The Zetas now Mexico's largest drug gang. Who are they?

According to Mexican authorities, the Zetas have become the biggest drug trafficking organization in Mexico. A recent report from Stratfor, based on data from Mexico's attorney general's office, says the group now operates in 17 states, surpassing the geographical sway of the once-dominant Sinaloa Federation.

1.The origins of the Zetas

Suspected members of the 'Zeta Killers' and suspected members of the Zetas drug cartel are presented to the media at the Mexican Navy's airplane hangar in Mexico City October 2011. (Bernardo Montoya/Reuters/File)

The Zetas are former elite military members who deserted the army and began serving as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s. But when those two groups split in early 2010, the Zetas became their own organization, rising today to become one of two dominant players in the drug trade in Mexico. They control much of the east of the country, while their rivals, the Sinaloa Federation, control the west. The Zetas received international attention in Sept. 2011, after 35 corpses were left on a busy roadside during rush hour in the port of Veracruz.  The so-called "Zeta-killers," a group of hooded men who appeared on YouTube claiming that society was fed up with the brutal tactics of the Zetas, claimed responsibility.

Why you may have heard of them before

A woman holds a photograph of herself and her son who died in an arson attack on a casino in August in Monterrey, December 2011. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters/File)

If a sensational attack in Mexico makes US news, chances are the Zetas are the suspects. One of the worst events in Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s five-year strategy against drug trafficking organizations was the arson attack at a casino in Monterrey in August of 2011. Some 52 people were trapped inside and killed, many of them middle aged women. The previous year, 72 migrants mostly from Central America were found killed en masse in the northern state of Tamaulipas, allegedly hauled off buses and killed after refusing to work for the Zetas. They are suspected in the shooting death of a US immigration agent in Mexico last year, as well.

Why do Mexicans care?

Drug trafficking organizations have different reputations among Mexican society. There are often regional alliances, and some are even supported for their “good deeds,” like paying for church renovations or paving roads. But the Zetas are widely feared and detested in Mexico. They resort to targeting not just rivals but regular folks, extorting small business owners and kidnapping middle class citizens to line their pockets. The security consulting firm Stratfor notes that the Sinaloa group usually resorts to bribing and paying off officials to achieve its objectives.

“It also frequently provides intelligence to authorities, and in doing so uses the authorities as a weapon against rival cartels,” Stratfor notes. “On the other hand, Los Zetas prefer brutality. They can and do resort to bribery, but they lean toward intimidation and violence. Their mode of operation tends to be far less subtle than that of their Sinaloa counterparts, and with a leadership composed of former special operations soldiers, they are quite effective in employing force and fear to achieve their objectives.”

How is the government fighting them?

The Mexican government deployed the military to states where the Zetas are active, particularly Veracruz, where violence flared in 2011. But despite the government offensive, which saw the takedown of 17 group leaders as well as their communications network in multiple states, the Zetas have not lost any territorial ground in 2011.  Instead, they have expanded into new states. One reason for their fortitude is their ability to recruit recent army deserters and police officers. Stratfor forecasts that the Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation will remain the two dominant groups this year, and an end to violence might only come with the brokering of an unlikely truce between the two.