Small Wars Journal

El Chapo’s Capture, Gulf Cartel Divisions, and an Attempted Zeta Comeback

Sun, 06/08/2014 - 8:20pm

El Chapo’s Capture, Gulf Cartel Divisions, and an Attempted Zeta Comeback

George W. Grayson

The February 2014 take-down of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the notorious over-lord of the Sinaloa Cartel, has had a rippling effect on the drug war in northern Mexico—to the point of sparking an attempted comeback by the sadistic Zetas. These desperados, whose founders deserted from the elite Airborne Special Forces Group in the late-1990s, served as the paramilitary arm of the Gulf Cartel based in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

Los Zetas Sadistic Chieftains

Thanks to instruction from ex-Kaibiles, the Guatemalan army’s heinous commandos, Los Zetas acquired training in butchering their prey—with an emphasis on loping off heads, performing castrations, and skinning bodies of live victims.

Especially apt students of these macabre techniques were Zeta chieftains Heriberto “The Executioner” Lozano and Miguel Ángel “El 40” Treviño Morales. These men thrived on aggression, manipulation, and the infliction of unspeakable pain on others, including children. 

Single decapitations inured the public and Fourth Estate to such ghastly deeds.  After years of these atrocities, a single incident often made only local news. To broad print and electronic media coverage, these agents of Satan began slicing and dicing multiple enemies and arrayed their corpses in a pattern convenient for TV and newspaper photographers. In December 2008, Los Zetas captured and executed eight Army officers and enlisted men in Guerrero, a violence-torn, impoverished southern state that is home to Acapulco. Pictures of the headless cadavers lying side-by-side flashed around the world on television and YouTube. In addition, Los Zetas adeptly employing Google, Face Book, Twitter, and other social outlets to alert authorities and the populace to their ineffable viciousness.

They also mastered the preparation of a “guiso” or “stew.”  The simple recipe entailed plunging a tortured child or adult into a pig cooker or 55-gallon oil drum, dousing the body with gasoline, and setting their quarry on fire.

In July 2009, they assaulted the home of the police chief in the south-central state of Veracruz.  Within five minutes, they blasted their way into the house and murdered the law-enforcement official, his wife, their son, and a police officer.  They then torched the residence, incinerating the remaining three children, all girls.

No wonder the White House labeled them a “global menace” comparable to the Camrorra secret society in southern Italy, the Yakuza mob in Japan, and the Brothers’ Circle of Eastern Europe.

The Bottom Line

Like the dominant Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s traditional narco-traffickers emphasized the economic aspects of their trade.  The Gulf Cartel also stressed profitability over gratuitous carnage.  The increasing tendency of Los Zetas to brutalize their quarry was bad for business, and further strained Gulf-Zeta relations, which snapped in early 2010. 

This blood-lust attracted a plethora of enemies: the armed forces, the Federal Police, U.S. security agencies, and rival cartels.  For instance, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels—once akin to two scorpions in a bottle—joined forces against the villains. El Chapo’s Sinaloans sought access to Nuevo Laredo, the busiest portal with the United States; the Gulf Cartel endeavored to maintain control of Matamoros, Reynosa, and other frontier crossings in Tamaulipas.

Top Leaders Fall

Mexican Marines, armed with intelligence from DEA wire-taps, eliminated the top leaders of the ghoulish Mafiosi. After a withering gun-battle on October 7, 2012, Marines killed Zeta kingpin Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano while he nonchalantly watched a baseball game in Progreso, Coahuila, a state infested with Zetas.  Blows continued to rain down on these evil-doers under Enrique Peña Nieto, the successor of President Felipe Calderón (2006-12), who took office on December 1, 2012, seeking to concentrate on energy, educational, telecommunications, tourism, and labor reforms rather than warring against DTOs.

In mid-July 2013, Marines captured “El 40” Treviño Morales on a dirt road near Nuevo Laredo, his hometown and a Zeta bastion.  He is the most sadistic drug capo in all of Mexico. As one analyst averred:  “He deserves to rot for eternity in the lowest rung of hell.”

These reverses thrust Omar Treviño Morales into the Zeta’s leadership.  Lacking the skills and legitimacy of his older brother Miguel Ángel, Omar, also known as “El 42,” has watched the dismantling of his venal syndicate’s command and control apparatus. For example, a March 27, 2014, police and military operation in the eastern state of Veracruz terminated in the death of 10 Zetas, who specialized in kidnapping. 

Internecine Fighting

Just when it seemed that Los Zetas were doomed, El Chapo’s arrest sidelined the one strongman who could force cooperation on the badly divided Gulf Cartel factions—the Cyclones (Matamoros) and Los Metros (Reynosa)—that were lunging at each other’s throats, according to stellar crime reporter Ildefonso Ortiz of The Monitor (McAllen).   Recently, however, warfare has erupted within Los Metros, allowing Los Cyclones a chance to heal their wounds.   One of the fatalities in the intra-Metro brawl was Galindo “Z-9,” an original Zeta who remained with the Gulf Cartel and held a prominent post in the Reynosa area.

Officials reported 23 dead in recent firefights in Reynosa, including two citizens, two federal policemen, one soldier, and 18 gunmen.  The figure was closer to 30 according to an anti-crime specialist who lamented the image-conscious Peña Nieto’s low-balling of casualty numbers.  

As a result of mayhem enveloping Reynosa, on Saturday, May 10, 2014—Mexico’s Mother’s Day—irate residents dispatched expletive-laden messages to Peña Nieto and Tamaulipas Governor Egidio Torre Cantú.

