On October 7, 2012, Mexican authorities reportedly killed Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano, the leader of the Los Zetas drug cartel. Lazcano was the last piece of the structured command and control organization that held Los Zetas together as a cohesive unit. The uncertainty surrounding his death and the embarrassing theft of his body remain points of contention, although the result of any follow-up investigation will be the same: Lazcano is no longer the strategic leader of Los Zetas. His death could mark a cascading moment when the paramilitary group may devolve from a cohesive organization to a decentralized, leaderless collective that is harder to define, detect, and dismantle.

Without Lazcano, Los Zetas is an organization without a true commander. Leadership has fallen on the shoulders of Miguel “El 40” Trevino, but he was neither part of the original military cadre, nor does he have the respect of the entire organization.[1] With Lazcano’s death and the group’s perceived weakness, Trevino will remain under constant pressure from rivals and law enforcement, a diminished posture that will limit his ability to lead the organization effectively.

This article first provides background on Los Zetas, and then argues that Lazcano’s death will result in the weakening and further decentralization of the cartel.

Background on Los Zetas
Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the former head of the Gulf Cartel, established Los Zetas in the late 1990s as an executive protection unit in Tamaulipas, the nerve center of the Gulf Cartel.[2] It has never been a traditional drug trafficking organization. In its early years, Los Zetas had two primary functions: to protect Gulf Cartel leader Guillen and to assassinate rivals. As a result of its success, Los Zetas evolved from a protection detail to an illicit enterprise focused on absolute control of large swathes of territory in Mexico and eventually Central America.

This enterprise, under Lazcano’s leadership, then set out to disrupt Mexico’s criminal underworld. As commanders of independent cells, sometimes called estacas, Los Zetas leaders benefited from a level of independence held in check by respect for command and by the fierce enforcement of tax payments to Lazcano and his long-time second-in-command, Miguel Trevino.

Personal differences divided the Zetas-Gulf Cartel coupling, and the two groups became enemies in 2010.[3] The “War in the North” between Los Zetas and their Gulf Cartel handlers catalyzed leadership attrition, forcing successive waves of replacements at the operational level.[4] Both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel suffered as a result of the conflict, but continued government pressure on Los Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel’s ability to accommodate a relationship with the Sinaloa Federation, placed additional strains on Lazcano and his men. As subsequent high-level members of the organization fell to rivals or the government, Los Zetas struggled to maintain a cohesive structure that enforced top-down command and control.[5] Looking back, it might be said that the organization’s high water mark in terms of operational capability and structural cohesion was in mid-2008, in the pocket of time when Los Zetas operated independently of the Gulf Cartel but remained under its protection.

From 2010 to the present day, the drug trafficking side of the business became a hardened pipeline. Buyers purchased cocaine in Honduras, and then moved that product through Guatemala and southern Mexico to Veracruz. It eventually made its way to Nuevo Laredo, where logisticians and others transported the product north.[6] Black market economics, and the strength of Los Zetas as a criminal brand name, held the loosely networked cells together, from Guatemala to central Mexico in Zacatecas State, to the border in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Yet even as central control in the organization weakened, the identity of one man held together the center that defined Los Zetas. Respect for Lazcano as the commander and leader ensured cohesion.

Even as the pressure to make payments may have slackened as Los Zetas expanded across Mexico in 2011, the respect for the commander likely did not. In its most diluted state, Los Zetas still retained more semblance of military structure than any other criminal organization in Mexico precisely because there was enough honor among these thieves to respect their leader. Since its inception, Los Zetas has maintained respect for the chain of command within its core leadership structure. Recovering the bodies of fallen comrades, caring for their families, the dogged pursuit of arrested plaza bosses by their rank-and-file, and several prison breaks all demonstrate a level of esprit de corps more recognizable in a military unit than a criminal organization. Los Zetas, until Lazcano’s death, kept some vestige of this strong military element, unlike any other criminal outfit in Mexico. The theft of Lazcano’s body is a final nod to that honor as well as a reminder of the tactical precision that helped establish the organization’s criminal brand: one that connotes fury, force, and fear.[7]

Trevino’s Limits
Today, Los Zetas is an organization without a head. Miguel Trevino is under intense pressure and will remain the focal point of an international manhunt until his capture. Unlike Lazcano, who kept a low profile, Trevino is prone to confrontation and violence. His personality drives him to the frontlines, and his need to keep tight control over Nuevo Laredo dictates that he will likely not travel far from this location. Both elements contribute to a less elusive target. Even if he is now the de facto leader of Los Zetas, Mexican government focus on his capture stunts any ability to project that leadership beyond a tight inner circle.

