Mexico Security Memo: Rumors of a Split Within Los Zetas

4 MINS READAug 1, 2012 | 10:00 GMT

Several media outlets recently have reported an organizational split between Los Zetas' two top leaders, Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales. These reports cite a series of narcomantas posted June 1 in several states in Mexico alleging that Lazcano and Trevino betrayed several Zetas leaders close to them. Reports also cite social media messages that portrayed the two leaders as traitors.

Given the frequent fracturing of Mexico's organized criminal groups since the breakup of Miguel Angel "El Padrino" Felix Gallardo's Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s, a rift within Los Zetas would not come as a surprise and likely would lead to increased violence while factions fight for territorial control. However, currently there are no explicit indications of fracturing within Los Zetas. The group continues to defend its areas of operations from the Sinaloa Federation and its allies and to make incursions into rivals' strongholds.

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Organizational splits within major criminal groups in Mexico typically have led to increased violence in regions where the criminal group operated. Felix Gallardo's decision to split the Guadalajara cartel into regional plazas eventually led to violent inter-cartel rivalries, such as the Sinaloa Federation's conflict with the Tijuana, Juarez and Gulf cartels. In northeastern Mexico, primarily in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states, Los Zetas continue to engage in turf wars with the Gulf cartel, their former parent organization.

Los Zetas have also received the most attention from government counternarcotics operations targeting the organization's high-ranking criminal leaders. In 2011, Los Zetas lost more cell leaders and plaza bosses than any other Mexican organized crime group as a result of the operations, and the group continues to suffer losses in local and regional leadership — most recently on July 27, when soldiers in Huejotzingo, Puebla state, arrested Mauricio Izar Cardenas, the regional plaza boss allegedly responsible for Los Zetas' operations in southeastern Mexico. Despite these losses, Los Zetas have expanded into at least 17 states, giving the group among the widest geographic reach of all Mexico's cartels.

Since Los Zetas operate in more than half of Mexico's states, a conflict between the group's top leaders likely would trigger additional violence in multiple regions of the country. However, a rift between the top leaders is not the only scenario that could lead to internal conflicts. Los Zetas operate using compartmentalized cells and local leaders throughout Mexico and other countries, such as Guatemala. These cells typically follow the instructions of higher-level regional leaders and pay monetary dues but also may act independently from the larger organization. The June 1 narcomantas brought attention to these cells by implying that the arrest or death of several regional Los Zetas leaders resulted from betrayals by either Lazcano or Trevino.

Indications of an internal conflict will largely depend on where the rift within the organization forms, whether between Lazcano and Trevino or a breakaway Los Zetas cell. Currently, no such indications have manifested. Should Los Zetas suffer a significant internal conflict, their principal rivals, the Sinaloa Federation and its allies the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Gulf cartel, would take advantage of the rift by redoubling their efforts to take control of Los Zetas' plazas. This in turn would result in increased violence, as recently seen in Coahuila state. Los Zetas' rivals may also attempt to bring any potential splinter groups into their own fold, much like the split between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas that led to the alignment of the Gulf cartel with the Sinaloa Federation.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit

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