There was a time when the Zetas were the deadliest and fastest growing cartel in Mexico. They’re still arguably the deadliest. But the cartel appears to have reached its peak — and may even be on the decline — according to West Point’s counter-terror journal.

This would have been harder to believe a few years ago.

In February 2010, a group of renegade military commandos who joined up with the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s largest organized crime groups, split with their former employers. Within two years, the Zetas had seized swathes of territory across northern and eastern Mexico.

The Zetas were at their height. Most of the former commandos were dead or in prison, but the organization now included thousands of thugs loosely attracted to the cartel’s brand name. The cartel — if it can even be called that — was also making inroads into Guatemala and was blamed for a shootout in Houston, Texas.

The cartel is not getting much larger. One reason is the successive loss of the cartel’s top leaders. Former Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano was killed by Mexican Marines at a baseball game in October 2012, and his successor, Miguel Trevino, was captured by Mexican troops after his truck was stopped on a highway near the border city of Nuevo Laredo in July.

Without these leaders, Los Zetas will likely remain a ragtag operation,” writes Malcom Beith in the latest CTC Sentinel from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Beith has a clue — he’s followed the cartels for years as one of the most prolific journalists of the drug war in the English language. He adds that the Zetas are still “intent on violence and willing to engage in almost any illicit activity for profit, but increasingly disorganized and, as a result, less in control of drug trafficking and less capable of undermining the authorities and the state.”

InSight Crime illustration

Southern front

This is also evident in Guatemala. The Zetas made inroads in the country beginning in 2008, pushing out local organizations and unleashing a campaign of intimidation and murder. But over the past year, dozens of lower-level leaders, including many Guatemala-based Zetas traffickers, were rounded up and thrown in prison.

“The Guatemalan government, with strong U.S. support, has effectively cut international air traffic, all of which appears to be moving through Honduras,” noted Steven Dudley of InSight Crime, a Latin American crime monitoring group.

According to Dudley, the Zetas have fewer direct ties to South American cocaine suppliers compared to their rival the Sinaloa Cartel. That means losing ground in Central America amounts to a significant blow against the cartel.

The Zetas do still operate in Guatemala by cutting deals with local suppliers, but “they are a shell of what they were,” Dudley writes.

Local drug trafficking groups with names like the Lorenzanas, Mendozas and Orellanas, have since filled the void. This is partly good news: the Zetas have built a terrible reputation for violence, and their spread in Guatemala carried killings and kidnappings with it. Fewer Zetas running around means, at least, that things won’t get much worse.

CJNG gunmen in April 2013. YouTube capture

Who’s left?

The Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Federation, may prove to be the most resilient. The cartel has existed in various forms and under different names for decades, but “is no longer effective as it once was,” Beith writes, owing to breakaway factions and pressure from groups like the Zetas.

But “the Sinaloa Federation remains the most expansive, organized cartel operating in Mexico today.”

The rest of the notable organized crime groups are comparatively small and increasingly fragmented. Groups like the Juarez Cartel — responsible for so much bloodshed in Ciudad Juarez in recent years — has gone into steep decline as violence in the city declined.

The once-formidable Tijuana Cartel may not even exist as a force today, with rare killings in Tijuana today resulting from local gang disputes. La Familia, the first cartel to directly confront the Mexican government in Dec. 2006, has collapsed and been replaced by the Knights Templar which has duked it out with the military and citizen vigilantes in recent months.

Beith points to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel — also known by its Spanish initials CJNG — as one of the deadlier smaller groups.

At the same time, it’s impossible to tell if the CJNG are actually a new organization or whether it operates under the auspices of the Sinaloa Cartel. Answering that question will go a long way towards determining whether violence declines or escalates in the near future.

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