By Alfa · Jul 5, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Former Army Commandos Joined Drug Dealers to Form Violent Zetas

    MATAMOROS, Mexico -- Luis Alberto Guerrero was no ordinary outlaw. He
    wore a grenade around his neck.

    When his body was found last month in this border town across from
    Brownsville, Tex., state police said his signature grenade was still
    dangling over his bloody chest. A bomb squad spent hours extracting
    it, as well as another grenade, its pin half removed, in the clutched
    hand of Guerrero's dead bodyguard.

    The unknown assailants who fired more than 100 bullets into Guerrero's
    silver Jeep on May 10 outside the popular Wild West dance hall also
    killed three teenage girls, leaving five corpses and two live
    explosives a mile from the U.S. border and shining a new spotlight on
    Mexico's most unusual criminal organization, known as the Zetas.

    The Zetas are former Mexican army commandos who were trained to
    capture drug traffickers but joined them instead, around the end of
    the 1990s. Armed with AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, the 15 or so
    Zetas currently at large are considered the number one security threat
    on this busy stretch of the border.

    The Zetas are accused by federal prosecutors of a wide range of
    crimes, from killing an estimated 100 people over the last five years
    and escorting millions of dollars worth of cocaine, to extorting money
    from small border businesses, from car junkyards to beauty parlors.

    "They're more violent and have greater capacity to liquidate people,"
    said Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the nation's top organized crime
    prosecutor. In an interview, Vasconcelos offered new details of this
    increasingly high-profile group which, he said, has expanded beyond
    its initial drug trafficking work: "They have started to kidnap
    people, or extort money from them. They say, 'If you don't pay, I'll
    burn your business,' or 'If you don't pay, I'll kill you.' That's what
    they're doing now."

    Apart from being from the same army battalion -- an airborne mobile
    unit trained in communications to track drug traffickers -- most of
    the Zetas were born in central Mexico, at least one is a pilot and the
    oldest are in their thirties. "They're young, very young," Vasconcelos
    said. He said the Zetas named themselves, settling on the Greek letter
    zeta, which can also be Z, or "the last ones."

    "They are not like other gunmen. They are well trained and have
    discipline," said Jorge Chabat, an academic researcher and an expert
    on organized crime. Chabat said the Zetas have one other advantage:
    They were trained by their pursuers, the Mexican army, which is
    Mexico's main anti-narcotics force. While many soldiers have been
    accused of protecting drug cartels over the years, the Zetas appear to
    be the first sizable group to defect and form their own trafficking

    Originally there were 31 deserters, according to the Mexican attorney
    general's office, which has issued a special "wanted" poster for the
    Zetas. It bears mug shots of 31 men, many with cropped hair, who it
    says are dangerous and wanted for drug trafficking, homicide,
    kidnapping and auto theft.

    Individual Zetas, like most Mexican criminals, are best known by their
    nicknames, which also appear on the poster. Oscar Guerrero Silva,
    known as "Winnie the Pooh," was found dead by federal agents in
    February. Another, Gustavo Gonzalez Castro, known as "El Erotica," is
    still being sought.

    Recruited by Osiel Cardenas Guillen, whose Gulf cartel is the major
    operator here at the eastern end of the border, the Zetas started out
    as his escorts and assassins, Vasconcelos said. Cardenas himself was a
    former police officer who turned to the other side of the law. Despite
    the growing folklore around the group, including the vast sums of
    money the members earned from Cardenas, Vasconcelos said the former
    soldiers were "contaminated" by "very little money."

    Shaking his head, Vasconcelos said they betrayed the army "for
    nothing. It's stupid. Very stupid."

    What has set the Zetas apart, in addition to their superior handling
    of weapons and radio equipment to monitor law enforcement and rivals'
    activity, is their cohesion.

    For instance, when the army captured Cardenas last year in a Matamoros
    shootout involving scores of soldiers and cartel gunmen, several Zetas
    with him were injured and one was believed killed. But Vasconcelos
    said that could not be confirmed because other Zetas risked their
    lives to rescue the injured. "They don't leave their wounded or their
    dead behind," he said.

    In 2002, Zeta leader Arturo Guzman Decena, known as "Zeta 1," was
    killed by Mexican soldiers after he was spotted at a fast-food
    restaurant in Matamoros. Afterward, flowers appeared on the sidewalk
    outside the restaurant. According to photos published in a local
    newspapers, the note accompanying the flowers read: "You will always
    be in our hearts. From your family, The Zetas."

    The army has been particularly motivated to stop the Zetas. "For the
    army they represent a group of traitors who must be caught and
    punished," Vasconcelos said. While there have been published reports
    that the Zetas, like some anti-narcotics agents, received training in
    the United States, Vasconcelos denied that.

    Matamoros and the border cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo constitute
    the home base of the Zetas, who until January were considered strictly
    a border security problem. Then they orchestrated a daring jailbreak
    in the state of Michoacan, in southwestern Mexico. Guerrero, the
    former soldier found dead with a grenade around his neck, and others
    stormed a jail in the town of Apatzingan. Wearing uniforms that
    resembled those of the army and federal agents, the Zetas jumped out
    of trucks and freed 29 prisoners, including members of the Cardenas
    cartel, according to the state attorney general's office.

    "The jail is almost in the downtown, so it was alarming, especially
    for people who live around there," said Sorayda Tapia, a city employee
    in Apatzingan, known for its melons and mangoes. "It is usually very
    quiet and then to have something so surprising happen, that his big
    group of men shows up with high-caliber weapons, no one knew who they
    were or where they were from. People were really alarmed."

    Guerrero, called "The Warrior," was also involved in a Matamoros
    jailbreak in 2001. In that incident, federal prosecutors said, he and
    his men outmaneuvered and outgunned 46 prison guards and freed three
    members of the Cardenas cartel.

    The three teenage girls killed at the Wild West dance hall had been
    befriended by Guerrero and taken to the hall, according to interviews.
    Their killers have not been caught.

    Francisca Morada, whose stepdaughter, Perla Lourdes Garcia, 17, was
    among those killed, cried as she spoke in her modest house on the
    outskirts of Matamoros. Morada, a former policewoman, said local
    authorities, who carry small-caliber weapons, were no match for the
    Zetas and their rivals. "It's like throwing rocks compared to what
    they have," she said.

    Morada sobbed as she held the Mother's Day present Perla gave her the
    day before she died, a cheerful basket tied with a ribbon and filled
    with a teddy bear, flowers and balloons. "Living in this atmosphere,
    it's like you can't even breathe," she said. "You go out and God only
    knows if you'll come back."

    Asked why Guerrero had not been captured even though several people
    interviewed in Matamoros described him as a regular at strip bars and
    dance clubs, Vasconcelos said federal agents get little help from
    local authorities as they track the Zetas.

    "There is a lot of complicity on the part of the local police, and
    they regularly warn them, or practically help them, when we arrive to
    fight them," he said. "So we have two enemies there -- these guys and
    the local police."

    Jordan reported from Mexico City. Researcher Bart Beeson contributed
    to this report.

    Share This Article


To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!