Moreover, the Zetas are expanding. Determined to control a corridor of their own through Central America to the cocaine production fields of Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, the Zetas have fought for and won control of most of the Gulf coast — as shown by recent massacres in Veracruz and Cancun, where they murdered an army general — and are fighting an all-out guerrilla war against the Sinaloa cartel in Guatemala. They are contesting a rival cartel, La Familia of Michoacan, for lucrative markets of Mexico City’s endless suburbs. In a reported alliance with a cartel called the Beltran Leyva brothers, they are fighting for smuggling routes into Arizona.
Crucially, the Zetas hold their terrain absolutely and its location in northeastern Mexico affords access to Houston, which the FBI called “the hub city” for alliances with local gangs — the old “Texas Syndicate” and loose-knit “Tango Blast.”
Of all Mexico’s cartels, the Zetas are the most internationally connected, allied to their counterparts in the Italian syndicates, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, with ambitions in the European and African markets.
A glimpse of the road leading to the ranch where Osiel Cardenas Guillen was born and raised near Matamoros — a few ramshackle buses and a corrugated-iron shack selling beer on the corner — demonstrates the cartel’s humble origins, without the political connections enjoyed by others, and defining what has become its insurgent nature, which is shared only by La Familia.
Uncontested Zeta territory is hard to define, but correlates with the tropical Rio Grande valley, beginning with the relatively peaceful cities of Ciudad Acuna and Piedras Negras. After them, as the river flows, come the twin cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. These are the prize, for the freight and rail running across the four road and one rail bridges into the US are the spinal cord of pan-American trade.
Trucks arrive at the forwarding yards on the Mexican side bringing goods from Latin America and China via the port of Lazaro Cardenas. Their loads are shuttled across to be hauled on all over North America. The loads contain much of the 90 percent of narcotics consumed in the US, having arrived via Mexico. Within the US, the Zetas’ influence is widespread — cells operating across the country, distributing drugs, their contacts laundering money through established banks and other channels.
At the Mexican army checkpoint and dusty truckstop called “El Veintiseis,” 26km south of the border near Nuevo Laredo, an insect-bitten night at the Motel California and meals at the shacks by the road give some idea of how this happens.
“Sometimes a container will be a clavo,” said one truck driver, Antonio, referring to a vehicle chopped up to include hidden compartments.
“Other times,” another said over breakfast, “they just roll up with guns and say: ‘Open the door!’”
Then the drugs are put on board and the trucks are forced to resume their journeys. The drivers complain that haulage companies’ efforts to outwit the Zetas are inevitably met with counter-measures.
“They give us GPS systems to make sure we don’t go anywhere off the route, but some people are told to switch them off. They have special seals now, but the bad guys know how to break them and make them look as before,” the drivers said.