A ruthless and efficient criminal group, Los Zetas began as a group of ex-special forces hired by the leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, to be his enforcement wing. They would then go on to become an intricate faction within the cartel infrastructure, overseeing the transportation of drug shipments and murdering rivals and corrupt politicians to ensure Cárdenas Guillén remained in firm control. However, with the arrest of their boss, they would soon seek a greater measure of control that would bring them into conflict with their own faction and lead to a vicious war that claimed the lives of thousands.
Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the leader of the Gulf Cartel had made some powerful enemies in his ascension to power. When he took control of the Cartel in April 1996 after the assassination of his predecessor, he became joint head with his friend Salvador Gómez Herrera "El Chava". For several years they shared power and together they paid off police officials, bribed politicians and ensured the Gulf Cartel had control over the major drug shipments from Guatemala. During this time Cárdenas Guillén hired a former GAFE solider who was operating as the security chief Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas. 21-year-old Arturo Guzmán Decena had been highly trained as part of an elite Mexican military group called Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) which was tasked with counter-insurgency tactics against Zapatista rebels and hunting down drug traffickers.
Guzmán Decena defected from the military and his new position was now to protect the very people he was once tasked with eliminating and his main priority was to ensure Cárdenas Guillén's personal protection. With his fellow cartel leader Gómez Herrera displaying his manipulative behaviour and constantly requesting money loans, Osiel decided to eliminate his friend. "El Chava" was the godfather to Osiel's daughter and he invited him to her baptism in July 1999. After the ceremony he requested Gómez Herrera ride with him in his Dodge Durango where they spoke for awhile and then Guzmán Decena put a bullet in El Chava's head. After this Cárdenas Guillén would become known as the Mata Amigos/Friend Killer and Guzmán Decena earned his trust as one of his most efficient enforcers.
Osiel Cárdenas Guillén
Arturo Guzmán Decena
However, with the ever present threat of rival cartels such as the Sinaloa and the Juarez Cartels, Cárdenas Guillén became obsessed with his own protection and turned to Guzmán Decena and requested he form a group of the most ruthless hitmen. Guzmán Decena believed the most professional assassins could only be found in the Mexican Army and Cárdenas Guillén wanted only the best. To ensure the organisation could recruit such men, they were given a huge incentive and offered large payments if they deserted their posts and joined the Gulf Cartel.
This group would become known as Los Zetas, after the Federal Judicial Police codename Z or Zetas and original unit would consist of 7 members, including Guzmán Decena who adopted the codename "Z-1". Amongst those recruited were Alejandro Lucio Morales Betancourt "Z-2", Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano "Z-3/El Verdungo", Hugo Ponce Salazar "Z-4", Luis Alberto Guerrero Reyes "Z-5/El Guerrero", Óscar Guerrero Silva "Z-6/El Winne Pooh" and Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar "Z-7/El Mamito" all of whom were a mixture of GAFE and military soldiers.
Although the cartel had previously recruited military personnel as private bodyguards, such as Flavio Méndez Santiago who had served Osiel Cárdenas Guillén for several years, they now had access to specific military expertise that the cartel had been lacking, as well as certain skills they could use within the dangerous world of drug trafficking. Several months later 7 more ex-GAFE and military joined the ranks of Los Zetas and each was assigned a Z-codename. These included, Omar Lormendez Pitalúa, "El Pita/Z-8", Raul Alberto Trejo Benavides "El Alvin/Z-9", Mateo Díaz López "Z-10/Comandante Mateo", Galindo Mellado Cruz "El Mellado/Z-11/M-9", Luis Reyes Enriquez "El Rex/Z-12", Ernesto Zatarín Beliz "El Traca/Z-13" and Efraín Teodoro Torres "El Efra/La Chispa/Z-14". Around this period the cartel had assigned the various factions a codename depending of which plaza the group controlled. Los Metros were placed in control of the Matamoros Plaza, Los Rojos took control of Reynosa, Los Lobos were given Nuevo Laredo and Los Tangos ruled Tampico. Although they were given a codename, Los Zetas would not be gifted a plaza to control until they had expanded and proved their loyalty.
