Confronting the horrors of presidential policy, November 23, 2012: The Mexican presidential election, the disintegration of Los Zetas, and their relationship to the scourge of human trafficking

The death of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano on October 7, 2012, apparently changed everything. Lazcano, (alias Z – 3), was one of the founding members of the infamous Los Zetas drug cartel, and he had led the Zetas for years through some of the most violent episodes in the recent struggles between Mexico’s supposedly omnipotent cartels. Such was the standing of Lazcano in the Mexican and international underworld that his death has created a rush of enthusiasm within the law enforcement and the political establishments of the United States (US) and Mexico, who maintain hope that his removal from the leadership of Los Zetas will initiate the collapse or disintegration of arguably the most feared and brutal cartel in Mexico. In fact, the American Assistant Secretary of State, William Brownfield – who heads up the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement – announced that the Mexican cartels were facing “the beginning of the end,” just days following Lazcano’s demise. His death is also a victory for the Kingpin Strategy, which has been pursued by outgoing Mexican president Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN), who has rightly maintained that the war against organized crime can only be won in Mexico by targeting the true leaders of the violence, rather than their henchmen. However, while Lazcano’s death may indeed be exciting for those involved in the struggle between and against the cartels, his departure will have no effect on the lives of the Mexican and Central American migrants that are continually kidnapped, abused, robbed, extorted, raped and murdered while on their way to a “better life” in the United States. This issue of PanAmerican Crime is therefore dedicated to illegal migrants and their families, who constitute just one tragic, underappreciated aspect of the current Mexican conflict and whose plight will likely worsen despite this supposed victory by the state over the perpetrators of the violence.

As PanAmerican Crime predicted in 2011, the campaign waged by former Mexican president Felipe Calderon against the cartels’ leadership has resulted in the eventual collapse of many Mexican cartels in their current form. This assertion of progress has become increasingly popular among analysts, including Alejandro Hope, who recently concluded for Insight Crime that each of the five premier cartels that existed in 2006, (the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juarez, Tijuana and La Familia Cartel), have undergone violent internal rebellions and power struggles following the death of senior leadership; and all of them, barring possibly the Sinaloa Cartel under Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, are currently in a far weaker state than they were even two years previous. Indeed, the death of La Familia leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in December, 2010, resulted in the breakdown of La Familia into two competing groups, La Familia and the Knights Templar, neither of which has managed to retain or achieve the former power of the original La Familia sect. Both the Tijuana and Juarez organizations are shadows of their former selves and operate at the behest of the Sinaloa Cartel following brutal, internecine wars; and even the Sinaloa group has faced internal opposition – the most serious being the ongoing struggle with the remaining Beltran Leyva brother and his adherents, which also began in 2010. In the case of the Gulf Cartel, the arrest of Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003 eventually led to the breakdown in relations between his successors and the Gulf’s premier paramilitary enforcer unit, Los Zetas, who split from their former masters in 2010 as well. Following their violent ascension, Los Zetas enjoyed just two years of expansion before the ongoing pressure from the American Drug Enforcement Agency and the Mexican Navy eventually resulted in the arrests and deaths of many senior members. Significantly, Los Zetas had been implicated in the deaths of US embassy staff, making them a priority for both Mexican and American law enforcement. And, much like the arrest of Guadalajara Cartel leader Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo set the stage for the collapse of that cartel and the founding of Mexico’s current cartel establishment, the collapse of the senior leadership of Los Zetas has created various competing groups within the organization itself.

As PanAmerican Crime has noted in previous articles, Mexican cartels are not necessarily organized institutions in the formal sense. While institutional loyalty and branding are important aspects of cartel culture, the vast majority of Mexico’s cartel groups and cells are dependent upon the charisma of their leader and his access to wealth and resources to ensure the loyalty of their adherents. Once these leadership figures become absent from the picture there exist few structures within the cartel environment to force the lower ranks to retain their loyalty to the organization as a whole. In cases where powerful organizations lose several members, the risk of disintegration within a specific cartel is minimal; however, as the casualty figures rise and increasingly include important leadership figures within the command structure, the loyalty of the disparate factions and cells within the organization will naturally erode. The death of Lazcano and the tumultuous period that the Zetas remain trapped in provide perfect examples of this fact.

