In the Wrong Hands: Los Zetas and the Gun Laws that Help Them Thrive

It is possible for terror to originate from a recognized symbol of power, safety, and strength. When a manifestation of all that is good betrays the trust bestowed upon it and becomes instead an agent of destruction, ruthlessness, and brutality, the fear it generates is far greater than if it had been regarded as evil all along. Unfortunately, one of the ultimate examples of this form of deception thrives in the chaos of the drug world. In Mexico, this terror is known by a name rarely spoken above a chilling whisper: Los Zetas.

Emerging as one of the most dangerous byproducts of the drug trade, Los Zetas’ existence represents a profound threat to the U.S. as well as to their country of origin. Not only does the U.S. keep Los Zetas in business with its insatiable appetite for drugs, but it also blindly puts guns in the hands of these killers. Since 2006, 28,000 individuals have lost their lives to this hemispheric catastrophe, a huge jump from the 23,000 reported in June of this year. With such an astronomically increasing death toll, drastic action needs be taken – and fast. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has taken the recent step of proposing a debate to consider the pros and cons of drug legalization. As for the U.S., it is critical that it finally takes responsibility for its role as a gun supplier to the drug trafficking industry. Of the tens thousands who have died at the hands of drug violence, many of these victims’ last visions were of a U.S.-made or U.S.-imported semi-automatic assault rifle.

The Dark Side

“Imagine a band of U.S. Green Berets going rogue and offering their services and firepower to drug cartels,” writes CNN’s Michael Ware, offering an accurate comparison to the manner in which Los Zetas formed. The original Zeta members began as a segment of the Mexican Army’s special operations’ unit called el Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE). Like the U.S. Army Special Forces, GAFE personnel are rigorously trained by international experts in all the highly specialized areas of military tactics. In recent years, their objective has been to mobilize against the country’s extensive Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs). Now, however, many of them have switched sides.

It all started in the late 1990s, when Osiel Cardenas Guillen, leader of the expansive and powerful Gulf Cartel, acquired the partnership of GAFE Lieutenant Arturo Guzman Decenas. Guzman was soon joined by thirty other GAFE deserters, all of whom were enticed by the lucrative potential of the drug market. The ex-GAFE members branded themselves Los Zetas after the radio code “Z” assigned to high-level officials in the Mexican Army. As the enforcement branch of the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas engaged in the activities of collecting debt, obtaining cocaine supply, protecting trafficking routes known as plazas, monitoring cartel loyalty, and, most notably, performing executions. After the death of Guzman in 2002 and the arrest of Cardenas in 2003, the top leadership post of Los Zetas was seized by former GAFE member Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano. El Lazca remains in power to this day.

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