Once his power had been consolidated, Cárdenas Guillén began to expand the responsibilities of Los Zetas from merely bodyguards, and Z-1 began to organise his group in the participation of kidnappings, extortion, drug trafficking and ensuring the plazas of the Cartel were protected from incursions. This they did with the utmost savagery, beheading their enemies to make an example to others. Soon more ex-military were enticed to join, and by 2000 the group stood at 17 with the addition of Gustavo González Castro "El Erotico/Z-15", Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechuga "Z-16/El Lucky" and Jamie Gonzalez Duran "El Hummer/H-1". Later that year, Gonzalo Ceresano Escribano "Z-17/El Cuije", Carlos Vera Calva "Z-18/El Vera" and Jorge Lopez "El Chuta" joined Los Zetas, further strengthening the group which helped expand the cartel's influence throughout Taumaulipas.
However there was some resentment from some of the old school drug traffickers, such as the Sauceda Gamboa brothers, who were wary of the influence of Los Zetas and viewed this new group with suspicion. Especially as the Zetas were given more and more responsibility in the day to day operations of the drug business. Towards the end of 2001, Raúl Hernández Barrón "El Flander I", Maxiley Barahona Nadales "El Max/El Contador/Z-19" and Braulio Arellano Domínguez "Z-20/El Gonzo" joined the group and Los Zetas appeared unstoppable in their expansion. However, on 17 November 2001, Alejandro Lucio Morales Betancourt "Z-2" was captured by Mexican Federal Police. He would later go on to be a protected government witness, giving the authorities a wealth of information on Los Zetas.
"El Flander I"
To replace Betancourt "Z-2" Cárdenas Guillén appointed one of his own men, Rogelio González Pizaña "El Kelin" to the position. "El Kelin" had been a long standing member of the cartel and he was given the position as second in command of Los Zetas to ensure Cárdenas Guillén retained some measure of control over his new mercenary wing. To further his control he placed his bodyguard, the former Presidential Guard assault battalion soldier Nabor Vargas García "El Debora as Z-22" with the express orders of reporting back all that he heard within the Zetas unit. On 10 December 2001 Ernesto Zatarín Beliz "El Traca/Z-13" committed suicide under unknown circumstances. Another influx of army recruits began in early 2002, including Rogelio Guerra Ramirez "El Guerra/X-18", Prisciliano Ibarra Yepis, Eduardo Estrada Gonzalez, Miguel Angel Soto Parra "El Parra", José Ramón Dávila "El Cholo", Isidro Lara Flores "El Colchon", Daniel Perez Rojas "El Cachetes" and Daniel Enrique Marquez Aguilar "El Chocotorro", bringing the total of Los Zetas up to 30. Towards the end of 2002, the number of members would increase from 31 to 39, almost all of whom were ex-military or ex-police.
On 22 November 2002, Arturo Guzmán Decena was shot dead by Mexican soldiers. Z-1 had apparently visited a restaurant where had drank and snorted cocaine and then decided to visit his mistress Ana Bertha González Lagunes. Lagunes lived several blocks away and Guzmán Decena ordered his men to block the street and direct traffic so he would not be interrupted. Nonetheless a neighbour contacted the police to report the presence of armed men and the Mexican Army arrived and engaged in a firefight with Los Zetas. When the soldiers stormed the building Guzmán Decena was shot and killed. His death was mourned by his fellow Zetas who laid flowers outside where he was killed with a note that read, "You will always be in our hearts. From your family, Los Zetas". In early 2003 several employees of the Office of the General Prosecutor were abducted and executed near Reynosa, Tamaulipas on the orders of Cárdenas Guillén in retribution for the death of his henchman.
This exposure coupled with Cárdenas' encounter with U.S. agents in November 1999 caused the Government to begin a concerted effort to apprehend the Gulf Cartel drug lord. Cárdenas Guillén had already been placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List with a reward of $2 million for his capture. A six-month military operation was conducted in secret under the orders of President Vicente Fox to locate and capture Cárdenas. He was eventually tracked to the city of Matamoros where a shootout occurred between the Mexican military and Gulf Cartel gunmen. On 14 March 2003 Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was captured along with his bodyguard Victor Manuel Hernández Barrón "El Flander II" and conveyed to the federal high-security prison La Palma. Los Zetas struck back at the Government and in May 2003 Raul Alberto Trejo Benavides "El Alvin/Z-9" was killed by the army during a routine patrol. Osiel continued to control the cartel from his prison cell and proceeded to give orders to his brothers Mario Cárdenas Guillén "El Gordo/Metro-1" and Antonio Ezekiel Cárdenas Guillén "Tony Tormenta", as well as his trusted henchman Eduardo Costilla Sanchez "El Coss".
