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A trail of body parts

Violence is Los Zetas’ trademark. What the gang is capable of was never clearer than the carnage it left in December 2009 on a squalid back street in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. The bodies no longer looked like those of humans, torsos scarred by deep lacerations and punctures, with badly beaten severed heads. 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.

Anyone is a potential victim — men, women and children.

Mexican authorities unearthed more than 150 bodies from mass graves in April 2011 in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Many of the victims were kidnapped off buses and killed when they refused to work for the gang.

The victims were Mexicans and Central and South American migrants who authorities think were targeted to work for Los Zetas as gunmen or drug mules. Others were thought to have been killed when they refused ransom demands.

Los Zetas has used beheadings and dismemberments to punish rivals or betrayers, establish turf, terrorize citizens against testifying and press political leaders to collaborate. But random killings also have become the gang’s trademark — a demonstration that no one is beyond their reach, that they can kidnap, torture and kill anyone they choose.

Many of the gang’s targets have been Mexican military and police personnel, but U.S. law enforcement authorities also have come under attack.

As early as 2008, the FBI warned U.S. authorities that Los Zetas was attempting to gain control of drug routes into America and had ordered its members to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers to protect their operations.

Armed and dangerous

According to an FBI intelligence bulletin, the gang stockpiled weapons in safe houses in the U.S. in response to crackdowns in the U.S. 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.”

When Gonzalez Duran was arrested in November 2008 in Reynosa by Mexican Federal Police and the Mexican army, police and military officials took custody of what was then the largest weapons seizure in Mexico’s history — 540 rifles including 288 assault rifles and .50-caliber sniper rifles, 287 hand grenades, two M-72 anti-tank weapons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 67 ballistic vests and 14 sticks of dynamite.

In September 2010, David Hartley, 30, was fatally shot as he and his wife, Tiffany, 29, were riding personal watercraft on Falcon Lake along the U.S.-Mexico border in Zapata, Texas. Mrs. Hartley managed to escape, and U.S. authorities said the shooters were members of Los Zetas. Shortly after the attack, the lead investigator on the case in Mexico was decapitated.

It also was a Los Zetas hit squad that killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata in a Feb. 15, 2011, ambush on a major Mexican highway 250 miles north of Mexico City. Attacked with AK-47 assault rifles, 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.

Guatemalan officials said Los Zetas has 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 Los Zetas and the Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most powerful crime syndicates that specializes in cocaine distribution and arms trafficking.

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