While still among Mexico's most notorious criminal groups, the Zetas have lost leaders, territory and organizational strength at a rapid clip in recent years. What does their decline mean for Mexico?
The Zetas were the face of Mexican violence for much of the administration of former President Felipe Calderon. With their military background and their absorption of much of the network of Gulf Cartel founder Osiel Cardenas, the original Zetas represented a more violent paradigm that sought to displace the old-school businessmen. They helped keep the Sinaloa Cartel from taking over virtually the entire northern border, essentially took over Monterrey and made plays for trafficking routes far from their home base. In both their aggressive expansion and their use of brutality as the first option rather than the last resort, the Zetas served as icons of Mexican violence.
Uncharacteristically for a Mexican group, many of the Zetas' most notorious acts of bloodshed were directed against civilians: the group was blamed for the worst attack against civilians in the nation's recent history, with the Casino Royale fire that killed more than 50 civilians in 2012. The Zetas were behind the grenade attacks in Morelia during the 2008 Independence Day celebration, which killed eight and left more than 100 revelers injured. The Zetas were also responsible for the hundreds of Central Americans buried in clandestine graves in Tamaulipas in 2011. In one of the most brutal episodes of recent history, the would-be immigrants were abducted from busses en masse, and were reportedly deputized to serve as hit-men and performers in gladiator-style contests held for the Zetas' enjoyment.
But during the past several years, the tide has shifted against the group. The Zetas were named the federal government's top priority in 2011. In the years following the designation, many of the group's top leaders have been taken down. Heriberto Lazcano was killed in 2012 and Miguel Angel Treviño was arrested the following year. Less notorious but still vital second-tier commanders, including several founders, have also fallen with regularity: Raul Lucio Hernandez Lechuga was captured in December 2011, Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar was arrested in July 2011, and Galindo Medallo Cruz was killed in May 2014.
The Zetas have also lost territory. Reports within the last year have indicated that they have pulled out of La Laguna, a strategic metropolis straddling Coahuila and Durango that is made up of the cities of Gomez Palacio, Torreon, and Lerdo, and that they are no longer the dominant group in Guatemala. While territorial coverage is not essential to a group maintaining profits or posing a public security threat, the Zetas made a name for themselves as aggressively expansionist, and they have always relied greatly on their turf for income.
In recent years, the Zetas have suffered a dramatic decline in their organizational coherence, one that predates the more recent targeting of their foremost leaders. Indeed, as InSight Crime noted in 2011, some of the most recent notorious events linked to the Zetas were not a product of the gang's overall aggressive model, and actually ran counter to the interests of the top leadership. Incidents like the Casino Royale fire and the San Fernando massacre were the result of a lack of structure and authority at the top.
In short, though the gang remains capable of generating mayhem in many parts of Mexico, it is no longer the fearsome force of years past.
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The legacy of the Zetas and the consequences of the group's decline are many. The impact on violence has been uneven, though largely positive. Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Veracruz, Coahuila, and San Luis Potosi -- five principal states where the Zetas had carved out fiefdoms -- all witnessed significant declines in violence from 2012 to 2013. Collectively, the number of intentional homicides tallied in these states by the National Public Security System dropped by around a third during the period.
While the violence has rebounded slightly in Tamaulipas this year, thanks in large part to the Zetas fighting with another declining group, their former allies in the Gulf Cartel, the trend has mostly continued in 2014. Through April, the other four states were on pace for a further decline this year.
Nonetheless, the decline of the Zetas, and the related improvement in the murder rate, has not yet translated into improved public perceptions of violence. As the first National Crime Victimization and Public Safety Perception Survey (Envipe) of President Enrique Peña Nieto's time in office indicates, Mexicans have a worsening perception of public security.
Whether or not the Zetas' lesser role eventually does translate into a more relaxed public is largely a question of whether the gains in 2013 and 2014 can be consolidated. The Peña Nieto government does appear to be paying close attention to potential slides. For instance, amid recent increases in violence in Tamaulipas, the government rapidly responded with a federal intervention plan.
But the transition from the Zetas hegemony to whatever dynamic replaces it is far from complete. The Zetas could still rebound, or a series of smaller groups, including Zetas offshoots, prone to infighting could emerge without any one of them coming to dominate. Such a situation would likely erode the gains of recent years.
At this stage, the Zetas' legacy can be partially defined by what it did not do. Despite all the hand-wringing about the militarization of Mexican drug violence and the onset of a new era of sophistication by criminal groups, the Zetas ultimately turned out to be not so different from their predecessors.
The degree of high-level training their initial members received was greatly exaggerated, and the younger generations of Zetas largely had no military training whatsoever. The advanced tactics and hardware promised by, for instance, the periodic appearance of armored trucks failed to translate into an era of high-tech warfare. Ultimately, the most important facilitator of Mexican organized crime -- officials bought or bullied into cooperating with criminal gangs -- is the same as it was a generation ago.
And the Zetas did not invent gruesome tactics. One of the tipping points in recent years came, in fact, from La Familia, when they tossed the heads of several enemies onto a disco floor in Michoacan in 2006. And as is amply demonstrated by, for instance, the abduction, torture, and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, Mexican criminal groups have been engaging in rash provocations and committing unspeakable atrocities for years.
But the Zetas did have a broader impact in other realms. More than any other group, the Zetas are emblematic of the diversification of criminal groups' sources of income. The Zetas receive revenue not only from trafficking drugs, but also from the theft of oil and other natural resources, extortion, kidnapping, car theft, and many other activities not traditionally associated with organized crime. But other groups have emulated them, and the barrier between organized criminal activities and petty crimes has largely disappeared. This is largely the Zetas' doing.
Such tactics target civilians by design, which helps explain why the Zetas were given so much attention even while other groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, were wealthier and equally expansionist. The degree to which Mexicans today feel personally vulnerable is thus also attributable to the Zetas more than any of their rivals.
And here their negative impact may be longer-lasting. Even as murder rates decline across the nation and cities like Juarez recover some semblance of normalcy, kidnapping and extortion remain on the rise. This makes an enduring improvement in public security far more challenging than it otherwise might be.
The shift toward extracting profit from the civilian population represents the opening of a Pandora's Box. It is not clear when and if it can be closed. Even if the Zetas' decline continues apace, that unfortunate legacy may endure for years to come.