While the exact relationship between the various current Zetas factions is likely unknown, what is clear is that various distinct regional groups of Zetas now exist in the place of a single, grand cartel. Following the death of Lazcano, many Zetas factions began to produce narco-mantras across north-eastern Mexico which blamed the arrest and death of several senior Zetas on the cooperation of one senior Zeta, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, with Mexican security forces. The apparent purpose of this cooperation was to eliminate rivals within the cartel so that Trevino, (alias “Z-40”), could assume overall command of Los Zetas. However, while several senior Zetas were arrested or killed, Trevino’s campaign was soon made public by regional Zetas commanders who had been captured, such as Ivan Velazquez Caballero, whose aliases include “El Taliban” or “Z-50.” While El Taliban may be out of the picture due to his arrest in September, 2012, the image he paints is of a beleaguered and disparate group, with many competing centres of power. Trevino’s base remains Nuevo Laredo, the established heartland of Los Zetas’ drug smuggling operations. Yet, parallel Zetas groups are well established throughout many major cities, and one Zetas group, “Los Legionaries,” has already declared itself to be the enemy of Trevino due to his cooperation with law enforcement. According to Insight author Hannah Stone, Los Legionaries are active in San Louis Potosi, Zacatecas, Monterrey (Nuevo Leon), and Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas), making the chances of violent confrontation between the two factions all the more likely. Institutions do not collapse with the removal of a leader. Rather, a new leader rises up to take control of the institution in its entirety. What the ongoing removal of the senior Zetas’ leadership produced was the inability of the organization to produce a leader that is recognized throughout the organization as someone who has the right and ability to assume the top job. While it is likely that the ongoing media portrayals of the current infighting within Los Zetas do not completely capture the full extent of the competition or breakdown in relations, what is clear and what is the most important to understand is that the various Zetas plaza bosses in crucial territories, such as Zacatecas, Nuevo Laredo (Trevino’s powerbase), San Louis Potosi, Saltillo, Monterrey, Veracruz and Guadalajara, are each in charge of their own independent fiefdom with their own independent armies. According to Samuel Logan, “black market economics, and the strength of Los Zetas as a criminal brand name, held the loosely networked cells together, from Guatemala to central Mexico in Zacatecas State, to the border in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.” But, as “subsequent high-level members of the organization fell to rivals or the government, Los Zetas struggled to maintain a cohesive structure that enforced top-down command and control.” Besides Trevino, there exist many other senior Zetas, such as Sergio “El Grande” Ricardo Basutro Pena, Maxiley “El Contador” Barahona Nadales, and, the powerful Monterrey plaza boss Roman “El Coyote” Ricardo Palomo Rincones, who may all seek to establish their own group as Los Legionaries already has. It is also possible that the ongoing attacks by rival cartels against the various Zetas groups will result in many Zetas plazas falling to the forces of other, more unified and powerful Mexican cartel groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Knights Templar. The Sinaloa Cartel repeatedly operates under the divide and rule paradigm, and it is not unlikely that various Zetas groups will abandon the Zetas brand and seek to join or partner with other, more powerful groups.

Given the power and brutal nature of the Los Zetas cartel at its height, it stands to reason that its collapse would be a stabilizing force for Mexico and that the violence, chaos and economic devastation caused by the group would also markedly decrease. As Calderon’s Mexican Kingpin strategy recognized, organized crime is dependent upon connections between individuals who have access to information, material wealth, and other connections. These individuals fuel the drug trade in Mexico, and their acquired knowledge and experience has allowed for the creation of international networks that can illicitly ship narcotics, weapons, counterfeit materials, and people across Mexico and the World. With the removal of these important facilitators it seems obvious that the capabilities of groups such as Los Zetas – which has experienced a steady loss of its most important leaders – would naturally recede. While it is true that the international capabilities of Los Zetas have been limited, this shift has not and will not translate into an immediate retraction in violence as incoming Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto believes. As the money derived from international drug trafficking dries up due to the collapse of Los Zetas’ international connections, the various disparate, and now competing elements of this group will turn to other methods to generate wealth. These practices include counterfeiting, extortion, money-lending, and trafficking in other stolen goods, including agricultural products. In fact, certain elements within Los Zetas are already dependent upon the sale of stolen oil and natural gas as well as pirated DVDs for much of their income. But, by far the most lucrative and pervasive money-making tactic employed by the reduced Zetas brigades is the trafficking of human beings. So, while the government’s strategy of targeting the kingpins of Mexico’s cartels has worked in terms of causing a downward trend in the effectiveness of many of their operations, it has also created a situation where the devastating practice of human trafficking has become an endemic part of the criminal landscape in Mexico.