Los Zetas wished to extricate their boss from his prison cell, however the prison authorities at La Palma were equally concerned that such an event could occur and ensured the walls were reinforced to as much as 1 meter in thickness to discourage ramming. Other security measures such as limited cell phone transmissions and the addition of armoured personnel carriers based near the facility to protect it during a potential assault discouraged Los Zetas from attempting such a move. They were however determined to release other imprisoned members of the group and perpetrated a massive prison break in Apatzingán, Michoacán in January 2004 when over 50 uniformed gunmen of Los Zetas, including Guerrero Silva "Z-6", stormed several prison cells and liberated at least 25 inmates all in under 15-minutes. These included several high-ranking drug lords of the Gulf Cartel. The following month, Óscar Guerrero Silva "Z-6/El Winne Pooh" was cornered by the Mexican military and committed suicide on 1 February 2004.
In 2004, the Gulf Cartel sent Los Zetas gunmen into Nuevo Laredo to prevent an incursion by Los Negros of the Sinaloa Cartel. Joaquin Guzman Loera was attempting to gain a foothold in Taumaulipas, and decided the border city would be a lucrative Plaza to contest. Between 1 January and 1 August 2003, 45 murders were reported in Nuevo Laredo, along with 40 kidnappings which were the result of Los Negros instrusion into the city. Some of the original Zetas were now falling, with Luis Alberto Guerrero Reyes "Z-5/El Guerrero" being killed on 11 May 2004. The Cárdenas Guillén Family still had firm control over Los Zetas, but that all changed on 29 October 2004 when Rogelio González Pizaña "El Kelin", Cárdenas trusted capo was captured by federal agents and his position as leader of Los Zetas was taken by Z-3.
Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano "Z-3" was a former GAFE member and judicial police officer who was considered a ruthless killer who earned his nickname of "El Verdugo/The Executioner" by personally killing cartel rivals by feeding them to his pet lions and tigers at his ranch. With the appointment of Lazcano, Los Zetas would see a new era of responsibility and power. He began to take more control over the cartel infrastructure and assigned his own men to positions of administration within the plazas. This strong union of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas became known as La Compañía/The Company because of the growing influence of the mercenaries.
With Los Zetas showing their strength during the Nuevo Laredo War against the Sinaloa Cartel, they were awarded control over the plaza. This meant the group gained an influx of new recruits when Los Lobos was disbanded and it's members joined the ranks of the Zetas. Amongst these new recruits were Miguel Angel Trevino Morales "Z-40" and Ivan Velazquez Caballero "Z-50/El Taliban" who would later be instrumental in the fracture of the independent Los Zetas Cartel. Over the next few years the Gulf Cartel would continue to grow and expand their territory which was an indication of Los Zetas ability to exterminate their rivals and ensure drug shipments were delivered on time. But more and more members were falling. "El Pita/Z-8" was captured on 21 September 2005, whilst Mateo Díaz López "Z-10/Comandante Mateo" was arrested during a drunken bar-room brawl in July 2006. Later that year Hugo Ponce Salazar "Z-4" was captured on 6 September 2006 and Los Zetas would now gain the attention of the new Calderón Government, who launched his Mexican War on Drugs almost immediately upon being appointed to office on 1 December 2006.
A new crackdown began, with an increase in patrols which saw more Mexican soldiers on the streets which in turn led to more confrontations with Los Zetas gunmen. On 3 March 2007, Efraín Teodoro Torres "El Efra/La Chispa/Z-14" was killed during a horse racing event. "Z-14" was the regional boss of Veracruz and was attending the El Villarín ranch along with several other members of the Gulf Cartel. During the racing, the Zetas drank and placed bets of up to $2 million on the horses, however there was some confusion over which horse crossed the finish line first. As they attempted to verify the result, a dispute broke out and gunmen began shooting at each other.
Teodoro Torres was shot along with another man and several were injured. He was then taken to the Millennium Hospital in Veracruz where he was later pronounced dead. It was believed that Lazcano was the actual target of the dispute but he managed to escape. Two days later Los Zetas gunmen broke into the Jardín de los Ángeles cemetery in Poza Rica and stole Torres' corpse. Upon his death, Miguel Treviño Morales "Z-40" was appointed plaza boss of Veracruz. La Compañía were gaining more attention from the government, because by 2007 both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel had taken over trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the worldwide markets. This made these two organisations prime targets for President Calderón's new anti-drug campaign.
