During the question-and-answer portion of our quarterly Mexico Security Monitor webinar, we were asked a question pertaining to the current status of Los Zetas. The question was something to the effect of: “Some Mexican media outlets and analysts claim that Los Zetas have been dismantled as an organization and are now little more than a ‘ragtag operation.’ Why do you disagree with that assessment?”
This question apparently came in response to our quarterly cartel report (an abbreviated version is available here), in which we wrote that despite the leadership losses suffered by Los Zetas, including the arrest of their leader, Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales, there were no signs that other leaders were challenging the current leader and Miguel’s brother, Omar Trevino Morales. We also wrote that we believed Los Zetas have maintained their operational capabilities in terms of drug smuggling and other criminal activity, and that they have retained the ability to defend their operations and to continue conducting offensive operations deep in their rivals’ territory.
Because of the interest Los Zetas generate among our readers and clients, we thought it would be worthwhile to explain why we believe Los Zetas have not yet been dismantled.
Violence Brings Attention
When they first emerged on the scene in the early 1990s as the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas brought a new dynamic to the violence in Mexico. As deserters from Mexico’s Special Air Mobile Forces Group, they introduced military tactics and weapons into the fight.
Although other cartels quickly followed suit and stood up their own enforcer groups comprised of former soldiers armed with military ordnance, like the Sinaloa Federation’s Los Pelones, Los Zetas continued to generate much media and law enforcement attention. This was due not only to their background as special operations forces, but also to their penchant for gratuitous and overwhelming violence. Unlike other enforcer groups, which tended to operate in more confined geographic areas, the Gulf cartel deployed Los Zetas across Mexico and even into Central America. The group has also publicly taunted the government, such as via the audacious signs Los Zetas hung in Nuevo Laredo in 2008 offering better-paying jobs to the Mexican soldiers deployed to the city to counter them.
Los Zetas’ violent nature was clearly on display after they split from the Gulf cartel in early 2010 and became an independent cartel organization. The group’s involvement in high-profile incidents, such as the September 2010 killing of U.S. citizen David Hartley on Falcon Lake and the February 2011 attack on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that left one of the agents dead, also helped bring Los Zetas to the attention of the American government and public. This resulted in U.S. pressure on the Mexican government to act against Los Zetas. High-profile incidents such as the August 2010 San Fernando massacre, other large body dumps, attacks on media outlets and the killings of journalists also served to make Los Zetas public enemy No. 1 in Mexico’s media and in the eyes of the Mexican government.
Both the Calderon and Pena Nieto administrations have specifically listed the group as a priority target. All this attention has impacted the organization. In addition to the arrests of several plaza bosses, the group also lost longtime leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano, who was killed by the Mexican military in October 2012, and his replacement, Miguel Trevino Morales, who was arrested in July 2013.
Los Zetas grew quickly after emerging as an independent cartel, rising to become the second-largest criminal organization in Mexico. But this rapid growth did not come without organizational challenges. In mid-2012, Ivan “El Taliban” Velazquez Caballero, a high-ranking Los Zetas leader operating in Zacatecas, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi states, split with the group and rejoined the Gulf cartel, which was in the middle of a heated fight against its former enforcer group for control of Mexico’s northeast.
During 2012, we also saw repeated reports in the media that a war had erupted between Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales, but no evidence of such a split ever emerged. In retrospect, we learned that the transfer of leadership between Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales had occurred in an orderly manner several months prior to Lazcano Lazcano’s death.
Misinformation and Disinformation
Over a year later we do not know if the inaccurate rumors of the Lazcano Lazcano and Trevino Morales split were an incorrect understanding of the Velazquez Caballero defection (misinformation), or if they were a deliberate information operation conducted by the Mexican government or a rival cartel attempting to sow division among the ranks of Los Zetas (disinformation).
This situation highlights one of the big problems confronting those who track and analyze clandestine human networks such as terrorist groups or transnational criminal organizations like Los Zetas. In addition to disinformation and misinformation, there is simply much we do not and cannot know unless we have a source of information inside the organization. Even technical intelligence coverage of such organizations sometimes provides only a limited understanding of the exact structure of an organization and the members’ intentions and motives.
It is also important to recognize that even in cases where inside information is available, rumors, disinformation and misinformation often run rampant inside organizations — particularly organizations composed of brutal, paranoid criminals. In retrospect, it appears that it took some time for Trevino Morales to become aware that Velazquez Caballero’s organization had declared war on him because of the disinformation spread by that group. Thus, even if one had been able to ask Trevino Morales himself in March 2012 who was causing the violence in Nuevo Laredo, he would not have known.
But beyond disinformation, rumors, false presumptions and a lack of knowledge or awareness are common within all human networks, from corporate offices and military units to jihadist groups and criminal cartels. Analysts and collectors tend to want to accept everything a source provides as accurate if the source has good placement and access. They seldom want to recognize that despite good placement and access, the source may be biased, completely uninformed, sincerely misinformed or may have bought into a false, conspiratorial hallway rumor.
This means that analysts and investigators can usually only infer what is going on internally within a group, and in many cases the information used to draw those inferences is misleading — sometimes intentionally so. This applies not only to open-source press reporting and messages purportedly from the groups themselves, but also to the human and signals intelligence used by analysts and investigators with access to classified information. In fact, sometimes classified information can be detrimental to sound analysis when inaccurate classified reporting is given precedence over accurate open-source reporting simply because it is from a highly classified source, thus skewing the analytical process. For this reason, sensitive intelligence should never outweigh common sense and observation. Indeed, analysts should not hold any item of intelligence, whether from a contact