“Itzli” for Borderland Beat.

A look at the formation of the original seven core members of Los Zetas amidst the shifting power within the CDG.


In the history of Mexican drug cartels it can be argued that Los Zetas reached a level of infamy and widespread recognition that eclipsed any other cartel group. While much has been written over the years about its origins and activities of what began as a subgroup of the Cártel del Golfo (CDG, Gulf Cartel), the history of Los Zetas in its early years has been plagued by the spread of multiple contradictory versions of events.

Because of this, it appears that a definitive history of the early days of Los Zetas is unachievable. Nevertheless, we will take a look at the formation of Los Zetas with a strong focus on chronology in an effort to shed light on the original members.

Cartel Landscape in 1995

The world of drug trafficking in the year 1995 was quite different than it is now, yet had many parallels and links to the modern landscape. Pablo Escobar, the Columbian drug lord that dominated the cocaine trade in the 1980s and early 1990s was dead and the Cali Cartel was dubbed “The New Kings of Cocaine” by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the United State Justice Department. Cocaine increasingly flowed through Mexico, replacing the Caribbean routes that had been previously used.

While small cartels, such as the Cártel de Sinaloa (CDS, Sinaloa Cartel), the Cártel de los Valencia, based in Michoacán, and the Cártel de Oaxaca, led by the Díaz Parada family, existed at the time, the Mexican drug trade was dominated by three organizations. The most powerful was the Cártel de Juárez, led by Amado “El Señor de Los Cielos” Carrillo Fuentes, who was seen as the number one drug lord by the DEA. On the opposite end was the Cártel de Tijuana, also known as the Arellano Félix Organization (AFO). Led by the Arellano Félix brothers Benjamín and Ramón Eduardo, the AFO had dominated the drug trade in the early 1990s, however, a bitter war with the CDS and its leader, Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, pushed the AFO into the public eye, which caused the leadership to focus on avoiding arrest at the expense of dominating the drug trade. Nevertheless, Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma Salazar, who had assumed the leadership of the CDS following the 1993 arrest of “El Chapo” Guzmán, was arrested on June 23, 1995, and it seemed that the AFO could regain power as the CDS appeared to be on the path to extension at the time.

The chief rival of the Cártel de Juárez in the early 1990s was the Cártel del Golfo (CDG, Gulf Cartel), an organization born out of the smuggling of Juan Nepomuceno Guerra Cárdenas based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas during the prohibition era of the United States (1920-1933). Over the following decades, he would create a vast smuggling network for illegal goods and contraband that flowed into the United States from Mexico and vice versa. In time, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra Cárdenas “retired” and handed over control of his organization to his nephews, the García Ábrego brothers, Juan and Humberto, who used the trafficking networks to smuggle marijuana and heroin. Eventually, direct links to the Cali Cartel were forged and their focus shifted to cocaine; in time they would control 20 to 30 percent of the cocaine entering the United States.

War for Succession

The CDG continued to grow in power during the term of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the president of Mexico from December 1, 1988 to November 30, 1994, who was heavily rumored to have had extensive ties to drug cartels in Mexico via his brother Raúl Salinas de Gortari

Despite the allegations that the CDG was protected by Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Humberto García Ábrego was arrested in October 1994, seven weeks before Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León took office as president of Mexico. Throughout 1995, Juan García Ábrego continued on as sole leader of the CDG while several notable members were arrested over the months. The reign of Juan García Ábrego ended on January 14, 1996, he was arrested at one of his ranches in Juárez, Nuevo León, near Monterrey, and immediately sent to the United States. 

With both García Ábrego brothers imprisoned, leadership of the CDG was taken up by Óscar “El Compadre” Malherbe de León, a high ranking member of the cartel that dealt directly with the Cali Cartel. The leadership of “El Compadre” lasted just over a year, as he was arrested on February 26 1997. Days later, it was reported that Humberto García Ábrego had been unexpectedly released from prison, raising suspicion that “El Compadre” had been given up to secure his release. Despite being the natural heir to leadership of the CDG, Humberto García Ábrego disappeared from public view thereafter, although there were rarely mentioned rumors that he became the true leader of the CDG, operating in the shadows while others were placed as the visible leaders.