The vast majority of migrants in Mexico originate in the country’s undeveloped southern regions or make the long journey from South and Central America north through Mexican territory. Groups from these far southern regions travel hundreds, if not thousands of kilometers in horrendous conditions in order to reach the US border. Their journey is facilitated by career criminals who operate extremely large smuggling networks. As the migrants cross the southern stretches of Mexico they are often accosted or kidnapped by Mexican cartel groups. Once they have fallen into the hands of Los Zetas or their rivals, the migrants face a harrowing journey through the country to the US border. While en route, the migrants are typically kept in chokingly hot conditions, often in the back of tractor trailers, and are usually forced to sleep while standing. Food, water and bathroom supplies are non-existent and the migrants are generally forced to live in their own filth as they move north.

While the relationship is supposed to be financial, with the migrants paying Los Zetas for a service, the reality is much harsher than the cartels advertise. Payments are generally required throughout the journey, regardless of what was agreed upon initially, and many migrants are forced into servitude to pay for their trip. This service is generally in the form of sexual assault, rape or being used as a mule to transport narcotics. In some cases, young men and women are removed from their migrant group by cartel members and never heard from again by their families. While the fate of these victims is unknown, evidence does exist suggesting that thousands of young women and men have been pressed into sexual servitude and then killed once they have served their purpose. By far the most pervasive practitioners of this scheme are members of Los Zetas, and they have been linked to numerous massacres of migrants across north and eastern Mexico. While the causes of these disturbing mass killings vary, they are generally committed when Zetas smugglers fear that they will be or have been detected by security officials and that their only option is to remove the evidence before the migrants are discovered. In other cases, kidnapped migrants who have been unable to pay their smuggling fees or who cannot come up with further cash are killed and mutilated in order to scare the other migrants in their group into paying.

Even once the migrants reach the US border their ordeal is far from over. Specialized smugglers, known colloquially as coyotes, bring the migrants across the border using specific human-trafficking routes. These coyotes often work at the behest or under the protection of the cartels and charge the victims an additional fee once they reach the border. Those who cannot pay are often murdered, and coyotes have been known to kill their charges once they cross the border if they feel as if American law enforcement is closing in. The mutilated bodies of suspected migrants are routinely found along the edges of the I-10 and other roads on the outskirts of border towns, such as Phoenix, AZ.

In the face of such tragedy, the Kingpin strategy of outgoing Mexican president Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) has been described as creating further suffering rather than alleviating it. According to incoming Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico (PRI), the fight should now focus on restoring peace to the streets rather than apprehending the cartels’ leadership. In its current form, the new PRI program loosely resembles the popular “clean-up the streets” campaign that was launched in the American cities of New York and Philadelphia during the late 1980s and 1990s. Under these campaigns the police of each various district cracked down on common, street-level crime in an effort to promote safety and the image of law and order throughout their jurisdictions. These efforts were extremely successful, and are directly responsible for the rejuvenation of both NYC and Philadelphia over the past two decades. In Mexico, however, such a strategy is doomed to fail. A campaign which removes pressure from the centres of Mexico’s cartel structure will allow the leadership of these groups, regardless of how disparate they have become, to retrench, reorganize and re-establish connections that will allow for a rejuvenated expansion. Simply put, the greater the solidarity of a group like Los Zetas the greater their ability will be to corrupt the Mexican security and political establishments. As Scott Stewart has noted for STRATFOR, the violence practiced between the cartels in Mexico began in the 1990s well before Calderon’s kingpin strategy, which was initiated in 2006; and any direct linkage between the two ignores the fact that the retraction in the cartels capabilities are directly tied to the pressure being applied on their leaders and their networks by security forces. The enactment of the new PRI policy on Nieto’s inauguration day on December 1, 2012, represents a new opportunity for Mexico’s cartels, especially the disunited Zetas.

