015 when he was also arrested. During this time, transnational drug trafficking became increasingly difficult for the group (source). The main reasons are the national disintegration, combined with a significant loss of influence in Central America. This loss of leadership led to the definitive split of the two factions (source). 

    Accordingly, the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste) and the Zetas Old School (Los Zetas Vieja Escuela) continue to operate across most of the former Zetas territory. These two groups are themselves, enemies, given their struggle for control of territory and criminal influence.

    2.6 Splinter Groups

    This map shows the successors of the Gulf Cartel, as well as their areas of activity in the State of Tamaulipas. Credits: InsightCrime.

    2.6.1 Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste)

    Acronyms used by the cartel on its tactical equipment and vehicles. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

    In 2015, authorities apprehended Omar Treviño. Therefore, his brother Juan Francisco took advantage of the situation. As a result of this, the Northeast Cartel (CDN) has become a significant criminal threat in Mexico. It is active in the northern and central states of Mexico, where it is engaging in battles with prominent rivals like the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). This faction is considered the true heir to the Zetas (source).

    A truck belonging to the Northeast Cartel found in the state of Coahuila. Photo: Mexican Police. 

    In 2019 and 2020, Tropa del Infierno (Hell Troop), the military branch of the CDN, gained notoriety for engaging in several violent assaults on the CJNG and for clashing with law enforcement (source); (source). They are also known to use “monster trucks”, large armoured vehicles that are equipped with artillery and allow them to engage their opponents (source).

    2.6.2 Zetas Old School (Los Zetas Vieja Escuela)

    Logo of Los Zetas Vieja Escuela. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

    The second most important faction is Los Zetas Vieja Escuela. José Guizar Valencia, also known as “Z-43,” established the group along with other dissidents from the original organisation. In recent years, they have progressively spread across most of central and eastern Mexico (source). Their presence in Tamaulipas is significantly smaller than that of their competitors. Nevertheless, it appears that the Old School Zetas joined forces with the Cyclones to fight the CDN (source).

    3.0 The Organisation of Los Zetas

    Originally, Los Zetas established training camps for recruits as well as corrupt ex-federal, state, and local police personnel. They also hired at least 30 former Kaibiles from Guatemala to train recruits because the number of former Mexican special forces members in their ranks had declined. The training locations of Los Zetas have been identified as having a similar layout to military GAFE training camps (source).

    Los Zetas as a unified criminal organisation no longer exists. The group’s disintegration into multiple smaller splinter cells has made identifying those in positions of leadership increasingly difficult (source).

    4.0 Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)

    Given the members’ original experience with law enforcement, Los Zetas’ had high tactical expertise and were familiar with strategic intelligence gathering.

    4.1 Recruitment

    The original Zetas trained their soldiers, who were recruited from state and municipal police forces and, sometimes, from the ranks of the Mexican army. The Zetas even set up training centres, using methods and exercises similar to those used by Mexican special forces. This catalysed an evolution of lethal force and tactics used in the Mexican criminal underworld. 

    The tight clusters of shots fired at Zetas’ victims indicated a high level of skill, although this particular level of high skill has been diluted over the years.


    4.2 Tactics

    The Zetas introduced ambushes, defensive positions and small-unit tactics into Mexico’s criminal syndicates. They were one of the few criminal groups in the Americas that deliberately attacked and captured checkpoints and military patrols. In addition, late-model SUVs with tinted windows and no number plates became the standard mode of transport. 

    The Zetas also employed urban blockades or narcobloqueos. They would often kidnap drivers and used their cars to close roads. These blockades are a “show of force”, a demonstration of the Zetas’ power. They also favoured mass attacks and massacres as well as the use of primitive car bombs and grenade attacks.

    Los Zetas also targeted police and political figures, including mayors and candidates for public office, as well as threatened journalists and judicial officials. Eventually, the Zetas were known for their terrorist methods and summary executions, as well as cruel and violent practices.

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    4.3 Objectives

    These means were used to thwart competition from other gangs while controlling spheres of economic influence. The ultimate objective was to control as much territory as possible while preventing government interference (source).

    5.0 Equipment

    The Zetas equipment was mainly purchased on the black market, or captured from government forces. Their vehicles tend to be civilian and often modified to add extra protection.

