Los Zetas’ Bad Omen

In organized crime, Los Zetas are like cancer. Once bad cells take hold of an area, their metastatic nature soon spreads them in all directions. 

Los Zetas defy smaller countries like Guatemala, where they reckon with weaker security forces than in neighboring Mexico. The new Guatemalan administration (which took office in January), led by a retired general, President Otto Pérez Molina, must now face this challenge. 

Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former head of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico, never envisioned the birth of a monster when he recruited Mexican Special Forces to watch his back. In 1998, he had got into fights with his closest business partners, some of whom he ordered killed, sometimes over women, sometimes over money. Osiel’s ally against his enemies was GAFES was set up to fight the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas, in the early 90s, and was allegedly trained by the Guatemalan elite military squad, the Special Kaibil Forces.

Feeling rather vulnerable, Osiel contracted Arturo “Z-1” Guzmán Decena, a member of the Mexican Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFES) to recruit a group of trustworthy men to keep him safe. Guzmán Decena turned to his peers in GAFES. Osiel soon trusted them with several plazas, or posts, along the Mexican Atlantic coast and the border with the United States.

Osiel was not the product of a traditional organized crime family, but he had muscled his way into the empire built by one: the Gulf Cartel. By 1997, he owned the crime franchise in Tamaulipas and the Gulf of Mexico, and picked up South American drug shipments from his contacts in Chiapas, Mexico, and Guatemala. One year later, he was armored by Zetas. But in 2003, Osiel was arrested.

Los Zetas turned the Gulf Cartel into a strong rival of the Sinaloa Cartel, expanding toward Central America. Osiel nodded approvingly in jail. Shortly after, in late 2006, President Felipe Calderón took office in Mexico. The following year, Osiel was extradited to the United States, and Los Zetas began branching out from the Gulf Cartel. By then, Eduardo Costilla, a.k.a. El Coss, shared the cartel’s leadership with Osiel’s brother, Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas, a.k.a. Tony Tormenta (“Storm,” killed in 2010).

Los Zetas worked for the Gulf Cartel and operated on their own. In 2007, one of their actions went awry in Honduras. An ambush ended in a stolen shipment and two of their own were killed, according to military intelligence sources in Mexico and Honduras. Los Zetas tracked down the culprit and found Juan José León, in Zacapa, a Guatemalan province bordering Honduras. He was married to Marta Lorenzana, from a family that the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) links to the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. Months later, Juancho realized—too late—that he had made a fatal mistake.

Zetas Rule

The decapitation of 31 victims at the hands of Los Zetas in May 2011 produced international news headlines announcing Mexican traffickers’ move to Central America. However, the Mexicans had operated in Guatemala since the late 80s, and grew stronger a decade later, after the demise of the large Colombian cartels.

Prior to 395 BC, Greek historian Thucydides wrote that a stricken empire must retaliate (even if not against the aggressor) to prove it’s not defeated. In 2007, after the Honduras fall out, Los Zetas had a lesson to teach—and territory to colonize.

They started their campaign of colonization in Zacapa, after allegedly persuading the Lorenzana family to hand over Juancho. Juancho, a source of trouble because of his habit of stealing shipments, was then tricked into willingly walking to his death.

Mexican Zetas had entered Guatemala through Huehuetenango (on the border with Chiapas) in 2007. Flight plans showed they boarded charter planes to Alta Verapaz, a province with access to northern and southern Guatemala. That destination proved critical for their partnership with a strong local trafficker, Walther Overdick, known for moving up to two tons of cocaine at a time.

A March 25, 2008, attack caught authorities off-guard, and landed Los Zetas their first headlines. The weapons seized from them included grenade launchers, an anti-tank weapon, assault rifles and two Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols—among other handguns—whose purchase was tracked down to a store in McAllen, Texas, in December 2007.

An Invisible Head

The killing of Juancho interested the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. One cable dated March 28, 2008 warned that one of the arrested Mexicans, Roberto Rodríguez Cárdenas, was “associated with Miguel Angel “Z-40” Treviño Morales of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico.” The document revealed that “DEA sources suggest[ed] that this attack could signal a possible move by Mexican drug trafficker Treviño Morales to take control of Central American drug trafficking, specifically in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.” He was the second head of Los Zetas, after Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano, in Mexico.