Miguel Trevino’s focus has always been on drug trafficking, and he will likely retain significant control over this aspect of the organization until his death or capture.[8] Yet he was never part of the military cadre that founded Los Zetas.[9] As a result, Trevino likely does not receive the same level of respect Lazcano enjoyed among the rank-and-file.[10] Trevino also has been unable to shake accusations from August 2012 that he betrayed Lazcano.[11] A public spat between Lazcano and Trevino was at the core of these accusations.[12] Both men accused the other of betrayal, focusing on how one or the other had arranged for the systematic arrest of several mid-level leaders. Net sentiment promoted Lazcano as the leader and Trevino as the traitor.[13] Given the likelihood that the government or Trevino’s enemies will capture or kill him, the future Los Zetas should be viewed as one where Trevino does not play a dominant role. Indeed, a narco-banner already appeared in mid-October announcing that a former group of Los Zetas operators now call themselves “The Legionaries,” and they claim they will fight Trevino for control of the Nuevo Laredo plaza.[14]

The men who operate large Zeta cells in Monterrey, Saltillo, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guadalajara, Veracruz, and other key cities are all insular organizations within their own right at the city, or plaza, level. Of the five Los Zetas leaders who remain on Mexico’s most wanted list, three represent the future.[15] These men include: Sergio “El Grande” Ricardo Basutro Pena, Maxiley “El Contador” Barahona Nadales, and Roman “El Coyote” Ricardo Palomo Rincones.[16]

These men as well as the leaders of plazas still considered Los Zetas territory may choose to align themselves strategically with Trevino, or whoever is in charge of the strategic Nuevo Laredo plaza at any given time. The border town of Nuevo Laredo is perhaps the most desired territory in Mexico for cocaine trafficking due to its direct link to the Chicago drug retail market via I-35 as well as the access it affords to markets on the East Coast such as Atlanta and Charlotte.[17] Yet these leaders will remain independent to explore freedom of operation under the Los Zetas criminal brand on their own terms.

Decentralized Network
Successful criminal entrepreneurs are never short on ambition. As the gravitational center rapidly fades in the wake of Lazcano’s death, the overall cohesion of the group will likely fall gradually below the threshold of what is considered a traditional criminal organization, as represented by the Tijuana or Gulf cartels. An interesting comparison might be the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), which Arturo Beltran-Leyva held together until his death in December 2009. Without the commander in place, two rival factions formed, one led by Arturo’s former right-hand man, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal, and the other led by his brother Hector. Both organizations then split into smaller groups, where the result is a number of smaller factions all warring for turf once controlled by the BLO, especially in the city of Acapulco.[18] These groups separated and worked against each other because of black market economics, ambition, and the lack of a cohesive element, such as a strong criminal brand. Los Zetas could, over time, follow this paradigm.

It is likely that Los Zetas’ various power factions will leverage their current relationships to work alongside one another in a decentralized, networked fashion under the Los Zetas brand to traffic narcotics, control territory, and fight off rivals. The collective will behave more like a leaderless, self-organizing network than a structured organization with a clear leader, defined accounting structures, and precise goals for the future.

The decentralized network is beneficial for any individual plaza leader as long as the economics are right. When the conditions are not favorable, the plaza leader may choose to explore business opportunities elsewhere, even with a former rival organization such as the Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas operative Sergio “El Grande” Ricardo Basutro Pena, for example, is a plaza leader known to be close to Trevino. Yet with the decentralization of the organization, he is no longer bound to Trevino or any of the other plaza bosses under the Los Zetas brand. At any time he may choose to establish a new criminal brand or add his organization to another cartel, such as the Sinaloa Federation. Ambition is inherent in Mexico’s criminal system; it is a fundamental ingredient for conflict. Recent violence in Matamoros in Tamaulipas State may be just the beginning of a phase of accommodation as Los Zetas plaza bosses seek to establish boundaries among themselves and with former rivals in the Gulf Cartel who now present just as much an opportunity for cooperation as conquest.[19]

During this power struggle, the only constant will be “Los Zetas” as a strong brand, despite a shift in the nature of the relationship among the men who call themselves a Zeta. Invariably, the more powerful plaza bosses will attempt to take over more territory within the area controlled by Los Zetas, growing their piece of turf as much as possible through cycles of violence that could last for months if not well into 2013. Younger, less organized members of the former organization may attempt to claim control over a lesser plaza, and build up their own organization—one that operates as part of the Los Zetas network when the benefits are clear. The absence of a clear leader and precise goals remove any barrier for individual ambition.

If Los Zetas devolves from an organization to a decentralized network, the violence from this instability could be spectacular at localized levels in cities and states where the organization once controlled its own rank-and-file, as well as the smaller organizations that worked as subcontractors for Zeta leaders. Meanwhile, the smaller stature of battling groups will present a challenge for a government postured to attack transnational criminal organizations (TCO), not so-called “superpandillas” and street gangs.[20]

On a parallel track, the perceived weakness of Los Zetas will encourage traditional enemies in the Sinaloa Federation and the Knights Templar to exploit the power vacuum. Undoubtedly, the Sinaloa Federation is the most powerful TCO in Mexico. For this reason alone, Nuevo Laredo is the most likely hotspot for year-end 2012 through early 2013 violence precisely because the leader of the Sinaloa Federation, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, places high value on controlling the Nuevo Laredo border crossing. Nuevo Laredo is the only significant border crossing that “El Chapo” and the Sinaloa Federation do not control directly or through accommodations with lesser criminal organizations, such as the Arellano-Felix Organization in Tijuana and the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes Organization in Juarez. Facing pressure from both the government and his criminal rivals, it is unlikely that Trevino will maintain absolute control over Nuevo Laredo for long. Indeed, the Knights Templar has already announced a crusade against him.[21]

As a decentralized network, Los Zetas cannot expect to last long as a coherent enterprise that behaves like a TCO; rather, smaller units under the Los Zetas brand will operate as smaller TCOs. Cooperation between Los Zetas leaders is likely, but under the decentralized model, there may no longer be a central enforcement structure.

