“Itzli” for Borderland Beat.
A continued look at the formation of Los Zetas as seven more individuals joined the original seven core members.
The origins and early history of Los Zetas is clouded by a level of uncertainty due to gaps in information, along with multiple versions of events which cannot be easily reconciled. Nevertheless, it appears that a core group, known as Los 7, was initially formed and another seven individuals would be recruited to join them. By focusing on the events within the Cártel del Golfo (CDG, Gulf Cartel) in 1998 and early 1999, a clearer picture begins to emerge.
Chava Gómez & Osiel Cárdenas
Leadership of the CDG was seized by Salvador “El Chava” Gómez Herrera in April 1997, who would count on Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, his right-hand man, to help him lead the operations of the cartel. They are said to have become close friends and may have been associated with each other as far back as 1995.
These two individuals were arrested together in the summer of 1998, yet the exact details are unclear, as multiple versions of events exist. For instance, it was said that “El Chava Gómez”, Osiel Cárdenas, and Manuel “El Meme” Alquisires García, a high-ranking member of the CDG at the time, were arrested together on June 4. Another report indicates that on June 8, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) requested that these three individuals, along with Jorge Salinas Aguilar, be held for 90 days, although this is likely additional information regarding the June 4 arrest. An alternate version places the arrest on July 5 and the location being at a ranch known as El Refugio, located a few miles outside of Matamoros.
Despite the uncertainty as to exactly when the arrest took place, the various narratives converge on what transpired thereafter; “El Chava Gómez” and Osiel Cárdenas Guillén were sent to Mexico City, where they would be held in custody as they awaited their court date. On August 4, 1998, only “El Meme” was prosecuted as “El Chava Gómez” and Osiel Cárdenas Guillén went missing days after they were placed under house arrest. It was said that they had been allowed to escape after Osiel Cárdenas Guillén paid out bribes, be it $15 thousand to each of the four guards to look away as they escaped out the window at the house in Pedregal de San Angel, where they were being held, or a $700 thousand payment to officials. From this, warrant 52/98-C was issued on September 4, 1998, seeking the arrest of both “El Chava Gómez” and Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.
To understand the events that follow, one should look back at the months prior. As part of a government effort to fight corruption within the Policía Judicial Federal (PFJ) members of the military, including the special forces group Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), were placed as PFJ agents in various forces in 1997, including Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas. Some of these soldiers were corrupted, for instance Arturo Guzmán Decena defected to join the CDG on September 27, 1997.
Regarded as the founder of Los Zetas, Arturo Guzmán Decena would be tasked with recruiting other members of the military to join the cartel, though, with the existence of multiple versions of events, it is not entirely clear who directed him to do so. Nevertheless, over the course of several months we see that other members of the military defected as well, for which a tentative list of Los 7, the original seven core members of what would become Los Zetas, was created.
Amongst the original members of Los Zetas, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, nicknamed “El Lazca”, was born on December 25, 1974 in Apan, Hidalgo. He joined the military on June 5, 1999, where he would go on to become a GAFE, and was assigned as “Agent C” of the PFJ in Miguel Alemán on June 15, 1997. From the history of “El Lazca” following his departure from the PFJ on October 30, 1997 we have a rare glimpse at the activities of one of Los 7.
On February 18, 1998, members of the military detained four individuals in Reynosa, Tamaulipas in possession of over 700 pounds of marijuana, most notably “El Lazca” and Martiniano de Jesús Jaramillo Silva, whose own criminal history as “El Pata de Queso” falls outside the scope of this writing. While this serves as evidence that “El Lazca” was criminally active at this point and implies that Los 7 had been formed or, at the very least, were in the process of being recruited, it is unclear for whom they were working for at the time.
Amidst the various conflicting narratives regarding the formation of Los Zetas are versions of events in which Gilberto “El June” García Mena, a CDG leader based in Miguel Alemán who also controlled La Frontera Chica (Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, Ciudad Mier, and Guerrero) and/or his close associate Zeferino “El Zefe” Peña Cuéllar began the recruitment of soldiers working for the PJF, with their involvement in the CDG under Osiel Cárdenas Guillén taking place at a later point in time.
