The Capture of Z-40: The Effect on Mexican Drug
Trafficking Organizations and the United States
By Gabe Morales, King County Jail
For over a dozen years, law enforcement in Mexico and the United Sates were very concerned about the Zetas who were renegades and former Mexican Special Forces that first worked as enforcers to the Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs). Later, they evolved as a very vicious and violent drug cartel. The Zetas were considered, on both sides of the border, to be the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in all of Mexico. In addition to their Mexican Army training, the Zetas were also said to have received training from ex-Kaibiles, a Special Forces arm of the Guatemalan military.
The origins of the Zetas date back to 1999, when a few dozen members of Mexican elite forces deserted their ranks and decided to work as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel.
The group's name “Los Zetas” (often seen as just “Z”) is given after its first commander, Arturo Guzmán-Decena, whose Federal Judicial Police radio code was "Z-1". Guzmán-Decena was killed in 2002. In 2010, under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano-Lazcano, also known as “Z-3”, the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel and formed their own criminal organization. After Z-3 was killed in 2012, the next in line to lead the group was
Miguel Treviño-Morales, known as “Z-40”. He grew up in Dallas, Texas and was captured in July 2013, in Mexico. Many people think the group is now run by his brother Omar (“Z-42”) and believe that Omar does not have the same leadership ability skills as his brother. Other Zetas may emerge as the leader, or the group could buckle under.
The Zetas were well armed and equipped, and unlike other traditional criminal organizations in Mexico, drug trafficking only made up about 50% of their revenue. A large portion their income also came from alien smuggling, protection rackets, assassinations, extortions, kidnappings, and other criminal activities. It was the Zetas that first mimicked terrorist organizations by using tactics which include beheadings, severe torture, and indiscriminate slaughter. The Zetas were known prefer brutality over bribery while the rival Sinaloa Cartel usually preferred to buy off people as their primary tactic and kill them only if money didn’t do the trick. The Zetas were also known to recruit youngsters (Zetitas) to work for them as commandos and lookouts (halcones).
Through their use of brute force, the Zetas soon took over rival territories or unclaimed regions and plowed drug corridors (often referred to as “plazas”) for themselves from Central America to Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas directly across the border from Laredo, Texas. They also had drug networks that moved contraband up from the southern tip of Texas across many areas of the United States. A surprising development for many law enforcement officials in Washington State was when Martin Omar “El Kilo” Estrada-Luna was accused of being a regional boss for Los Zetas and involved in the massacre of 265 innocents in 2011.
After the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, splintered with the Beltrán-Leyva Organization (BLO), they, along with what was left of the Juarez Cartel aligned with the Zetas against “Chapo’s people”. The Zetas main rivals were then the Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel, and La Familia (now fractured as well). Today, Mexico has many cartel factions and is in a state of flux.
The complex and violent situation south of the border can affect both drug trafficking in the Northwest United States as well as the level of violence. Currently, the Sinaloa Cartel and their allies seem to have the upper hand here, and again, prefer to use their enormous amounts of money as influence, but this could change. The younger drug traffickers don’t always have the patience or discipline as older cartel members and if their profits are affected adversely, they could resort to the kinds of violence that the Zetas were known for in Mexico and along the Texas border.
(Gabe Morales was born in Yakima, Washington, which has a large number of Hispanic gangs. He has worked with at-risk kids in Seattle, Washington and became familiar with many emerging gangs. Gabe worked at Folsom State Prison for six years as a Corrections Officer, where he became very familiar with prison gangs and worked with gang affiliated youth in Los Angeles, California. Gabe has worked at the King County Jail in Seattle for over 18 years in the Classification Section where he specialized in Security Threat Groups and is considered a Subject Matter Expert. He is a past Advisor for the International Latino Gang Investigators Association (ILGIA) as well as being one of the Event Coordinators for the ILGIA)
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