Los Zetas’ Brutal Business Model


In early April, Mexican military officials made another grisly discovery in the once sleepy farming community of San Fernando: a series of mass graves among the mesquite brush. Officials are still counting the dead, but, as of this writing, the bodies numbered nearly 200. It was the second time in eight months that the town of 57,000 in the border state of Tamaulipas had been the site of mass graves.

Families across Mexico reported that relatives had disappeared after boarding passenger buses bound for the Texas-Mexico border. Somewhere near San Fernando, which lies on the interstate to Matamoros, the buses were hijacked, and convoys of armed men snatched passengers. Curiously, no bus line reported their buses or passengers missing.

Officials exhuming the bodies noticed that many bore the marks of blunt trauma. Some had been killed by sledgehammer.

This wasn’t the first time such a tragedy had visited San Fernando. In August 2010, the Mexican military stumbled upon the bodies of 72 people bound and executed. An 18-year old Ecuadorian migrant who survived the massacre told officials that it was Los Zetas, a brutal drug cartel,  that had kidnapped the group of Central and South American migrants.

How could such a tragedy occur in San Fernando not once but repeatedly?

There have been several arrests of purported Zeta members in the region but no trials. Media speculation on the motives for the kidnappings range from the cartel’s need for new recruits to fight its turf battles to the notion that passengers are being extorted for money.

Alberto Islas, a Mexico City security analyst who’s advised corporations in Tamaulipas, offers a more plausible and chilling motive for the massacres: It’s just business.

Los Zetas control a wide swathe of territory ranging from the Texas border to Guatemala. Besides drug smuggling, the cartel is involved in every facet of trade in its territory including human trafficking.

Human smugglers often use buses to transport migrants north to the Texas-Mexico border. The Zetas have set a price for allowing smugglers to transport migrants into the United States, and the cartel expects its cut, Islas says. “No one charges under $2,000 these days to get into the United States and  [the Zetas] get $400 to $500 for each migrant smuggled through their territory,” he says.

Islas suspects the kidnappings and brutal murders are a warning to smugglers who haven’t paid their dues to the Zetas. “If you don’t pay them, they will take your merchandise,” he says. In the human smuggling business, migrants pay $100 to $200 upfront, then pay the rest once they’ve reached the United States. The killings could be a warning and a way of depriving the smugglers of their livelihoods.

Whatever the motivations, the mass killings show just how little control the federal government exerts over Tamaulipas. The cartels have now moved beyond drug violence to murdering busloads of civilians, and the government seems incapable of stopping it.