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Travelers to Mexico often ask about Los Zetas cartel — and though the infamous cartel is past the height of its power, its influence in the country remains. 


There are myriad cartel powers in Mexico, each one exerting influence in different regions and in different ways — and many of them battle each other for control of lucrative areas and revenue streams. Few cartels in the modern era have dominated Mexico like Los Zetas cartel, which continues to strike fear into imaginations even as the cartel itself has lost authority.  

At the height of their power, Los Zetas were perhaps the pre-eminent force in Mexico’s criminal underworld, known for their extreme violence and control over vast territories. However, their current state is marked by fragmentation and diminished influence, although their legacy continues to impact the areas they once controlled.  

Travelers to Mexico, seeking to understand how safe Mexico is today, often ask about Los Zetas. See below for the details of the rise and fall of the Los Zetas cartel, their current status, and the implications for travelers in regions historically under their sway. 

Historical Background: Where Did Los Zetas Come From? 

Los Zetas originated as an enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, formed by deserters from the Mexican Army’s elite special forces in 1997. The group was founded by several individuals, including Arturo Guzman Decena aka “Z1,” Heriberto Lazcano aka “Z3,” and Miguel Trevino Morales aka “Z-40.” 

Los Zetas started out as the personal bodyguards for Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and eventually became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Their original membership comprised of some 30 deserters from the elite Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) special forces unit within the Mexican Army. 

The group quickly rose to power due to their military expertise and ruthless tactics, eventually becoming one of Mexico’s most formidable and violent drug cartels. 

Early Activities of Los Zetas 

Los Zetas members were more professional and well-trained than most cartel soldiers of the era, with recruits including corrupt federal, state, and local police officers, former U.S. Army soldiers, and ex-Guatemalan Special Forces. The group resembled a paramilitary organization more than a street gang, and their success in capturing territory reflected this differential. 

Their early activities included drug trafficking and executing missions to eliminate rivals, securing the Gulf Cartel’s dominance in northeastern Mexico. 

The group utilized hyper-violent executions and torture methods to eliminate and intimidate their rivals. The extreme violence displayed by Los Zetas influenced other cartels to adopt similar policies, resulting in escalating violence across Mexico.

Power Struggle and Split from the Gulf Cartel 

The group eventually broke away from the Gulf Cartel by 2010, following the arrest and extradition of Cardenas Guillen. At this point, the group had more talent and influence than the Gulf Cartel, decided they could make more money and wield more power as an independent organization; however, this decision would eventually cost them as they became public enemy #1 in Mexico. Increased government scrutiny would eventually see all 31 of the original members killed, captured, or extradited to the U.S. 

Expansion and Territorial Control 

The group expanded rapidly, at one point becoming Mexico’s largest drug cartel in terms of geographical presence, surpassing even the Sinaloa Cartel. They controlled or contested more than a dozen states in Mexico, particularly in the eastern parts of the country, including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Veracruz, Tabasco, San Luis Potosi, and others. 

Hallmarks of Los Zetas 

Los Zetas ushered in a new era of cartel behavior marked by extreme brutality, which became the group’s calling card. There are many examples of this, most prominently including:  

  • Los Zetas were notorious for mass killings such as the 2010 San Fernando Massacre where 72 migrants were found dead in Tamaulipas, Mexico. The victims, mainly from Central and South America, were abducted from buses and executed when they refused to work for the cartel or provide money for their release. 
  • In 2011, Los Zetas carried out the second San Fernando Massacre, where they killed 193 people over the course of two days at a ranch, with survivors being forced to join the cartel. The dead were buried in clandestine graves. Los Zetas hijacked many passenger buses leading up to the massacre. 
  • In an apparent act of extortion, on August 25, 2011, members of Los Zetas carried out a brutal attack on the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. The assailants stormed the casino, doused it with gasoline, and ignited a fire that resulted in the loss of 52 lives. The majority of those killed were women, and the incident left over a dozen injured and more than 35 trapped for several hours before rescue forces arrived. This attack was one of the most violent and bloodiest events in the history of Monterrey and marked one of the worst atrocities in the state of Nuevo León. 

While involved in drug trafficking, mainly cocaine, the group also engaged in other criminal activities. These include extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, and illegal fuel siphoning across their areas of operation. The group took extortion to new levels, bleeding entire towns dry, forcing residents to close up shop and abandon their homes. 

Current State of Los Zetas 

The fragmentation and internal conflict within Los Zetas have been significant factors in the cartel’s decline. After their split from the Gulf Cartel in 2010, Los Zetas began to lose their unified structure, leading to a series of internal disputes and power struggles. 

These conflicts were further exacerbated by the Mexican government’s strategy of targeting cartel leaders, which resulted in the arrest or elimination of key figures within the organization. This “kingpin strategy” often led to power vacuums, causing further fragmentation as subgroups and former members vied for control. 

Remaining Influence of the Cartel 

The splintering of Los Zetas into rival factions has altered the equilibrium within the group, affecting their territorial control and operational capabilities. However, these smaller factions lack the cohesion and resources of the original cartel, leading to a more chaotic and less predictable criminal landscape. 

As a result, while there are fewer large-scale acts of violence (such as the San Fernando Massacres), there are more shootouts and clashes between the remnant factions and their rivals, and between factions and security forces.  

The collateral damage of these sporadic clashes is now a larger risk to people in the former Los Zetas strongholds. Tourists and travelers should be aware of this risk and prepare accordingly or avoid the areas altogether.

Map of Los Zetas Territory: Then and Now

map of los zetas cartel and offshoot cartel activity

Cartels That Have Succeeded Los Zetas 

The most prominent offshoots of this fragmentation are the Northeast Cartel (Cartel Del Noreste), which continues to operate in Nuevo Laredo and northern Veracruz, and the Old School Zetas (Los Zetas Vieja Escuela, ZVE), who are active in Tamaulipas and southern Veracruz. 

Do these factions pose the same threat to public safety as the Los Zetas did at their height? The short answer is no: chronic threats such as extortion and kidnapping are markedly less prevalent than during the peak Los Zetas years. However, the areas where these factions are active remain high-risk locations due to general cartel activity and the resulting, random violence that occurs.  

Other cartels, such as the CJNG, and gang-related activity continue to complicate the safety environment in Mexico. If traveling to the country and visiting some of the nation’s higher-risk states and cities, ensure you have a plan in place to deal with crises as they emerge. Organizations that send travelers to Mexico often should consider working with a duty of care provider that can help address and mitigate emergencies at every stage of the trip.  

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