In 2007, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was extradited to the US to face charges for drug trafficking and control of the Cartel fell to a triumvirate of Cartel bosses. His brother Antonio Ezekiel Cardenas Guillen "Tony Tormenta" remained in control of the Cárdenas Family interests, which included Reynosa, whilst Eduardo Costilla Sanchez "El Coss" assumed Matamoros as his personal fiefdom. But it was Lazcano "Z-3" who began to take more and more control through violence and intimidation. He appointed Z-40 to head the Nuevo León plaza and "El Talibán/Z-50" oversaw operations in Guerrero. But continual disagreements were forcing a rupture between the two organisations and without Osiel to control the cartel, Z-3 was now setting his ambitions on becoming the only leader.
2008 saw the fall of more Los Zetas members with Nabor Vargas García "El Debora/Z-22" captured on 18 April 2008 and the ruthless Reynosa plaza boss Jamie Gonzalez Duran "El Hummer" arrested on 7 November 2008. "El Hummer" was captured by Mexican Federal Police agents in Reynosa, Tamaulipas along with a vast arsenal of firearms and ammunition which were confiscated along with several other Los Zetas gunmen. The group had by now become a powerful paramilitary force within the cartel and their membership and influence was growing.
Los Lobos controlled the Nuevo Laredo Plaza and were formed when the Gulf Cartel entered the city and offered the various gangs a deal to join the cartel. The Los Tejas, Los Flores Sotos and Los Ortiz Medina gangs agreed and were partly absorbed by Los Lobos. They were led by Mario Alberto Flores Soto "El Meme Flores/L-2". Upon his arrest in 2008, El Karis took over control of Nuevo Laredo and formed a new group, Los L's. In 2006 his brother, Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa "El Goyo/M-2" was removed from within the Cartel hierarchy due to his cocaine addiction and illness, and Hector Sauceda Gamboa "El Karis" plotted his revenge.
El Goyo fled to Matamoros and his position as Plaza Boss of Reynosa was given to the brutal Los Zetas enforcer, Jamie Gonzalez Duran "El Hummer". El Karis never liked Los Zetas and had numerous arguments with Lazcano. As head of the Metros, El Goyo's removal would have been orchestrated by members of his own faction, most notable, M-3, but also with the blessing of Lazcano and El Coss. When "El Hummer" was captured in November 2008, El Karis returned to Reynosa and installed himself as Plaza Boss, much to the annoyance of Lazcano who considered Reynosa to be Los Zetas territory. After much subterfuge, Lazcano sent gunmen to remove El Karis and if needed, kill him.
The resulting shootout on 17 February 2009 involved elements of the Federal Police, Los Lobos and Los Zetas. El Karis, along with his bodyguard and several others were killed in the resulting conflict. Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa "El Goyo/M-2" was later captured on 30 April 2009. With this M-3 became the uncontested official leader of Los Metros. With the death of El Karis, the suriving members of Los Lobos/Los L's were absorbed by other groups within the Cartel. Amongst those from Los Lobos who joined Los Zetas were Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, later known infamously as "Z-40", his brother "Z-42" as well as their fierce rival Ivan Velasquez Caballero "El Taliban/L-23/Z-50". With the death of El Karis, the first seeds of mistrust and division began to be sown between the various elements of the Gulf Cartel.
On 3 November 2009 Mexican marines gunned down Braulio Arellano Domínguez "Z-20/El Gonzo" in Soledad de Doblado, Veracruz. Z-20 was the plaza boss in Vercruz and he held considerable power over the politicians, including the Governor Fidel Herrera Beltrán. Because of this corruption, Los Zetas were allowed to operate in Vercruz relatively untouched by local authorities. During the shootout, it was reported Arellano Domínguez had used a gold M1911 pistol encrusted with his aliases El Gonzo and Z-20 in diamonds. Several other members of Los Zetas were killed during the clash and the federal police confiscated a multitude of weapons and equipment including, an MP5 sub-machine gun, four pistols, a grenade and seven magazines aswell as five vehicles, four motorcycles and an assortment of radio communication equipment, drugs and cash. Several days after his death Los Zetas killed a former Mexican Army Major in retaliation. The corpse of Casto Acevedo Manzano was mutilated and dumped on a street in Soledad de Doblado along with a narco manta in which the Zetas claimed credit.
