BETRAYAL ON THE MEXICAN BORDER
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.