In March, authorities found a Zeta training camp in Quiché, a province neighboring with Alta Verapaz. “It was only accessible by helicopter,” then president Álvaro Colom said. Los Zetas used it for shooting practice, and had left behind grenades, ammunition and firearms.

In April, five counternarcotics detectives were gunned down in a Zeta bodega in Amatitlán, 11 miles from the capital. Immediate retaliation followed. More than 500 grenades, ammunition and weapons were seized, some of military manufacture that had been illegally extracted from a military warehouse.

Domino Effect

By January 2010, El Lazca seized control of Los Zetas in Mexico after Guzmán Decena and other leaders were killed. That month, El Coss had ordered the execution of Victor Peña, the cartel’s financial operator, and also a friend of Treviño. Z-40 took it personally and demanded that the killers be turned over to him. After El Coss refused, Treviño declared war against the Gulf Cartel and took over its plazas in Mexico and Guatemala. In April 2010, a former federal agent confirmed the U.S. Embassy’s earlier suspicion: “Treviño was the strongest man in drug trafficking in Guatemala.”

Violence is used in the absence of power, in the words of Hannah Arendt, and Los Zetas did just that. Lacking popular authority of traditional narco families (which bought communities’ silence by building clinics or paving streets, using selective violence when needed), Los Zetas took territory by force.  Los Zetas reproduced a model that the Gulf Cartel had practiced for decades in Mexico. The organization was a toll booth of sorts, collecting fees from criminals who operated in its turf.

A Long Zeta Arm

Written messages left near 27 bodies at a ranch in northern Guatemala were signed by “Z-200,” whom Mexican authorities identified as Flavio Méndez Santiago after his January 2011 arrest in Oaxaca. Méndez was known to have visited Alta Verapaz in late 2010, and was linked to the kidnapping and murder of migrants in his native México.

Michael Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), said “It will be extremely difficult to immobilize [Los Zetas] once they spread their tentacles into the political, social, and economic processes of Guatemala.” But some accounts indicate Los Zetas might have done just that already.

In December 2010, a group claiming to be Los Zetas barged into three radio stations in Cobán, and forced employers to read a message on the air. They accused President Colom of not keeping his word after receiving $11.5 million in late 2007 to protect Los Zetas, and demanded an end to the state of siege. Other sources revealed that Los Zetas paid $13 million to an influential Guatemalan government official for protection, between 2007 and 2008. Colom denied the allegations.

The new administration of President Otto Pérez Molina faces two main security challenges. One is Los Zetas. The second is increasing methamphetamine production in Guatemala, geared toward the Mexico, U.S. and Europe, and pushed mostly by the Sinaloa Cartel. So far, only Sinaloa Cartel Guatemalan associates requested in extradition by the United States for drug trafficking have been arrested in the last two years. Among the five more prominent are Waldemar Lorenzana Lima and his son Elio Lorenzana Cordón.

President Pérez Molina’s request for an increase in U.S. assistance to fight drug trafficking was met by conditions to improve performance and progress in human rights issues. The new administration also hopes that cracking down on corruption, and a tax reform, can generate more funds to fight crime—a feat in itself. Several members of the elite Kaibiles military squad have even joined Los Zetas, but Pérez Molina intends to use the good ones left.

Menocal claims that the states of siege, and the arrest of nearly 100 alleged Zetas since 2008, cut crime rates in half. However, one military high official said Los Zetas “became a threat difficult to control….[and] now it’s too late to tackle them directly with Guatemala’s poor technical resources and the poorly trained personnel.” According to Vigil, who is also an adviser for Mission Essential Personnel in Washington D.C., Los Zetas have the potential of becoming a “national security threat to the region.”

Last October, Los Zetas remained active in Petén, where Overdick has a strong operation base, the former counternarcotics military official revealed. In December, they were also visible in Alta Verapaz, according to Adela de Torrebiarte, current Commissioner for Police Reform. “They recruit idle youngsters dubbed Zetitas or “little Zetas” who stand at street corners and warn them when outsiders enter Zeta territory,” she said.

One military official who led counternarcotics operations in the last administration said that Los Zetas are good at “learning their lessons well.” And now, as in the Osiel days, authorities have difficulty keeping up the pace.

*[This article was originally published in the Winter Issue of Harvard ReVista].

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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