How much do we really know about the Zetas?

As Mexico prepares to deploy 12,000 troops against the Zetas, one of the top drug trafficking groups in Mexico, a new book argues that nobody has a clear understanding of the group.

William Gularte/Reuters/File
Suspects accused of being members of the Los Zetas drug cartel, look on during sentencing in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City in this June 27 file photo.

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

A new book from a veteran Mexican crime reporter argues that, though the Zetas drug gang has changed the face of the country's underworld, there is no clear official definition of who or what they really are.

"La guerra de los Zetas: Viaje por la frontera de la necropolitica" was written by reporter Diego Enrique Osorno. In an excerpt from the book published in Gatopardo magazine, Osorno discusses his early days reporting on crime in Mexico’s northeast, when the Zetas were an emerging force working for the Gulf Cartel.

The growth of the Zetas has had a series of hugely significant consequences for security in Mexico. The most immediate, which was evident as the group pushed the Sinaloa Cartel out of Tamaulipas in the mid-2000s, was the establishment of a serious rival to the Sinaloa Cartel, which is controlled by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. As a consequence, any chance of a relatively peaceful drug trafficking industry controlled by one dominant group has been shattered. The last decade has seen regular and destabilizing attempts by groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel to grab the upper hand around the country, resulting in many thousands of deaths.

The Zetas are more expansive than previous Mexican gangs (though it is worth pointing out that Sinaloa has also grown far more prone to aggressive thrusts into new territory). After pushing Guzman out of Nuevo Laredo, they embarked on an attempt to put down roots in far-flung regions of the country, from Cancun to Acapulco to Guadalajara. In recent months they have moved into cities in Sinaloa itself, the home state of Guzman's organization. Such gambits have given it one of the largest geographical presences in Mexico.

As their territory grew, the Zetas expanded into new forms of crime. Drug trafficking probably remains their single most important source of income, but the Zetas have also become known for oil theft, human trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping, among other activities. Many of these require more interaction with general public than the drug trade, and the Zetas have shown the civilian population the same aggression as in their dealings with the Sinaloa Cartel.

In one of the most notorious instances, an arson attack on Monterrey’s Casino Royale in August 2011, in retaliation for an unpaid extortion payment, resulted in the death of 52 people. While the Casino Royale attack is the most spectacular example, there have been many notorious and violent provocations from the Zetas, which have made Mexico's battles with organized crime a far more pressing issue for even law-abiding citizens.

What follows is InSight Crime's translation of sections from the excerpt from Osorno's book published in Gatopardo:

In 2009, after learning of the case of a former neighbor, 30 years old, who was arrested and presented publicly as a leader of the Zetas, although in reality he was simply a small-time vendor of pirate discs who had been working in that business since I started out as a reporter, I asked a high-ranking member of the army his definition of a Zeta. The answer was: a criminal belonging to the Zetas. And what are the Zetas? I began to look in official documents and came to realize that there is no objective or unanimous understanding of what the Zetas are. There is no rigorously kept data nor dates in the reports from the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR), from the Center of Investigation and National Security (Cisen), or from the army regarding the existence of something that exists in our thoughts almost every day, through reading the newspapers, chats in the cafes, or, if we have bad luck, in tragic circumstances. We lack a clear vision of what the Zetas are.


A friend told me that I was exaggerating when I said that this was the Zeta generation, and diagnosed me with a case of “survivor’s guilt.” I began to think over my personal census of deaths that had taken place under the current circumstances, and I arrived at a total of 15 people. They are four women and 11 men with whom I spent little time, in routine work situations (a press conference, a visit to a barrio, an official tour), but who one day died in the middle of this red fog. Another four neighbors in the barrio where I grew up, San Nicolas de los Garza, were forcibly disappeared by some of the groups, official and unofficial, that feed this war.

Maybe my friend is right. This bloody environment is critical, of course it changes you. After learning of the murders of people I once knew, there was a moment in which I asked myself: Why are they dead when I’m not? Will I be killed one day? Will I end up beneath one of the epitaphs of collateral damage which are no longer unusual in Mexican cemeteries? The same fear and guilt sometimes beset other reporters, carpenters, housewives, and businessmen that I know in the northeast (who must have their own personal morbid census of the era).

It’s worth noting that some days are filled with greater unease than others. Attacks like that of August 25, 2011 on the Casino Royale manage to shake you from the monotony of fear and provoke terror. The terror first undermines morality, and then reason. Monterrey, the city (or shooting range) I was born in is home to a society one bullet away from losing its reason.


On Monday, August 15, 2011, I was in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, one of the places where the Zetas were probably born. I had been there 15 or so times before. One of my first visits as a reporter was toward the end of 2003, to cover a confrontation in one of the principal roads that had lasted several hours, involving grenades and bazookas, because the Zetas had almost captured, or killed, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. I had just arrived in Mexico. I got off a plane from Madrid, carrying the suitcase of a lengthy sojourn in Europe, and went to Nuevo Laredo with a newspaper photographer who picked me up at the airport in Monterrey. We were there several days. In hospitals and in houses, I interviewed passers-by wounded in the fighting, I spoke with police officers and government officials, and I visited an automobile dealership and a mechanic’s garage that had countless bullet holes from the gunfight on their walls. [...]

But on the trip I took in August, I saw nothing like that. I was intrigued by the story of Juan Antonio Rosas, who the day before my arrival had suffered a heart attack while umpiring a baseball game at one of the fields in El Bayito park. Juan Antonio waited for an ambulance in the center of the diamond, protected from the hot sun of the northern summer by an umbrella a baseball player had placed over his body. While the paramedics found the lost field of Nuevo Laredo, the veteran players took off their gloves and hats and improvised an honor guard to send off the umpire who had passed away on the border without a drop of blood being spilled. Among the brotherhood of those men, who were laborers from Monday to Friday and baseball players on Sunday, there were a few youngsters with a serious countenance: young Zetas.

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

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