This story is over 5 years old.


Taking down Zetas cartel leaders has triggered more violence in Mexico

When the government eliminated the bosses of one of the bloodiest cartels, those who were left began fighting — and civilians are paying a high price in blood.
Captura de pantalla vía YouTube

His spacious house and lawn in the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Victoria are surrounded by tall walls, and stand in a gated community with more high fences and security guards. But even here, sitting on his couch surrounded by family photos and Catholic imagery, this owner of a big business still doesn't feel safe.

"Nobody trusts anyone," he said. "This house, 10 years ago, it didn't have a fence. All the neighbors' kids used to come play here."


But just in the past year, the businessman said, he has attended the funerals of four murdered close friends. He said he has also sent all his children to live in safer places. Like almost everybody you talk to in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, the businessman will only discuss security issues if his name is kept out of print, for fear of reprisals by criminals.

Tamaulipas, just over the border from Texas, has been central to the government's efforts to contain drug-trafficking cartels, ever since then-President Felipe Calderón launched a major military-led strategy against organized crime nearly a decade ago. His successor Enrique Peña Nieto is continuing that approach.

A particularly intense offensive against the notoriously bloody Zetas cartel, based in the state, successfully took down most of the group's leaders between 2012 and 2015. But putting these infamous criminal bosses in prison, or in the ground, has done little to make the state safer. In fact, residents of Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, say things have never been this bad in Tamaulipas, as factions of the Zetas fight to fill the vacuums the government's strategy has left.

How bad things are was driven home in March when a narcomanta — a banner left in a public place with a message from the cartels — claimed that one faction of the Zetas would begin killing civilians if the government did not halt extradition proceedings against two incarcerated leaders. Since then, other narcomantas have reiterated the threat, and murders have increased.


'They [The Zetas] arrived at his house, armed, pulled him out, took him away, and later killed him… Why? Who knows.'

"The way of life has changed completely here in Victoria," said a small-business owner, in a hushed voice. Nervous about talking in a public place, he asked to move to a secure location. "It's worse than it's ever been."

The man admitted he pays protection fees to local cartels so they leave his business alone, but he still lives in fear. The family keeps in constant contact via a WhatsApp group at all times, with all its members noting where they are going, with whom, and when they will arrive. They are are all too aware of what can happen. The man said one of his uncles was killed by the Zetas in 2015 for no apparent reason.

"They arrived at his house, armed, pulled him out, took him away, and later killed him," he said. "Why? Who knows."

Related: What it's like to lead a team of Zetas cartel hitmen in one of Mexico's bloodiest states

The number of murders in Mexico surged in the first few years of Calderón's offensive against the cartels, and then dropped off somewhat at the end of his six-year term and during the first couple of years of President Peña Nieto's government. But now the killing is getting worse again. According to official figures there were 10,301 murders between January and June this year. This was 15 percent more than the number killed during the same period in 2015, though the average of 57 murders a day is still 10 percent lower than it was when they reached a peak in 2011.


Many of the worst atrocities over the decade have come at the hands of the Zetas in Tamaulipas, such as the 2010 massacre of 72 unarmed, poverty-stricken, and helpless Central American migrants in the town of San Fernando.

The Zetas formed in the state in the late 1990s, when deserters from Mexican military and police units were recruited by the then leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, to be his personal bodyguards. They were led by Arturo Guzmán Decena, alias Z-1, whom the military killed in 2002.

There are many origin stories attached to the cartel's name. One of the more common cites the idea that nothing comes after the Z. The name instills so much fear that there are parts of the country with heavy Zeta influence where the population avoids saying it out loud, preferring phrases such as "those of the last letter."

Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as Z-3, oversaw the rise of that reputation after he took over from Z-1 and led the group towards increasing independence from the Gulf cartel.

'It's terrorism, in all senses of the word'

In 2010, a Zetas-Gulf split triggered one of the worst turf wars in all of Mexico, with many of the biggest battles fought in Tamaulipas. That, in turn, prompted an especially focused law-enforcement effort to take down the Zetas' leaders.

The Mexican Navy killed Z-3 in 2012. This left the cartel in the charge of Miguel Treviño Morales, aka Z-40. When he was arrested in 2013, power passed to his brother, Omar Treviño Morales, or Z-42. His capture in 2015 is widely blamed for the current internal split that triggered the current wave of violence in Ciudad Victoria, where the Zetas have traditionally maintained particularly tight control over both criminal activity and the local authorities.


"One group wants to control Victoria, and the other doesn't want to let it go," said a Tamaulipas state police officer, born and raised in Ciudad Victoria, who previously served in the Mexican military. "Before they answered to one jefe, one patrón."