Towards the end of 2009 tensions between Los Zetas and the other factions of the Gulf Cartel were strained. Miguel Angel Trevino Morales "Z-40" had been given a greater measure of control within the organisation and was considered by many to be Z-3's right hand man. Most of the original GAFE Zetas were either captured of dead and Z-40 was considered by some to be behind the removal of several of them. Los Rojos and El Coss were favouring an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, whilst the Zetas wished to cement an alliance with Joaquin Guzman Loera's former allies turned rivals the Beltrán-Leyva brothers.
These tensions came to ahead on 18 January 2010, when several members of Los Metros kidnapped Víctor Peña Mendoza "Concord 3", who was in charge of various drug operations in Reynosa. They demanded he switch his loyalty to M-3 and when he refused he was beaten and executed. Peña Mendoza was closely allied to Z-40 who demanded Los Metros hand over the killers. He sent an ultimatum to Samuel Flores Borrego "M-3" and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez "El Coss". "Hand over the assassin of my friend, you son of a bitch... You have until the 25th, if you don't comply, there will be war.". When no reply was forthcoming and with the full blessing of Lazcano, Z-40 kidnapped 16 members of the Gulf Cartel on 30 January 2010 and executed them, leaving their bodies on the streets of Reynosa. The beginning of the Gulf Cartel/Zetas war had begun. Although several members of Los Zetas chose to side with the Gulf Cartel when the split occurred. Amongst those who aligned themselves with Los Metros were Galindo Mellado Cruz "El Mellado/Z-11/M-10", Rogelio Guerra Ramírez "X-18/Comandante Guerra", Petronilo Moreno Flores "Panilo/M-100", Raúl Hernández Barrón "El Flander I" and José Ismael Mendoza Falcón "Comandante Polimenso/M-60".
The escalating war between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas caused problems for some members who had family on both sides of the divide. A high ranking member of Los Lobos and the Matamoros Plaza Boss, Alberto Castillo Flores "El Beto Fabe/L-7" was allowing Los Zetas, under his brother "El Apache" to enter the plaza, which was against the orders of the Gulf Cartel boss, Antonio Ezekiel Cardenas Guillen "Tony Tormenta". Tormenta sent his sicarios with orders to killed Beto Fabe and bring Matamoros under control. Beto Fabe was subsequently killed by gunmen of Los Escorpion in May 2010. In retaliation, Arturo Castillo Flores "El Apache" began to attack Gulf Cartel members and police associates, resulting in the deaths of several sicarios and policemen loyal to Tormenta.
On Monday 12 July 2010 the bodies of 12 members of Grupo Apache of Los Zetas were found with signs of torture and execution. They were presumably killed by Los Escorpions under orders from Tony Tormenta. Eventually El Apache himself was arrested when he tried to enter the US on 24 July 2010. Along with Apache, two others are also arrested. Luis Alberto Blanco Flores "El Pelochas/L-28" and Jose Ezequiel Galicia Gonzalez "El Niño". Around this time, on 25 July 2010, 12 more members of Grupo Apache were arrest by Mexican Police in San Fernando and sent to a prison in Matamoros where they were later involved in a prison riot, with all 12 members along with two other Zetas being murdered by other inmates associated with the Gulf Cartel on 6 August 2010.
Another group of 15 bodies were found on 29 July 2010, along a highway outside Matamoros. They also belonged to Grupo Apache and had been executed by Gulf Cartel gunmen. With this, Grupo Apache ceased to exist, as most of their members were either killed or like their leader in US custody. After Apache's arrest, the Gulf Cartel killed most of his family, throwing his father's decapitated head into a canal. Omar Castillo Flores, their younger brother was also killed by the Gulf Cartel in September 2011. Apache would later be released from US custody, returning to Mexico where he was killed in May 2012.
With Tony Tormenta's death on 5 November 2010, the split between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas was now irreparable. Los Zetas was now a cartel in their own right, claiming huge swathes of territory that had formerly belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The Los Zetas Cartel grew in size and strength and eventually posed a grave threat to their former allies. Now with Lazcano "Z-3" and Trevino Morales "Z-40" in charge, Los Zetas would prove to be a new threat to the security of the country and saw the beginning of a new drug cartel/paramilitary force in Mexico. Having forged alliances with the Beltran-Leyva brothers and the Juarez Cartel, they looked to challenge the dominance of Joaquin Guzman Loera's all powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus