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Special report: Mexico's Zetas rewrite drug war in blood

Police officers talk to a man during a routine patrol of a neighborhood in Guadalupe, Mexico, on April 13.
Police officers talk to a man during a routine patrol of a neighborhood in Guadalupe, Mexico, on April 13.Daniel Becerrill / Reuters, file

Reuters reporter Ioan Grillo has written a fascinating and frightening profile of Mexico’s feared Zetas drug cartel, which has grown to become a transnational criminal syndicate with tentacles reaching into many other enterprises.

Some excerpts of his reporting:

Formed in 1998 by 14 former Mexican soldiers, the Zetas have grown to command more than 10,000 gunmen from the Rio Grande, on the border with Texas, to deep in Central America. Their rapid expansion has displaced Mexico's older cartels in many areas, giving them a dominant position in the multibillion-dollar cross-border drug trade, as well as extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.

But it is bloodshed that has made the Zetas notorious. And feared.

Zetas killers have been arrested for some of the worst atrocities in Mexico's drug war, including the murders of hundreds of people whose bodies have been found in mass graves with alarming frequency, the massacre of 72 foreign migrant workers headed to the United States, and the burning of a casino that claimed 52 lives.

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Mexican police officers and soldiers on the front lines say the Zetas have more in common with insurgents than traditional gangs. "The Zetas act like urban guerrillas," said Florencio Santos, a former soldier and now police chief in Guadalupe, a town on the southern outskirts of Monterrey. "They'll make a phone call to get the police out, then block the street in front of the patrol cars and open fire from the front and the side."

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They are creeping into the United States, too. A grand jury in Laredo, Texas, in April indicted four alleged Zetas for conspiracy to murder and traffic drugs on U.S. soil. The charges follow another Laredo trial in January in which two alleged Zetas were found guilty on weapons and homicide charges.

Zetas gunmen are alleged by Mexican prosecutors to be behind the killing of U.S. customs agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico in 2011, the first American agent to be murdered on duty here since the 1980s. The U.S. government is offering a $5 million reward for the capture of the Zetas supreme commander, 37-year-old Heriberto Lazcano, alias "The Executioner."

You can read the entire piece here.  

Some additional  information on the Zetas: 

2008 bulletin on the gang by the Foreign Policy Research Institute  

Insightcrime.org’s profile of the group

Recent reporting on the Zetas from Daylife.com