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

• An anatomy of a Mexican Drug Trafficking Organization
• Drug violence spills over the border
• Possibility of drug legalization debate raised by President Calderón
• Poor U.S. gun regulation enables drug violence in Mexico
• “Straw purchasing” and “ant running”

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.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA):

The [Gulf] Cartel is known among their rivals for their extreme violence. This reputation is owed to a group of Mexican military deserters known as “Los Zetas” who oversee the Cartel as vicious enforcers who have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered—including beheadings—of law enforcement officials, innocent citizens, informants, and rival drug gangs.

This statement, made in the context of announcing the ten most wanted DTO leaders in the country, was released over a year ago on July 23, 2009. At the time, Los Zetas had already become the ultimate symbol of drug violence, but today, it embodies this terror to an even greater extent.

No longer are Los Zetas simply an arm of the vast Gulf Cartel; they have consolidated their power to become their own force, perhaps the most ruthless organization of the drug trade ever to have evolved. No longer are their activities restricted to areas south of the border, as extensive Zeta networks are beginning to develope throughout Texas and major cities across the United States. Los Zetas have hired U.S.-based gangs, including the Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate, MS-13, and Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos, to continue their command of the drug routes that extend far beyond the border. Finally, no longer do Los Zetas stick to drug enforcement activities. Now, as noted by Foreign Policy Research Institute scholar George Grayson, its members practice enterprises such as murder-for-hire, contract killings, extortion, money laundering, and human smuggling. Unless they are confronted with a direct, coordinated effort to undercut their strategies, Los Zetas are quickly becoming an unstoppable force.

Lethal Weapons in Well-Trained Hands

“AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15 assault rifles, MP5s submachine guns, 50 mm machine guns, grenade launchers, ground-to-air missiles, dynamite, bazookas, and helicopters,” lists Grayson in his description of the weapons affiliated with Los Zetas’ activities. From the members known as Los Halcones (The Hawks) who watch over the plazas to the masterminds of La Dirección (The Command) who often carry out kidnappings and executions, a well-stocked arsenal is crucial for Zeta success. In fact, an entire subset of the organization is called Los Mañosos (The Crafty Ones), whose basic goal is to obtain weapons and ammunition to support all of Los Zetas’ illiegal practices.

Because Los Zetas have, for the most part, effectively maintained control over Mexico’s east coast, an area previously supervised by the much older Gulf Cartel, one can conclude that the objective of Los Mañosos has been met with significant success. Yet the quantity of semi-automatics and other military-style weapons accumulated by Los Zetas, especially in the context of a nation with some of the strictest gun control laws in the hemisphere, introduces a startling conundrum as to where Los Zetas acquired their firearms. One does not have to look far for an answer – in fact, it lies only a few miles north.

Although Mexican citizens have a right to bear arms “for their protection and legitimate defense,” Article 10 of Mexico’s Constitution also explicitly states that “Federal law will determine the cases, conditions, requisites and places inhabitants will be authorized to carry arms.” Thus, the Federal Firearms and Explosives Law, overseen by the Secretary of National Defense, has extensive power over which types of weapons reach the hands of citizens. In reference to assault weapons, Bernard Thompson, a columnist for the consulting firm MexiData.info notes that “individual permits for honest citizens are in effect impossible to obtain.” The process for owning such a firearm, he explains, involves registering with the military, notifying the Interior Secretariat, and overcoming purposely placed roadblocks to procuring carrying licenses and ammunition. In short, accumulating a stash of weaponry from Mexican sources is extremely challenging and therefore especially unattractive when one considers the options available on the other side of the border.

Sadly, the United States, with its polarized political climate and wealthy gun lobbies, such as the powerful National Rifle Association, makes so many concessions in the name of protecting its citizens’ right to bear arms that guns are flowing almost effortlessly into the hands of criminals. Between the years 2004 and 2008, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted a detailed tracing process using a significant portion of the 23,000 firearms recovered by Mexican Authorities. They found that a startling 87% percent of the arms originated in the United States. Moreover, between the years 2006 and 2008, this figure increased to 90%. To break this data down further, 70% of the weapons came from the states of Texas, California, and Arizona: 39%, 20%, and 10% respectively.

