The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers Los Zetas to be the most dangerous drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. Its members earned a reputation as super-gangsters adept at paramilitary-style ambushes and bold jailbreaks.
On the Texas-Mexico border, the Zetas are mythic, their crimes chronicled in the media and memorialized in narco-ballads.
They are the most feared, most emulated criminals in Mexico.
"They are a formidable criminal organization," says Anthony Placido, the DEA's chief of intelligence. "They're heavily armed with .50-caliber sniper rifles and heavy military-grade ordnance."
Placido knows the group well: In July, the DEA announced indictments of 19 top Zeta and Gulf Cartel leaders. None has been captured or killed yet.
"They are every bit as ferocious and as capable as a military force as some of the rumors believe them to be," Placido says.
'The Lion Who Controls The Handler'
Originally, there were 31 Zetas â€” elite army counter-narcotics commandos who defected to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. The name came from their radio code, the letter Z.
But after the 2003 arrest of Gulf crime boss Osiel Cardenas, "the lion wised up and now controls the handler," as one observer put it.
The Zetas have morphed into their own cartel. Their zone of influence ranges from the lower Texas border, south along the Atlantic and Caribbean coastal states of Mexico, through Chiapas and all the way into Guatemala, where they trans-ship South American cocaine to Mexico.
But their base remains the charmless industrial border cities in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
Fear Creates Silence In Nuevo Laredo
Nuevo Laredo, in Tamaulipas, is the most important trade border crossing in Latin America â€” and it is Zeta territory.
From 2004 to 2007, the Zetas fought a savage turf war â€” which included bazooka and grenade attacks â€” against interlopers from the Sinaloa Cartel. Now, the gunbattles have quieted, and the streets of Nuevo Laredo seem outwardly normal again.
Fearing retribution, residents still won't talk openly about the Zetas. A well-connected local journalist agreed to speak candidly if she wouldn't be recorded.
"People feel more secure now, that's for sure, but we're still wary. No one even honks their horn in the streets here â€” you might anger the wrong person. And now, every thug with a pistol says he's a Zeta because he knows it terrifies people here," she says. "I had my car spray-painted with graffiti recently â€” 'Zeta 25.' It was some gangbangers. They're all little Zeta wannabes."
The new police chief of Nuevo Laredo is a fresh-faced, 28-year-old former car theft detective named Mario Mendoza. He is understandably reticent to discuss the Zetas. Four years ago, an earlier police chief announced on his first day on the job, "I'm not beholden to anyone." By day's end, he was dead, with 30 bullet holes in him, reportedly the work of a Zeta hit squad.
When asked point-blank about the extent of the Zeta underworld, Mendoza blanches.
"I can't tell you if they exist or not. You read a lot about them, but I can't tell you if they're here. What I can say is that our city is very, very, very tranquil," he responds.
A clearer picture of what the Zetas are doing in Nuevo Laredo can be found across the international bridge in Laredo, Texas, where people are not as afraid to talk.
Roberto Garcia, a homicide detective in the Laredo Police Department, earned local notoriety for sending two Zeta assassins who operated in Laredo to prison.
Even though Garcia has been a border cop for 18 years, he says the cartels' gruesome game of one-upmanship still shocks him.
"I'll kill two of yours. OK, you kill two of mine ... I'll kill three of yours, plus cut [off] their heads," Garcia says, describing the cartels' dueling threats and violence. "[If] you do this, I'm going to do that."
Zetas Expand Their 'Business'
Law enforcement sources say it is difficult to tell who is a true Zeta anymore. Many of the original 31 military deserters have been killed or captured. What's more, Garcia says, there are copycats.
"A lot of people say, 'We're Zetas.' They're not even involved with the Zetas. They don't have [anything] to do with the Zetas. They terrorize people, they do a lot of extortions, calling business owners: 'Hey, we're Zetas, we're going to kidnap you if you don't do this,' " he says.
The real Zetas, like any ambitious mafia, have expanded into many different rackets, says Stephen Meiners, a Latin America analyst for Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Austin, Texas.
"The Zetas have been a very good case study for what happens to Mexican criminal organizations when the government crackdown makes it harder to traffic drugs across Mexico. The result for the Zetas has been that they expanded to other forms of criminal activity in order to make money," Meiners says.
Those activities include extortion, kidnapping for ransom, human smuggling and now oil siphoning: In August, Mexican authorities reported that the Zetas used false import documents to smuggle at least $46 million worth of oil in tankers for sale to U.S. refineries.
Jailbreaks And Other Zeta Dangers
What law enforcement officials fear the most are Zeta jailbreaks â€” broad daylight, frontal attacks to free their captured comrades.
Guatemalan authorities are taking extraordinary security measures to guard a top Zeta commander, Daniel Perez Rojas, alias "Cheeks," while they anxiously await his extradition to Mexico. He was arrested in Guatemala last year for drug trafficking.
"This is a highly delicate matter," says Edy Morales, chief of the Guatemalan prison system. He says the high-value prisoner is constantly moved from cell to cell, his hearings are held in secret chambers inside the prison, and he is guarded by Guatemalan army special forces.
"We know very well who the Zetas are," the prison chief says, "and we're ready to prevent whatever kind of escape attempt, by land or air."
The extent of Zeta influence in the United States is debatable. Local police say Zeta operatives have been identified in Texas cities such as Laredo and Dallas, though the DEA maintains that spillover violence from the cartel's activities is minimal.
But the Zetas don't necessarily have to cross the border to be dangerous.
On the afternoon of Sept. 4, a firefight broke out between traffickers and Mexican soldiers in the streets of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from the University of Texas, Brownsville. Stray bullets flew across the river and struck the recreation center and a parked car on campus, says interim provost Tony Zavaleta.
He was asked what it is like when bullets are flying across his campus from a drug shootout in Matamoros. "I'm not going to say it's becoming normal, or that we're going to take it cavalierly," Zavaleta says. "But it's not that unusual anymore."