The state police officer, who also asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals, identified one of the warring Zetas factions as the Cartel del Noroeste, or the Northeastern cartel, which is allegedly led by Kiki, also known as Kiko, Treviño, a nephew of Z-40 and Z-42. The other is named Grupo Bravo, also known as Vieja Escuela Z — old school Zetas. The names may give the impression that the fight is between old and new leaders, but the rivalry has more to do with the groups' different territorial bastions and the lack of major figures to keep them together.

Related: The Zetas cartel turned a Mexican prison into a death camp

"What's happening, it's like ants," the cop said of the so-called kingpin strategy at the heart of the offensive launched by Calderón in 2006 and continued by Peña Nieto. He said that when you exterminate the "queen ant" and don't follow up, the insects regroup and return to their anthill — either that, or others take the queen's place.

The result in Ciudad Victoria, he added, was that he has never before felt as afraid for his friends and family as he does now, with the cartel's broadcast threats to kill civilians.

"It's terrorism, in all senses of the word," he said.


The March manta threatening to kill random civilians unless extradition proceedings against the Treviño brothers were stopped summed up the way the kingpin strategy has failed the people of Ciudad Victoria.

While the United States and Mexican government celebrate captures and extraditions of high-profile capos, there's no shortage of mid-level gangsters ready to take their place and hang poorly written letters to presidents. The March manta named, in badly ungrammatical Spanish, the young nephew Kiko as the "lider maximo," who has made it clear he's ready to murder for his demands.

The March narcomanta threatening to target civilians if extradition proceedings continue. (Photo obtained via a source in Tamaulipas)

That ominous threat did not appear in local newspapers. It spread through social media, or by word of mouth, in Ciudad Victoria. Journalists are too afraid to print it.

"It's very frustrating," said a reporter for a local Tamaulipas newspaper.

The paper, she said, has stayed away from printing security-related stories ever since the violence escalated after the Zetas-Gulf cartel split in 2010. At the moment, she said, her paper barely reports on the state government briefings detailing the numbers and locations of people killed. She added that in the gruesome photographs of the same incidents that are often posted online, there are often more bodies than the officials say in those briefings.

'It wasn't because we didn't want to publish what we knew. But it wasn't worth our lives'

"People wanted to know why we weren't publishing and telling the truth about what's happening," she said. "It wasn't because we didn't want to publish what we knew. It just wasn't worth our lives."


The reporter said it would have been tantamount to suicide to try and find out why gunmen killed 11 members of a single family — four children, five women, two men, and the family dog — in July. One of the women and her two children were US citizens visiting family in Ciudad Victoria. Eight other people were killed and 24 others injured by gunfire on that same weekend.

Related: Five families massacred in two weeks as Mexico's murder rate surges

The Northeastern cartel claimed responsibility for the massacre in a manta signed by Z-40. The text claimed the massacre was retaliation for governor Egidio Torre Cantu's failure to provide the protection that came with accepting cartel bribes.

"Please come pick up the dead civilians that I left for you," the manta mocked. "I will continue ordering attacks on the civilian population in Ciudad Victoria."

Days later gunmen killed five members of another family in Ciudad Victoria. Authorities encountered the bullet-strewn bodies of the grandmother, mother, her two sons, and her four-month-old baby girl.

"I will continue ordering attacks on the civilian population," the narcomanta says. (Photo obtained via a source in Tamaulipas)

A teacher in Ciudad Victoria claimed one of the murdered children was a student in the middle school where he works, although not in his class. He said his students, aged 13 to 15, struggle under the constant pressure of the violence, as well as recruitment drives by the criminal groups.

The teacher said that sometimes he has trouble getting to work because of the danger on the streets. Once at the school, he said, he worries that some of the students are working for the cartels.


"The problem is that you can't be strict, you're afraid of the student," he said. "Because you don't know who they are, or their parents, or their neighbors."

'We're up against the wall in a really complicated situation'

The deep distrust that permeates the city means many avoid going out after dark, and everybody watches what they say in all but the tightest social circles.

Related: My seven years as a sex slave in Mexican drug cartels

"We're up against the wall in a really complicated situation," said the businessman with the gated house, blaming the current wave of violence on the "power vacuum" created by recent governorship elections that had weakened existing corruption deals and created an opportunity for outside groups to attempt an invasion.

Not that he sees any way out of such deals. He said he was just holding on to the hope that such political collusion could be negotiated without damaging the civilian population, and chuckled at the idea that any government could make Tamaulipas cartel-free.

"All of us are hopeful that the new government will have a good arrangement with one of the groups of bad guys," he said, "so that the cartels let us work and let us live."

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz