In recent years, researchers, journalists, and government officials throughout Guatemala, Central America, and the United States have documented a dramatic increase in drug-related violence in Guatemala, specifically as it pertains to the dominating presence of los Zetas (see full list of resources). The los Zetas drug cartel is the most powerful and brutally violent organized crime groups in Mexico, with their strongholds spreading further and further southward into Central America (InSight) . As Mexican security officials continue to push drug cartels out of their territory, los Zetas have shifted into Guatemala in search of higher profits and greater access to drug trafficking routes moving up through Honduras and El Salvador ( Hal Brands) . Guatemala is an appealing location for Zetas expansion and a strategically important strong-hold with access to both Atlantic and Pacific ports, arms and clandestine airstrips left over from the armed conflict, and a weak and easily corrupted criminal and government systems.
In 1997, los Zetas began their operation under the recruitment of the Gulf Cartel chief, Osiel Cardenas. The original 31 members were former Mexican Special Forces deserters, heavily trained in ambushes, marksmanship, intelligence, intimidation, and other military techniques (Borderland Beat ). After Cardenas was arrested in 2003 by Mexican authorities, los Zetas took over operations for themselves, ‘eliminating’ several Gulf Cartel lieutenants and working their way to the top of the chain of command. Now the group has expanded from 31 to somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 members, including former local, state, and federal security officers, as well as ex-Kaibilies (the Guatemalan Special Forces) (InSight, Borderland Beat) . The Kaibiles are the special operations forces of Guatemala known for their intense and ruthless training in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. Los Zetas use their ability offer much higher compensation and benefits to military deserters as leverage to recruit technically trained and skilled fighters.
Operations and Tactics
The Zetas’ rise to power has established a new precedent within the world of organized crime throughout Mexico and Central America. Prior to the paramilitary strategies and operations of los Zetas, most drug cartels were composed of ‘thugs’, gang members or toughened criminals who had access to drugs and smuggled arms ( Borderland Beat ). As Hal Brands puts it, the “combination of massive firepower with expertise in infantry squad tactics, complex assaults, and other military techniques [resulted in a] qualitative escalation of the intensity of drug-related violence” ( Borderland Beat ). Not only do the Zetas know how to fight, but they have the resources to orchestrate complex attacks, infiltrate police stations, and ambush government convoys, among other strategic military actions. They have a military-grade arsenal of AK-47’s, shoulder-fired missiles, armor-piercing ammunition, fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and even helicopters. Zetas members are trained in prolonged torture and execution, frequently employing such tactics as decapitation, immolation, strangulation, castration, and immersion in toxic substances. In one case, a group of Zetas stuffed four suspected rivals inside diesel-filled barrels, burning the victims alive.
Since their take-over of the Gulf Cartel, los Zetas have used their highly technical skills to develop a militaristic and sophisticated organizational structure, consisting of many small, semi-independently functioning cells throughout Mexico and Guatemala. The organization of the group is based on a military command structure, with several high-profile people and original members at the top forming a group called los Zetas Viejos. Zetas Viejos must have a military background and are almost exclusively members of the original 31 soldiers who founded the cartel (or joined shortly thereafter). Underneath the Zetas Viejos operate los Cobras Viejos, in charge of trafficking and security affairs, and los Zetas Nuevos, who perform the majority of executions and shock-and-awe tactics ( Borderland Beat , FPRI ). Two subgroups, the Cobras and Halcones, cover security for drug shipments and high-ranking members and act as informants or ‘the eyes of the city’, respectively ( Borderland Beat ). Los Zetas use a sophisticated system of communications technology called “la direccion” to coordinate operations, attacks, ambushes, trafficking efforts, etc. Furthermore, los Zetas have not limited themselves to just drug trafficking but are capable of other forms of organized crime, such as human trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering, and extortion.
Los Zetas tend to focus their efforts on the direct drug trafficking routes, but also maintain a strong presence throughout the entirety of Mexico and most of Guatemala with great ease of mobility and organization via technologically advanced transportation and communication systems. One of the groups’ main militaristic strategies has been to control as much territory as possible ( In Sight Crime). According to Reuters, los Zetas are operating in 75% of Guatemala and have strongholds covering all of Mexico, as of October 2010. The department of Baja Verapaz is located almost directly in the center of the country, halfway between Honduras and Mexico. It is highly likely that drug trafficking routes pass through Baja Verapaz moving northward towards Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, and Quiche. In the context of this case, it is important to note that although los Zetas do not appear to have an established stronghold in Baja Verapaz, their base of operations functions out of Coban in Alta Verapaz, no more than fifty kilometers from Salama—the capital of Baja Verapaz. Incidents of violence have been reported all over the country, the most recent and notable event occurring in May 2011 in Peten where Zetas members murdered and decapitated 27 people at Los Cosos Farm in La Libertad. Following the massacre, President Colom issued a state of siege and ordered policy and security forces to monitor the area for 30 days.
