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.
"Those of us who live and work along the border know they're already here," said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., whose Texas county lies on the Rio Grande 50 miles southeast of the Zetas' stronghold of Nuevo Laredo. "There's already been killings and many residents here are living in fear."
Sheriff Gonzalez, whose Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition sought help from the federal government to control growing violence along the border, said the rising brutality of Mexican drug gangs, particularly the Zetas, "never stops shocking me."
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.
"The Zetas are determined to gain the reputation of being the most sadistic, cruel and beastly organization that ever existed," said George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William & Mary and an expert on Mexican drug gangs. "Many of Mexico's existing drug cartels will kill their enemies, but not go out of their way to do it. The Zetas look forward to inflicting fear on their targets.
"They won't just cut off your ear, they'll cut off your head and think nothing of it."
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.
The simple truth, Mr. Grayson said, is that the Zetas "enjoy killing — they want to terrorize communities."
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.
Mexican police arrested 22 suspected Zetas in the killings. The victims were Mexicans and Central and South American migrants, who authorities think were targeted to work for the Zetas as gunmen or drug mules. Others were thought to have been killed when they refused ransom demands.
Just last week, Mexican security forces arrested 16 police officers in San Fernando in Tamaulipas state, accused of protecting Zetas gang members suspected in the massacres. On Sunday, Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu replaced his public security chief, naming a former Mexican military official, Capt. Rafael Lomeli Martinez, to the post to coordinate new efforts to crack down on drug smugglers.
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.
"Their brutal attacks on Mexican military and police personnel and their kidnapping and killing of civilians are meant to intimidate the civilian population and increase their successes in extorting funds from street vendors, business owners, political officials and others," he said. "The mere mention of the word 'Zeta' in Mexico conjures images of brutal murders and decapitations."
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.
"Their violence has emboldened them and they are expanding to cities all across the United States," he said. "Our own country needs to stop them at the border. We know they're coming, we just don't want to admit it. Instead, we continue to say the border is more secure than ever, when we all know that is absolutely not true."
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.
With an estimated 10,000 members and an active recruitment drive under way, MS-13 is involved in crimes including drug distribution and homicide.
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.
The National Drug Intelligence Center said the influence of Mexican drug gangs is "still expanding," adding that they were more deeply entrenched than any other drug trafficking organization and operate coast to coast.
While the FBI has called the violence associated with drug trafficking along the border a daily fact of life, the boldness of the attacks and the savagery of the Zetas has shocked many veteran law enforcement authorities. Kevin L. Perkins, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, told a Senate committee last year the level and severity of violence was "unprecedented."
Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, has introduced legislation seeking to place six Mexican cartels, including the Zetas, on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list — a designation that would limit their financial, property and travel interests, and impose harsher punishment on those who provide material support.
"This designation will provide the necessary tools to effectively advance the national security interests of both Mexico and the United States," said Mr. McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Many of the gang's targets have been Mexican military and police personnel, but in recent years, U.S. law enforcement authorities also have come under attack. As early as 2008, the FBI warned U.S. authorities that the Zetas were attempting to gain control of drug trafficking routes into America and had ordered its members to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers to protect their operations.
According to an FBI intelligence bulletin, the gang stockpiled weapons in safe houses in the U.S. in response to crackdowns in this country and Mexico against drug traffickers. The bulletin said Jaime Gonzalez Duran, head of Zetas operations for the McAllen, Texas, region, or "plaza," had ordered gang members to "regain control and engage law enforcement officers if confronted." It said the gang members were armed with "assault rifles, bullet proof vests and grenades."
Gonzalez Duran was arrested in November 2008 in the border city Reynosa by Mexican Federal Police and the Mexican Army, who took custody of what was then the largest weapon seizure in Mexico's history — 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and .50-caliber sniper rifles, 287 hand grenades, 2 M-72 anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests and 14 sticks of dynamite.
The March 2010 killings in Ciudad Juarez of U.S. citizens Lesley Enriquez, 25, an employee at that city's U.S. Consulate, and her husband, Arthur Redelf, 30, a 10-year veteran of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, and the slaying that same month of Douglas Krentz, 58, a Douglas, Ariz., rancher, fueled concerns that Americans were fair game for Mexican gangs seeking control of U.S. smuggling routes.
In September, David Hartley, 30, was shot and killed as he and his wife, Tiffany, 29, were jet skiing on Falcon Lake along the U.S.-Mexico border in Zapata, Texas. Mrs. Hartley managed to escape and Sheriff Gonzalez said the shooters were members of the Zetas. Shortly after the attack, the lead investigator on the case in Mexico was decapitated.
It also was a Zetas hit squad that killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent Jaime Zapata in a Feb. 15 ambush on a major Mexican highway 250 miles north of Mexico City. Attacked with AK-47 assault rifles, Mr. Zapata was shot five times in the chest and his partner, Victor Avila Jr., was wounded twice in the leg after being forced off the highway and attacked — despite identifying themselves as Americans and being in a vehicle with diplomatic plates.
The agents were unarmed as Mexico does not authorize U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons in that country. But the brazen daylight attack did not surprise U.S. law enforcement authorities. The Justice Department began warnings in July 2010 that the Zetas new drug smuggling routes could result in increased violence to U.S. personnel.
In September, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) even posted signs along Interstate 8 in Arizona, more than 100 miles north of the border, warning travelers the area was unsafe because of drug and illegal-immigrant smugglers. The signs were posted along a 60-mile stretch of Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, the major east-west corridor linking Tucson and Phoenix with San Diego.
Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff Paul Babeu, whose jurisdiction includes the posted area, said Mexican drug gangs "literally do control parts of Arizona," noting that gang members are armed with radios, optics and night-vision goggles "as good as anything law enforcement has.
"This is going on here in Arizona — 30 miles from the fifth-largest city in the United States," he said.
In Baltimore, prosecutors said cocaine and marijuana dealers gave $1.2 million to Zetas members for drugs. Convicted were Wade Coats, 45, and James Bostic, 39, both of Baltimore, and Jose Cavazos, 43, of Midlothian, Texas. Investigators seized $610,000 in heat-sealed bricks of cash wrapped in aluminum foil in two suitcases and recorded a meeting between Bostic and cartel members in which he handed over $590,000 for marijuana and cocaine.
"A substantial portion of the illegal drugs distributed in Maryland are imported from the Mexican border," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in announcing the convictions. "This case demonstrates the international ties of a local drug dealer."
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 reputed leader of the Zetas is Heriberto "The Executioner" Lazcano-Lazcano, an original member of the Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales, or the Air Mobile Special Forces Group, the elite special forces operation within the Mexican army initially assigned to fight the drug cartels.
Lazcano-Lazcano is described by law enforcement officials on both sides of the border as one of the most violent members of the gang. He is sought in the U.S. and Mexico on charges of murder and drug trafficking, and the State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
He was named in separate indictments in 2008 and 2009 in federal court in Washington, D.C., for conspiring to import cocaine and marijuana into the United States — charged as a result of "Project Reckoning," a 15-month undercover operation targeting Mexican drug gangs in the U.S. The operation resulted in the seizure of 20,000 kilograms of cocaine, hundreds of weapons and $71 million in cash.
U.S. authorities said Lazcano-Lazcano has a vast arsenal at his disposal, including helicopters, armored vehicles, AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, MP-5 submachine guns, 50-mm sniper rifles, shoulder-fired missiles, grenade launchers, bazookas, armor-piercing ammunition, plastic explosives, dynamite and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Gang members wear body armor and ballistic helmets, and launch attacks in military uniforms and military-style vehicles.
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."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Jerry Seper is the investigative editor for The Washington Times.
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