How 34 commandos created Mexico's most brutal drug cartel

The leader of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartel was arrested early Wednesday morning, but his capture will likely have only a minor impact on what the US government has called “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.”

With a strong presence in about 17 Mexican states — or half the country — Los Zetas is currently the largest criminal syndicate operating in Mexico.

Here’s how the Zetas were developed:

The group started out as the enforcement branch of the Mexican Gulf Cartel. Originally comprised of 34 Mexican Special Forces soldiers, the death squad was tasked with protecting a young, upcoming leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.

Osiel CardenasMexico Attorney Generals Office/APIn this photo taken at an undisclosed location released by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, alleged Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, center, is moved during his extradition to the United States from Mexico, Friday, Jan. 20, 2007.

The Gulf Cartel was in the midst of a violent turf war when Cárdenas Guillén took over as its leader in 1999. For his protection, Cárdenas Guillén hired a bodyguard (retired Army lieutenant Ruben ‘el Chato’ Salinas), who then solicited 30 Mexican army deserters to form the cartel’s well-paid mercenary wing.

Drug warsTomas Bravo/ReutersForensic workers look at the slain body of police commander Mario Sanchez after being executed by unidentified gunmen in San Nicolas de los Garza, Monterrey May 19, 2007.

Over the years, Cardenas expanded the Zetas’ responsibilities. The group bribed and threatened their way to uncontested power until the Gulf Cartel became virtually untouchable by law enforcement.

Los zetasEduardo Verdugo/APA soldier enters a bullet-riddled home covered by the initials of the Gulf Cartel (CDG) and Zetas (Z) in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, Mexico.

By 2003, Los Zetas had expanded to include roughly 300 paramilitary men with sophisticated weapons and advanced military training. The Mexican Defence Department recognised the group as “the most formidable death squad to have worked for organised crime in Mexican history.”

ZetasAlexandre Meneghini/APSoldiers escort five alleged members of the Zetas drug gang during their presentation to the press in Mexico City, Thursday, June 9, 2011.

After a shootout with the Mexican military in 2003, Cárdenas Guillén was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. By then, Los Zetas had far surpassed the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence. In 2010, the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel after years of internal conflict.

ZetasTomas Bravo/ReutersA girl looks at blood stains and a graffiti left by gunmen at a crime scene in Monterrey June 15, 2011. The graffiti reads: ‘These are Z, kindly CDG’, referring to rival drug cartels, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.

It did not take long for the cartels to become rivals and turn their weapons against each other. In attempts to intimidate the competition and recruit more members, the Zetas have carried out multiple massacres and attacks on civilians.

Drug war mexicoDaniel Becerril/APResidents look at shoes of missing people that have been arranged to form the number forty-nine, in memory of the mutilated victims dumped by cartel members in Cadereyta, at the Macroplaza in Monterrey May 13, 2012.

Between 2010-2011, the Zetas murdered over 350 farmers and migrant workers in Mexico and Guatemala who refused to join their ranks.

ZetasRodrigo Arias/ReutersTwo children of Fernando Quisar hold a photograph of their father, one of the 27 farmers killed by Zetas in May 2011 in one of the worst mass killings in Guatemala’s history.

Ex-troops from Guatemala — counterinsurgancy experts known as “killing machines” — have been recruited by Los Zetas, and the cartel has set up camps around Mexico to train recruits aged 15 to 18 years old.

ZetasBernardo Montoya/ReutersSuspected members of the Zetas drug cartel are being escorted for a presentation to the media at the Mexican Navy’s aeroplane hangar in Mexico City October 7, 2011.

Most of the original 34 Zetas have been either captured or killed by Mexican authorities, but hundreds of hardened Zetas remain. The group has maintained its stronghold over 17 Mexican states, or half the country, and is also active in Texas.

ZetasTomas Bravo/ReutersThe letter ‘Z’ is seen painted on a hill next to the toll booth at the freeway between Monterrey and Torreon, in the Mexican state of Coahuila March 13, 2010.

The group continues to pose a threat to citizens on both sides of the border. The FBI believes that Los Zetas controls several U.S.-based gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate, the Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos, and MS-13.

MS-13Ulises Rodriguez/ReutersPeople arrested this week for being members of the MS-13 Mara Salvatrucha street gang among other crimes, flash their gang’s hand sign from inside a jail cell at a police station in San Salvador October 12, 2012.

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