To put it simply, if los Zetas had it in mind to hunt someone down and kill them, they could very effectively and efficiently activate the resources to find and assassinate any opposition. Due to the fact that a great majority of the groups’ members are former military, security official, or ex-Kaibiles, los Zetas are facing no shortage of technical training and organizational command. Furthermore, considering the heavy ties los Zetas have to local police and security forces throughout the country, they are able to bribe, corrupt, or intimidate authorities in most parts of Guatemala. Los Zetas have demonstrated their extreme violent capabilities towards any sort of opposition, specifically deserters, those they wish to seek revenge against, or obstacles to the expansion and functioning of operations. They frequently perform horrific acts of violence purely to assert their power through intimidation and fear ( InSight). For example, the brutal massacre described above most likely was the result of a land dispute between the owner of the farm, Otto Salgureo, and los Zetas—Salguero had apparently been receiving threats from the group since early May ( Central American Politics ; Prensa Libre ). This massacre is a brutal display of the kind of shock-and-awe tactics employed by los Zetas, especially considering they murdered and decapitated 27 innocent civilians uninvolved in the vengeful conflict.
The Mexican government has been fairly unsuccessful in its attempts to defeat and apprehend los Zetas due to the group’s ability to neutralize the very institutions designed to restrict their activities. Los Zetas have learned how to take advantage of the entrenched weaknesses of government institutions and its susceptibility to corruption and bribing. For example, in some cities, los Zetas are paying out around $230,000 in bribes to local authorities, threatening to murder or torture those who refuse to accept. Furthermore, it is not unusual for the Zetas to recruit military officers by offering them better pay or threatening them into cooperation. The Zetas actively co-opt local communities and populations as a whole by buying and donating resources to poor villages as a means of gaining loyalty from them. Essentially, they are exploiting poverty, corruption, and the failures of the government to maintain their strong holds in Mexico and Guatemala. It is especially hard for the Mexican or Guatemalan governments to have any significant impact of the Zetas domination because the cartel has left no segment of society untouched, infiltrating nearly all aspects of local communities, economies, and securities. ( Borderland Beat )
Beyond their drug trafficking operations, los Zetas second most lucrative business is human and migrant smuggling. Human and migrant trafficking through Mexico has typically functioned as an independent market, where migrants pay a fee to guides, or ‘coyotes,’ to take them through Mexico into the United States. However, los Zetas have infiltrated this market in recent years, forcing the coyotes out of operation or charging them costly fees to continue their work. Before, coyotes would work with groups of about 20 migrants, while the Zetas are capable of moving hundreds of people at a time in heavily armed tractor-trailers. It is not unusual for migration officials to find upwards of 250 individuals in one truck. For example, on May 17 th, 2011 Mexican police found 513 migrants from all over the world, including Guatemala, crowded into one tractor trailer, totaling $3.5 million in human trafficking profits for los Zetas. The truck had passed through two previous checkpoints in Chiapas before it was finally detained, exemplifying the intimidating and corrupting power of los Zetas.
Migrants who attempt to travel outside of los Zetas control are frequently kidnapped, beaten, or killed, essentially forcing people to use their system or face violent consequences. In another example of violence, Zetas members slaughtered 72 migrants near the US-Mexico border in Tamaulipas in 2010—the same area where mass graves were later discovered by Mexican police ( Charlotte Observer) . A UN Report, the Globalization of Crime, states that human migration trafficking is a $6.6 billion dollar industry in Latin America. According to the Mexican National Institute of Migration six out of ten migrants pay traffickers to cross the border and another 43% pay for guidance through the Mexican country. Los Zetas have been known to recruit gangs throughout Mexico to help them smuggle migrants through the country charging anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 ( Charlotte Observer) . Furthermore, los Zetas target migrants who attempt to travel across the border from Guatemala into Mexico on their own, frequently kidnapping and holding individuals for ransom, killing them if they do not comply.
A special report released by the National Commission on Human Rights in Mexico in February 2011, collected statistical data and victim testimonies on migration-related violence and kidnapping ( CNDH ). According to the report, 198 cases of kidnapping were recorded between September 2008 and February 2009 in Mexico, in which 9,758 migrants’ rights were violated and 55% of which occurred in the southernmost region of the country. Of the 178 testimonies gathered and recorded in the report, 11.2% of them were from Guatemalan migrants, 67.4% of the incidents occurred in the southeastern region of Mexico (near Guatemala), and 8.9% of the cases reported involvement or collusion of government officials or local authorities. The twelve testimonies recorded in the report describe the methods of capture, torture, violence, and torture imposed on the victims. While only some of the testimonies explicitly reference los Zetas, it is clear that these incidents were acts of organized crime groups. In one particular testimony, a Guatemalan migrant describes how he was kidnapped by a group of men with guns, dressed in all black. Along with a large group of other migrants, the witness’ hands were tied behind his back and he was tied to the other captured individuals. The kidnappers stole their money and beat those who didn’t have anything to offer with planks of wood. They were forced to turn over phone numbers of their family members, either back home or in the U.S. who were then demanded money by the kidnappers in order to save the migrants’ lives. According to the witness, the kidnappers took two women and one young boy who were later returned, completely beaten and bruised after being gang-raped. In another display of brutality, the kidnappers re-captured a migrant who had escaped, beat him horribly in front of the group, and then shot him twice in the back of the head.