With “El Compadre” in jail, Hugo Baldomero “El Gordo” Medina Garza, who had been placed in charge of Matamoros under “El Compadre”, took his place as head of the CDG. He had been a fairly recent addition to the cartel, previously he was the owner of a successful tractor trailer business and was invited to join the CDG in 1994, where his trucks were used to smuggle drugs across the border, earning him the nickname “El Señor de los Tráilers”.

His time at the head of the CDG lasted less than two months; gunmen under the command of Salvador “El Chava” Gómez Herrera, a former Tamaulipas state police commander who went on to lead a group of local drug traffickers in Matamoros associated with the CDG, attempted to kidnap him on April 17, 1997 and he was shot in the face while he resisted. 

Although he survived, “El Señor de los Tráilers” fled to recover and El Chava Gómez” proclaimed himself leader of the CDG. Thereafter, it was said that “El Chava Gómez” put a friend of his, a relatively unknown individual named Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, in charge of cartel operations while he focused on consolidating power by eliminating any opposition. 

Osiel Cárdenas Guillén

It appears somewhat surprising that “El Chava Gómez” would place Osiel Cárdenas Guillén in such a position of power. Prior to this, Osiel appeared to be nothing more than a petty criminal. At the age of 21, he was arrested for homicide in February 1989 and by the end of the year he was released from prison. In March 1990, he was arrested for assault and threats, but was released the same day.

In August 1992, Osiel was arrested in Brownsville, Texas, while smuggling two kilograms of cocaine and received a sentence of five years in prison in the United States. On January 2, 1994, he was sent back to Matamoros as part of a prisoner exchange and was held in a Mexican jail until he was released on April 13, 1995. Some versions of events place “El Chava Gómez” in the same prison during this timeframe, which led to the two meeting and becoming friends.

A free man at the time that many members of the CDG were being arrested, it appears that Osiel moved to Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, the seat of power of Gilberto “El June” García Mena, the leader of the Los Aerolitos drug trafficking organization that had joined the CDG during the leadership of the García Ábrego and went on to control La Frontera Chica (Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, Ciudad Mier, and Guerrero) for the CDG. It was there that Osiel operated as a drug trafficker as well as a “madrina” for the Policía Judicial Federal (PJF). While the term “madrina” was used as a nickname for the officers of the PJF, it was also used to refer to police informants. Having taken notice of Osiel, the Procuraduría General de la República, (PGR, Attorney General’s Office) created a report on June 7, 1997 in which his prior arrests were listed. Furthermore, in this document it was stated that Osiel was in charge of corrupting members of the police and military.

The Deserters of the PJF

The PJF, at the time led by Guillermo Álvarez Nahara, was widely known to be heavily corrupted, which led the Secretary of Defense, Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, to place hundreds of members of the Mexican military in the PJF in 1997 with the hope that they would prove to be more trustworthy than the police officers. Miguel Alemán happened to be one of the places in which this occurred and among the members of the military assigned to the PJF there were several soldiers from the special forces group Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), an elite counter insurgency division whose members allegedly received additional training from special forces from the United States and Israel.

One specific example of this taking place was the case of “Agent C”, who was assigned to the PJF on June 15, 1997. It can be assumed that the others were assigned to Miguel Alemán around this same timeframe. At this point in time “El Chava Gómez” had been leader of the CDG for only a few months and the exact status of Osiel is unclear, he was either operations leader or would soon be designated as such by “El Chava Gómez”. 