The other, most important point to consider when evaluating the relationship between the retraction in the power of Los Zetas and the Kingpin strategy of Felipe Calderon is that human trafficking has now become a permanent part of the modus operandi of the Zetas’ estacas, or cells. It is simply ludicrous to believe that once the PRI’s “clean-up the streets” campaign begins the various factions of Los Zetas will renounce their human smuggling and dismantle their networks. Even if Los Zetas survives the ongoing friction between its various factions and re-establishes its international drug trafficking routes there is simply no way that the average Zetas foot soldier will abandon the lucrative practice of human trafficking. Human smuggling and extortion now account for a high percentage of the revenue of each Los Zetas estaca, and it is impossible to realistically conclude that these groups will relinquish control of such an important financial tool. The collapse of Los Zetas’ central command forced the regional factions and estacas to turn to local criminalized money-making ventures to survive and no precedent exists to assume that these groups will relinquish these established lucrative extortion and human smuggling schemes.

Despite the optimistic claims of Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, there is simply too much money and power at stake in the sale of narcotics for the cartels to ever be entirely defeated in Mexico. Colombian groups were initially replaced by Mexican groups, who will eventually be replaced by some new trend in trafficking. Already, in response to American and Mexican law enforcement efforts, Mexican groups have begun transferring their operations out of Mexico and into the more lawless regions of Central America; and there is further evidence to suggest that the Caribbean drug trafficking routes that were dismantled in the 1990s in favour of using the Mexican border – the transition which allowed for the exponential rise in power of the Mexican cartels – are now being resurrected. While it is impossible to completely remove the spectre of drug trafficking along the Mexican border, there are proven ways to combat it effectively. Large networks, starting with their leadership, must be dismantled and the pressure on their successors, supporters and financiers maintained. These efforts now must also go hand-in-hand with a rigorous campaign to dismantle the networks of human smuggling, which is fast becoming one of the paramount money-making schemes of groups like the factional Los Zetas.

This article makes no attempt to morally justify or attack the presence of illegal aliens in the US. Undoubtedly, their presence has a deleterious effect on the American economy and on their living conditions as illegal migrants, regardless of American businesses’ desire to utilize low-wage labour. However, their existence on the outskirts of the established legal community has created a system where their natural desire for a better life for themselves and their loved ones is being utilized as a money-making scheme for violent, career criminals. The disgusting treatment of such people by Mexico’s criminal establishments, most importantly Los Zetas in all its various forms, has now become a crucial economic enterprise; one which will not disappear regardless of the PRI’s attempt to shift the focus of the government’s campaign away from the cartels’ leadership and towards the apparent needs of the public. As a popular saying makes clear, there is no point closing the barn door once the horses are out, and there is equally no point in altering a strategy that is seeing positive results because negative things are transpiring that are now unavoidable. Organized crime and, in particular, Mexico’s cartels criminalize the society in which they are a part, making it seemingly immune to the presence of corruption, malpractice and violence within its confines. In such an environment, the only way to combat the tentacles of organized crime and the misery it produces, such as human trafficking, is to target and eliminate those who facilitate its spread. God speed Mr. Calderon, you will be missed.

Scott Paulseth, PanAm Crime


Vega, Wilson, “ ‘Crisis de Centroamerica se va a mover Caribe’: William Brownfield,” El Tiempo, October 20, 2012,

Ramsay, Geoffrey, “ ‘US: Beginning of the End’ for Mexico’s cartels,” Insight Crime, October 23, 2012,

Hope, Alejandro, “US partly right about End of Mexican Cartels,” Insight Crime, October 26, 2012,

Wilkenson, Tracy, “14 Kidnapped Central American migrants found in Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2012,

Carcoran, Patrick, “The New Heart of Mexico’s Violence: Torreon,” Insight Crime, November 2, 2012,

Logan, Samuel and John Sullivan, “The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian Revolt,” ISN, Internal Relations and Security Network, April 7, 2010.

Logan, Samuel, “The Zetas after Lazcano: Branded Barbarism,” Insight Crime, October 30, 2012,

Stewart, Scott, “Constraints facing the Mexican President,” STRATFOR, November 22, 2012,


One thought on “Confronting the horrors of presidential policy, November 23, 2012: The Mexican presidential election, the disintegration of Los Zetas, and their relationship to the scourge of human trafficking

  1. Pingback: The North American Hammer and Sickle – panamericancrime

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