From military recruit to warlord entrepreneur, Lazcano represented a new breed of criminal.[22] He raised the bar for professional hitmen across Mexico; Los Zetas employed an operational ability in the early 2000s that forced the whole criminal system to invest in some level of paramilitary capability. At the same time, he heralded a new barbarism.[24] Alive, Lazcano kept Los Zetas in formation, loose as it was. Dead, Lazcano’s memory will be honored, but the men who follow in his wake will probably retain all the barbarism and likely little of the cohesion. As an organization, Los Zetas was feared but held its shape. As a decentralized network, Los Zetas presents a new criminal typology where brand is the only cohesion and black market pressures determine cooperation.

Samuel Logan is the Founder and Managing Partner of Southern Pulse, a field-based investigations firm focused on security, politics, energy, and business in Latin America. From 1998 to 2009, he lived and worked in Central and South America as an investigative journalist. Mr. Logan is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Hyperion, 2009), co-author with Dr. George Grayson of The Executioner’s Men (Transaction, 2012), and is working on a third book that focuses on the business and culture of human smuggling in Latin America.

[1] For an extensive profile of Los Zetas as well as Miguel Trevino, see Samuel Logan, “A Profile of Los Zetas: Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Drug Cartel,” CTC Sentinel 5:2 (2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a detailed review of the Los Zetas-Gulf Cartel split, see Samuel Logan and John Sullivan, “The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian Revolt,” ISN Security Watch, April 7, 2010.

[4] See “War in the North,” chapter 11 in George Grayson and Samuel Logan, The Executioner’s Men (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Press, 2012).

[5] The best examples may be called “sloppy” organized crime, where a Los Zetas gunman killed a U.S. citizen on Falcon Lake in 2010 or the U.S. federal agent outside San Luis Potosi in early 2011. The most egregious example is the unnecessary murder of 72 immigrants in Tamaulipas in August 2010.

[6] For an example of an arrested plaza boss that forced a shift in the drug trafficking structure, see Freya Peterson, “Mexican Navy Arrests Zetas Cartel Regional Commander Mauricio Guizar,” Global Post, July 27, 2012.

[7] Ben Bain, “Mexico Looks for Zeta Boss’s Family in DNA Search, Milenio Says,” Bloomberg, October 13, 2012.

[8] Trevino was the main driver behind Los Zetas’ move into the cocaine business. See Logan, “A Profile of Los Zetas: Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Drug Cartel.”

[9] Lazcano was a former member of Mexico’s elite military special forces, whereas Trevino is a former policeman.

[10] For details, see Randy Kreider and Mark Schone, “New Zetas Cartel Leader Violent ‘To the Point of Sadism,’” ABC News, October 12, 2012.

[11] “Miguel Ángel Treviño, El Heredo de los Zetas,” Vanguardia, October 13, 2012.

[12] Patrick Corcoran, “Rumored Zetas Split Offers Bloody Prospects for Mexico,” InSight Crime, July 24, 2012.

[13] Kreider and Schone.

[14] Hannah Stone, “Zetas Splinter Group Announces Mission to Kill Z-40,” InSight Crime, October 23, 2012.

[15] The other two leaders are Miguel Trevino and his brother, Omar.

[16] Omar Sánchez de Tagle, “Cinco mandos de Los Zetas que aún quedan libres,” Animal Politico, October 11, 2012.

[17] The corridor passing through Nuevo Laredo is an attractive smuggling route due to the high volume of licit transit that crosses the border. It is the largest in-land border crossing in the Americas. Due to the heavy traffic, it is relatively easy to hide illicit merchandise. Moreover, it provides fast access to drug markets in the United States through I-35.

[18] For an explanation of the BLO fight over Acapulco, see Samuel Logan, “Acapulco Criminal Environment,” Southern Pulse, June 18, 2012.

[10] Sergio Chapa, “Gunfire Leads to Blockades in Matamoros,” KGBT Action 4 News, October 12, 2012.

[20] Alejandro Hope, “Después de Los Zetas,” Animal Politico, July 30, 2012.

[21] Ruben Torres, “Templarios van por El Z-40,” El Economista, October 11, 2012.

[22] “Mexico’s Criminal Organizations,” Southern Pulse, June 30, 2011.

[23] Samuel Logan, “Preface: Los Zetas and a New Barbarism,” in “Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: The Gangs and Cartels Wage War,” Small Wars Journal 22:5 (2011): pp. 718-727.

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