    5.1 Weapons

    Some of the weapons they have used or have been captured by the government, are:

    • Rifles and Assault rifles. Including .50-caliber.
    • Hand grenades.
    • Anti-tank weapons. Including several M72 LAW.
    • Ballistic vests.
    • Anti-aircraft weapons.
    • Dynamite.


    5.2 Vehicles

    The vehicles used are mostly civilian, although many have been modified with handcrafted armour plating and additional weaponry.

    • Pick up 4×4. The most widely used vehicle, given its greater capacity to transport hitmen, its speed, and its mobility in all terrains.
    • Narco tanks (also called “rhino trucks” or “monster trucks”). These are large armoured vehicles, with armour platings and equipped with turrets. Often used as shock vehicles.

    Narco tanks are usually modified semi-trucks, dump trucks, pick-up trucks or other large vehicles not intended for this purpose. Some narco tanks are also equipped with improvised battering rams at the front to break through roadblocks (source).

    Ford F-350 “Monstruo 2010” featuring a turret, captured by Mexican authorities in Jalisco, 2011. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

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    6.0 Notable Activity of Los Zetas

    Los Zetas has also committed numerous massacres and attacks on civilians and other gangs, including:

    6.1 The 2010 San Fernando massacre 

    In 2010, the authorities found 72 migrants dead in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Investigators stated that the massacre was caused by the immigrants’ refusal to work for Los Zetas or offer money in exchange for their release (source).

    6.2 The 2010 Puebla oil pipeline explosion

    Los Zetas attacked a pipeline in Puebla, owned by PEMEX, that runs from Tabasco to Hidalgo. The gas explosion killed 28 people and injured 52. It also damaged over 115 homes (source). The fire was one of the deadliest in Mexican history, devastating a five-kilometre radius and possibly polluting the Atoyac River (source).

    6.3 The 2011 massacre at Allende

    In 2011, Los Zetas killed between 300–500 civilians after accusing two local men of betraying the organisation (source). 

    6.4 The 2011 San Fernando Massacre 

    In 2011, the authorities found 193 people killed in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. According to the reports, female victims who were kidnapped were sexually assaulted, while male victims who were physically capable were compelled to participate in deadly fights with other captives (source).

    6.5 The Massacre of 27 Farmers in Guatemala  

    In 2011, Los Zetas committed a massacre of 27 farmers in the municipality of La Libertad, Petén (Guatemala). The authorities highlighted the brutality involved, as victims were decapitated and some had their legs and arms amputated and used as paint brushes to leave messages written in blood (source).

    6.6 The 2011 Monterrey casino attack 

    Casino Royale after the attack perpetrated by Los Zetas hitmen. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

    In 2011, Los Zetas set fire to a casino in Monterrey, Nuevo León, killing 52 people. Some suspect the attack was motivated by the “fee” that gangs often demand from company owners in exchange for protection (source).

    6.7 The Altamira prison brawl 

    In 2011, Tamaulipas’ state administration reported that a group of inmates broke into a forbidden section inside the prison and attacked members of a rival gang. According to local media, the brawl was between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. The fight resulted in the death of 31 Gulf cartel inmates (source).

    6.8 The Apodaca prison riot 

    In 2012, in Apodaca, Nuevo León, dozens of inmates staged a riot. Authorities said that it was a confrontation between members of the Los Zetas criminal group and the Gulf Cartel. The episode ended with 44 Gulf cartel inmates killed, while 37 Zetas escaped from prison (source).

    6.9 The BPM Festival shootings 

    In 2017, Los Zetas killed five people (two Mexicans, one American, one Canadian, and one Italian). They also injured 15 people at the Blue Parrot nightclub in Playa del Carmen (source). 

    ‘Narcomanta’ with a message left by Los Zetas after the shootings. Credits: Semanario Playa News.

    The perpetrators hung a large hand-painted sign in the town which contained specific references to the BPM and its co-founder and was signed by “El Fayo Z”. Sources stated that before the shootings, the cartel demanded payment from the BPM festival (source).

    7.0 Conclusion

    Despite the efforts by the Mexican government to crack down on the Gulf cartel and its various factions, including Los Zetas, the group remains active and can still pose a criminal threat in the region. Despite its weakening and division, this group has shown great adaptability and survival skills.

    Government forces will continue to pressure these groups and stifle them economically and socially to make them disappear. But they should not be underestimated, given their history and brutality.

    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier is an Intelligence Analyst specialising in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. He graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. He recently graduated from an International Master's Degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies.

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