By using a similar process as with Tales of Los Zetas: Los 7, a chronology can be created by listing military defection dates within the framework of notable cartel events. From this, the defections appear as clusters, which serve as circumstantial evidence to create lists. However, it should be noted that this process is quite tentative, as members of the military may have worked for the cartel prior to their defection date or, alternatively, there may be a gap between the time in which they left the military and when they joined the cartel.
As previously stated, there are multiple versions of events regarding the formation of Los Zetas, with many not containing any involvement by “El June” and/or “El Zefe”. Instead, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén is the catalyst and in some narratives a conversation takes place in which he asks Arturo Guzmán Decena to recruit the best men possible to serve under him, to which Arturo Guzmán Decena replies that such men can only be found within the military. Thus, soldiers are recruited to join the ranks of the CDG as members of Los Zetas, with it implied that this took place shortly after Arturo Guzmán Decena defected from the military in September 1997.
However, by looking at the narratives thoroughly, there is a possible way to reconcile some of the versions of events that appear to be contradictory. Though rarely mentioned, there are versions in which Osiel Cárdenas Guillén learns of Arturo Guzmán Decena from “El June”.
Months after at least seven individuals that would later be regarded as founding members of Los Zetas had defected from the military, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was arrested in either June or July of 1998 and, thereafter, we see another wave of defections. Perhaps Los 7 were recruited by “El June” and/or “El Zefe” and operated under them, up until the point that Osiel Cárdenas Guillén escaped in Mexico City. In this scenario, he returned to Tamaulipas and decided to seek out the “best” protection possible, as he knew authorities would seek to recapture him. Thus, “El June” introduced him to Arturo Guzmán Decena, who proceeded to recruit others to join Los 7, who would then serve under Osiel.
“At first there were seven, and later thereafter seven more of us arrived, which made up the fourteen, which were the oldest of us”, were the words of “El Mamito” in his declaration following his arrest. We have created a tentative list of the first seven, now let us look at who may be among the next seven.
Gustavo González Castro- Nicknamed “El Erótico”, he was born in Tuxpan, Veracruz on July 1, 1973. According to government records he joined the military/air forces on March 22, 1990 as an infantry soldier and was promoted to corporal in 1995. Later, he requested to be discharged from active service and be placed in the reserves, which was granted on August 1, 1998. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-15 and/or Z15-HK49.
Efraín Teodoro Torres- Nicknamed “El Efra” and “El Chispa”, he was born in Veracruz, Veracruz. According to government records he joined the military/air forces on August 1, 1991 as an infantry soldier and was promoted to corporal in 1993. He eventually deserted the military and was officially discharged on September 13, 1998. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-14 and/or Z14-HK26.
Mateo Díaz López- Born in Cunduacán, Tabasco, according to government records he joined the military on September 16, 1996 as a member of the calvary. He eventually deserted the military and was officially discharged on September 20, 1998. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-10 and/or Z10-HK40, although some sources refer to him as Z-6.
Before we continue, it should be noted that it has been reported that at least some of Los Zetas were recruited from the 15th battalion and the 70th battalion of the 5th Regiment of the Motorized Cavalry. This is reflected in a document claiming that this took place in “the last semester of 1998”, as well as saying that a declassified document from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) noted that Arturo Guzmán Decena had been spotted with active military members in a Miguel Alemán bar in December 1998. However, this information should be taken with a grain of salt until the source documents, should they truly exist, are found.
José Ramón Dávila López- Nicknamed “El Cholo”, he was reported to have joined the military in 1987 as an infantry soldier. He would be trained in parachuting and reach the rank of sergeant before deserting the military on January 4, 1999.
Luis Alberto Guerrero Reyes- Nicknamed “El Guerrero”. According to government records he joined the military on March 1, 1987 as an infantry soldier and received parachuting training April 11-17, 1988. He was promoted to corporal on November 1, 1990 and sergeant on March 1, 1992. He eventually deserted the military and was officially discharged on January 4, 1999. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-5 and/or Z5-HK20.
Raul Alberto Trejo Benavides- Nicknamed “El Alvin”, he was born in Villahermosa, Tabasco. According to government records he joined the military on May 3, 1991 and requested to be discharged, which was granted on March 16, 1999.
Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar- Nicknamed “El Mamito”, he was born in Sabancuy, Campeche in 1976. According to government records he joined the military on April 5, 1993 and was discharged on November 26, 1999, following his desertion which is reported to have taken place in March 1999. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-7 and/or Z7-HK31.