Due to the fact that most of these arms originate in the United States, it is clear that a lack of federal gun regulation is indirectly fueling the gruesome activities of illegal DTOs such as Los Zetas. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek’s investigative blog Declassified reports that recently, “the Mexican military has discovered a major training camp run by the notorious Zetas drug cartel and stocked with an arsenal of military weapons, including 140 semi-automatic assault rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition—all of them believed to be purchased in the United States.” Additionally, the Mexican government has projected that approximately 2,000 guns cross the border daily. Unless the U.S. starts taking a closer look directly at the issue of arms trafficking and its implications, DTOs will continue to take advantage of lax regulations.

Flaws in the Gun Laws

The design of current U.S. gun law regulation comes mostly from the text of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) and its 1993 amendment, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. According to the law, arms dealers must become accredited as federal firearms licensees (FFLs) who are subject to inspections by the ATF. Furthermore, background checks are required for non-licensed costumers of the FFLs, which deny criminals, those involved in court procedures, illegal immigrants, and those with mental disabilities the ability to buy a firearm. Although federal law states that purchases of more than one handgun within five business days must be reported to the Attorney General, it also prohibits the formation of a registry of firearm owners, leading to the practice of destroying records within twenty days.

Needless to say, most of these stipulations are easy to manipulate or simply avoid altogether. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the GCA is that it does not address the issue of private gun sales between two unlicensed owners. In states that do not supplement the federal law with local or state-wide restrictions, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, such exchanges are perfectly legal.

This plays easily into a tactic used by many firearm traffickers known as straw purchasing and ant running. During a straw purchase, an ineligible candidate for gun ownership directs an ostensibly eligible individual to purchase the gun in his stead. Then, the transaction between the two parties occurs undetected as one of many private firearms deals that are out of the reach of government regulation. When the trafficker acquires one or two of his desired arms, he is then able to smuggle them across the border and, if caught, claim the guns as private property. This is called “ant running” because when several different DTO members successfully bring these small loads across the border, the arsenal begins to build piece-by-piece.

These obvious flaws are also exacerbated by the elimination of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004. This ban prohibited civilians from purchasing semiautomatic firearms, including Zeta favorites: AK-47s, AR-15s , and other weapons able to accept a detachable magazine. These firearms were designed by and for the military during World War II in an effort to create a lighter gun for rapid fire in situations of heavy warfare. Under the circumstances, they have absolutely no business in the hands of ordinary civilians, and are in fact endangering the lives of Mexican civilians, as well as military personnel, as Los Zetas make use of such weapons with the military precision for which they were trained.*

Looking Toward the Future

“Law enforcement authorities in both nations are confronting the Southwest border paradigm: drugs and illegal migrants flow north, guns and money flow south,” notes a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on gun trafficking on the southwest border. “Although firearms trafficking is not the only reason violent crime is increasing in Mexico, reducing the flow of illegal firearms from the United States to Mexico would arguably reduce crime rates in Mexico and improve public safety.” Thus, while the monumental challenges of eradicating the drug trafficking enterprises between the U.S. and Mexico require a multi-dimensional approach, it can begin with the relatively straightforward issue of gun control.

Helpful measures would include the following: reducing the restrictions on record-keeping for arms sales, creating a system of running background checks for private gun exchanges, and reinstating a version of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Additionally, the U.S. should take a more direct approach to apprehend drug traffickers. As it stands, those caught with guns while crossing into Mexico only receive a general smuggling charge, which fails to recognize the greater transgression. Meanwhile, the United States should consider ratifying the Organization of American States Convention on Illicit Firearms Trafficking (CIFTA). Twenty-nine countries have adopted the document, while only four, including the U.S., have not. CIFTA calls for the creation of licenses for exporting, importing, and transporting firearms, the marking of firearms for tracking purposes, the sharing of information and records between concerned nations, and the strengthening of weapon controls at border crossing sites.

Yes, the United States will always value its constitutional right to bear arms, as made irrefutably clear by the recent Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago. Gun advocates are so bent on preserving a constitutional right, erroneously perceived as under threat, that any steps taken by the federal government in the name of general safety result in immediate and extreme reactions from conservatives. In their zeal turned belligerence in reducing gun control initiatives, conservative politicians and their constituents fail to extrapolate upon the consequences that will arise from such unfounded adamancy. Such antagonism is literally costing the lives of thousands as poor gun regulation in the United States enables the barbarous acts of the ruthless Zetas and their DTO counterparts that are tearing Mexico apart.

*This article has been slightly modified on the suggestion of a reader who preferred to withhold his name.