MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A decade ago, they were a small group of elite Mexican soldiers who saw a chance to make a lot more money working as hitmen for powerful drug cartels.
Today, the “Zetas” are the most feared gang in Mexico. Their vicious tactics, geographic reach and expansion into new illegal businesses presents a new kind of threat in a drugs war that has already killed 29,000 people since late 2006.
President Felipe Calderon’s government is going after the Zetas and half a dozen other major cartels moving billions of dollars worth of cocaine and other drugs to U.S. consumers each year.
While the Zetas, believed to number in the thousands, are not Mexico’s top drug runners, their size and sheer brutality makes them a high-profile target as the government struggles to shake an image that violence is slipping out of control.
The drugs war is an added burden for Mexico as it slowly climbs out of recession, and Mexicans are weary of the frequent beheadings, bodies strung from bridges and other gory crimes.
The Zetas, started in the late 1990s by about 40 soldiers who deserted from army special forces to work as muscle for the Gulf Cartel, are central characters in the drama.
“Even by the standards of Mexican drug wars, they are willing to go to a level of brutality that others are not,” U.S. defense analyst Hal Brands said.
The Zetas have grown quickly over the past few years after gradually splitting from the Gulf Cartel and beginning an aggressive expansion, recruiting from Guatemala and Texas and co-opting existing gangs to do their dirty work.
One Mexican official called the Zetas a “franchise” cartel, controlling cells of thugs who traffic drugs, kidnap and smuggle illegal migrants and extort businesses from restaurants to dog grooming shops, and funneling profits up to the top.
“One of the things that make the Zetas unique is they recruit from almost anywhere ... Their focus is the gangs, that’s what makes them so violent,” said one U.S. official.
The official said the Zetas could have as many as 10,000 members across Mexico, Central America and the United States, bigger than other Mexican cartels — although the bulk are likely small-time criminal affiliates who pay tribute to the cartel rather than full-blown members.
Officials blame the Zetas for some of the most shocking recent attacks, including the murder of a leading gubernatorial candidate in June, Mexico’s worst political murder in 15 years, and the stomach-churning massacre of 72 migrants in August.
“They really pioneered this tactic of putting torture and execution videos online ... they were out in front beheading people and mounting heads on pikes,” Brands said.
With only a decade of trafficking experience, they are less sophisticated than the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, but their numbers and involvement in diverse criminal activities has made them a force across a wider swath of territory.
The founders of the Zetas belonged to amphibian and airborne special forces units of the Mexican army, trained by foreign experts in intelligence and military strategy. Their name comes from the radio code for top army commanders.
The Zetas’ current leaders, Heriberto Lazcano, known as Z-3 and Miguel Trevino, or Z-40, were originally recruited by Osiel Cardenas, the now-jailed leader of the Gulf cartel.
Under the Gulf cartel’s command, the Zetas drafted from Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police, from the army and from Guatemalan jungle commandos. New members got training at secret camps.
But since the Zetas split from the Gulf cartel and began to challenge their former allies, other cartels appear to have joined forces against the Zetas, forcing them to reach outside that pool to make up for arrests and rival attacks.
The search for new recruits may have led to the execution of the 72 Central and South American migrants. One Ecuadorean survivor of the ordeal, in which migrants trying to sneak across Mexico to find work in the United States were gunned down on a remote ranch, said they were shot for refusing to do low-level smuggling work for the Zetas.
A Texas indictment in April detailed how Zetas hitmen tried to force local peddlers in Mexico and the U.S. Rio Grande Valley to join them. One who refused was kidnapped in Texas and murdered in Mexico, his body set on fire in an oil drum.