Amid these internecine clashes, Los Zetas are moving rapidly to regain lost territory in Reynosa, Matamoros, Río Bravo in Tamaulipas, as well as Monterrey, Nuevo León.

Zeta Diversification   

While never top-tier drug traffickers, the band has diversified into such felonious ventures as extortion, murder-for-hire, child prostitution, kidnapping, migrant smuggling, loan-sharking, contraband, money laundering, gun-running, and thefts from Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the hugely corrupt, featherbedded state oil monopoly. 

With respect to the last item, Los Zetas from their redoubts in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, have targeted PEMEX.  The scoundrels have tapped into oil and gas pipelines, undoubtedly with the aid of PEMEX personnel; hijacked gasoline tanker trucks; stolen TNT and other explosives acquired for well blasting; and robbed such solvents as toluene and xylene.  These chemicals are acquired for hydraulic fracking, but they can also be used to process cocaine and methamphetamines.  While not involved in methamphetamine commerce, Los Zetas can sell their booty to producers of synthetic drugs, as well as to legal, but complicit, pharmaceutical firms, dye-makers, and soap manufacturers eager to reduce input costs. 

Penetrating PEMEX pipelines has spiraled from 213 incidents in 2006 to 1,449 incidents in 2012, giving rise to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  "The illegal trafficking in large quantities of natural gas, gasoline, aviation fuel and diesel has surged as one of the principle sources of financing for Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and other criminal cells,” Carlos Mendoza Mora, president of a Mexico City security firm, told the Coahuila newspaper Vanguardia.

Energy Reform Will Afford More Opportunities

An ambitious reform of the energy sector will spur imports of vital materials from outside the country, thus magnifying prospects for theft, extortion, and other criminality.  Will foreign firms be willing to hire companies to protect their managers, workers, and resources?  PEMEX Director General Emilio Lozano Austin has expanded the role of the company’s security chief, Eduardo León Trauwitz; however, the retired brigadier general has failed to stem losses since his 2012 appointment.  It’s important to remember that Los Zetas’ presence in the Petén territory has severely constricted Guatemala’s ability to entice investment in its hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Los Zetas are also underwriting their demonic deeds by taking possession of another natural resource—coal.  Humberto Moreira Valdés claimed that the brigands were extracting coal from five municipalities in Sabinas region Coahuila, a state that he once governed. The miscreants mine the coal and market it to intermediaries, which Moreira insists, turn around and resell it to the government-owned Federal Electricity Commission.

Incursions into Central America

Los Zetas have also made extensive inroads into Central America. The United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime has called Los Zetas the “dominant” narco-traffickers in the region.  In late April 2014, the El Salvador’s Public Security and Justice Minister Ricardo Perdomo denounced Los Zetas for selling high-powered rifles to the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and other gangs in Honduras and Guatemala.  They are also accused of training these heinous outfits.  The Salvadoran official said that in exchange for weapons, Los Zetas turn over small amounts of cocaine to the gangs for street-level sales known as menudeo. 

Horizontal, Decentralized Structure

As scholars Dwight Dyer and Daniel Sachs pointed out in Foreign Affairs magazine:  “Instead of developing a strong vertical hierarchy, they have built a horizontal, decentralized one.  The Zetas do not have identifiable leaders, but its individual cells have always been empowered to exploit opportunities available to their respective locales.”  This means that parochial jefes, who may be young, inexperienced, and ill-trained in the use of AR-15s and AK-47s can act without waiting for orders from a commander.   At times advantageous, this flexibility may trigger imprudent moves, which can result in the capture or killing of the aggressors, even as “zetanization”—mimicking Los Zetas’ heinous antics—gains greater acceptance in Mexico’s ever-expanding underworld.

Government’s Gambit

The tsunami of killings and a barrage of social media complaints about insecurity led Gobernación Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong to jet to Reynosa on May 13 to unveil a security program for Tamaulipas.  Among other items, he said the state would be divided into four areas (border, coast, center, and south)—with federal prosecutors and special military personnel assigned to each zone.  He also promised the establishment of a new police academy.  These designees will have to be on constant guard.  For instance, on May 5, desperados ambushed and killed the state police intelligence chief, Col. Salvador Haro Muñoz.  A week later, it was announced that Governor Egidio Torre Cantú’s top bodyguard had been sacked for allegedly masterminding the assassination. Confidence in federal and state authorities is zero to nil.


With the Marines, the DEA, and other law-enforcement agencies on his tail, Omar Treviño Morales should think twice about purchasing green bananas.  Still, dispersed bosses such as the leader of the “Sangre Zetas” or “Blood Zetas” will continue to spew their venom on rival cartels, politicians, public officials, the police, and average citizens.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

George W. Grayson is the 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary. He focuses on Latin American Politics, with a particular interest in Mexico. He has written 30 books and monographs on international affairs.  Most recently, he co-authored, with Sam Logan, The Executioner’s Men: Inside Los Zetas (to be published by Transaction Press in March 2012).  His other publications include: Consequences of Vigilantism in Mexico for the United States (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2011); Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (Transaction 2010), La Familia Drug Cartel: Implications for U.S.-Mexican Security (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2010); and Mexico’s Struggle with Drugs and Thugs (Foreign Policy Association, 2009). He is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C. and an Associate Scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Grayson earned his B.A. at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), his M.A. and Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), and a J.D. at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law.  He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.