While Osiel’s ties to Miguel Alemán are clear, there is uncertainty if he was physically present in the city at this time as he may have returned to his hometown of Matamoros. Regardless, Miguel Alemán continued to be the bastion of Gilberto “El June” García Mena and his close associate Zeferino “El Zefe” Peña Cuéllar. Corruption took place quickly, soldiers turned PJF agents in the city were recruited by the CDG, although it is not entirely clear if it was Osiel, “El June”, or “El Zefe” who initiated these events, as multiple versions have spread over the years.

Los 7

Despite the uncertainty as to which member of the CDG did the recruiting, the various stories focus on one particular individual, Arturo Guzmán Decena, a 21 year old GAFE soldier from Puebla who had been assigned to the PJF in Miguel Alemán. It would appear that Arturo was approached by the CDG shortly after he arrived in Tamaulipas and worked with them for only a few months at most before defecting to join the cartel full time.

The story goes that Arturo would be asked to recruit other members of the military to join him in the CDG as part of a group that would eventually become known as Los Zetas. “At first there were seven” were the words of Jesús Enrique “El Mamito” Rejón Aguilar, an early member of Los Zetas, in his declarations following his arrest. Over a period of time a core group of former military members, known as Los 7, quietly formed within the CDG. 

The names of these seven is something that appears to be overlooked as many more individuals have been called founding members of Los Zetas over the years. However, a list can be made of these early members of Los Zetas and, by researching the exact dates in which each defected from the military, a chronology can be created. From this, certain individuals no longer appear to be among the original seven, as they were still in the military at the time, and a theoretical list of Los 7 can be created.

  1. Flavio Méndez Santiago- Nicknamed “El Amarillo”, he was born in Piedras Negras, Veracruz on May 11, 1975. According to government records he joined the military on October 16, 1993 and later requested to be discharged, which was granted on July 4, 1997. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-23.

  2. Arturo Guzmán Decena- He was born on January 13, 1976. He defected on September 27, 1997 and would go on to adopt the code name Z-1 and/or Z1-HK13.

  3. Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechuga- Nicknamed “El Lucky”, he was born on February 8, 1976. According to government records he joined the military on September 16, 1996 and later requested to be discharged, which was granted on October 24, 1997. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-16 and/or Z16-HK15.

  4. Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano- Nicknamed “El Lazca”, he was born on December 25, 1974 in Apan, Hidalgo. He joined the military on June 5, 1991 and would go on to become a GAFE. He was assigned to the PFJ on June 15, 1997 as “Agent C” and was discharged from the military on October 30, 1997.

  5. Ernesto Zataraín Belíz- Nicknamed “El Traca”. According to government records he joined the military on May 1, 1993. Later, he requested to be discharged from active service and be placed in the reserves, which was granted on February 1, 1998. He would go on to adopt the code name Z-13 and/or Z13-HK10, though some sources refer to him as Z-10 instead.

  6. Jaime González Durán- Nicknamed “El Hummer”, he was born on October 8, 1971 in Xolmón, San Luis Potosí. According to government records he joined the military on October 16, 1993 and would go on to become a GAFE. He eventually deserted the military and was officially discharged on April 27, 1998.

As one can see, five individuals left the military over a seven month period at most and possibly within five months, once one considers the fact that “El Hummer” deserted at an unspecified point prior to being discharged, with the exception being “El Amarillo”, who was discharged prior to Arturo Guzmán Decena. Because of this, there is the possibility that “El Amarillo” was not part of the original seven, however, there does appear to be any other individuals that better take his place among the seven within the constructed timeline.

Furthermore, we have only listed six individuals, as at first glance there does not appear to be anyone else that would fit as the seventh member. However, it should be noted that there is a general lack of information regarding Alejandro Lucio Morales Betancourt, who adopted the code name Z-2 and/or Z2-HK11. According to the research of Morogris, his criminal career dates back to at least 1998 and frequently appears among the founding members” of Los Zetas. Thus, it would appear that he is among the original seven, despite his military discharge date being unreported.