Joe Stout, of Oaxaca, Mexico, is the author of several nonfiction
books, including Why Immigrants Come to America and
The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives. He also has
published two novels and numerous essays about Mexico.
and most important is to think business and not crime,”
he tells me. “The Zetas and members of the other drug
corporations commit crimes -- lots of them -- but their raison
d'être is to make money, the same as any other business.
And they want to do it as efficiently as possible.”
he spoke, Gonzalo Osorio twitched his shoulders and patted his
more than ample paunch. His real name, he cautioned, “might
not be” Gonzalo Osorio. In contemporary Oaxaca one takes
care to not reveal too many personal details. His connections
with the Zetas were peripheral – how peripheral he wasn’t
willing to elaborate -- but he’d had dealings with some
of them and knew what he could and couldn’t say.
thinking ‘business not crime’ in order to understand
what is happening in southern Mexico, one focuses on the product.
The product is drugs -- cocaine, marijuana. Like pulpwood, like
strawberries, like cotton, it originates with the soil -- a
farm product. One can’t grow oranges in Canada or oak
trees in the Sahara: You have to grow them where they grow best,
(the poppy), marijuana, grow best in Mexico, Colombia, Peru.
So in those places you grow them. Then what? The locals buy
what you harvest? Maybe a little, but business -- everybody
knows this -- responds to demand. The demand comes first, then
the supply,” he explains. “One could grow begonias,
prickly pears, pine nuts instead, but . . .
this is where business comes in. The Zetas are not farmers,
they’re wholesalers. That’s their business. Very
profitable. Like any wholesalers, they have to get their product
are the consumers? In Oaxaca? In Mexico City? Pues,
unos pocos. But remember demand; demand comes first.
The demand is in the U.S. So it is the job of the wholesalers
to get the product from the farmers to the United States.
we’re talking business here, demand and supply, not legal/illegal.
Business has no morals. You spend US $100 on a whore, you spend
$100 on a Communion service; either way it’s a transaction
-- you get what you pay for. The consumers creating the demand
want the product and they have the cash to buy it,” he
says, “like in a normal market.”
in this case the product is illegal,” Osorio says, “so
you can’t do your business like Walmart out in the open,
you have to do it in the shadows. You have to organize, really
organize, or the cops will steal your product. Or another wholesaler
will steal it.” In those situations, the Zeta wholesalers
can’t exactly take their grievances to the police. “So
you have to become your own law and order. Like any business,
eliminate the competition.
is where,” he explains, “the Mexican State of Oaxaca
comes in. It is the pathway between Central America and key
distribution points north: Acapulco, Veracruz. Now anybody can
slip a few grams through, but tons? Mano, te digo for
that you need organization. The trucks need not to be stopped.
The planes need not to be inspected. Not something a few bloodthirsty
teenaged Zetas can do by themselves: We’re talking big
business you have to pay in order to operate: licenses, taxes,
fees, right of way, salaries,” Osorio says. “The
Zetas are a business: They have to pay drivers, pilots, mechanics,
lookouts -- over 800 kilometers and the Zetas know every kilometer.
They know every cop by name, every gas station owner, every
restaurant, hìjole, every teenage prostitute.
have to pay, but they have to protect themselves. How? Ay
mano! Everybody knows! Say the wrong thing and you’re
dead. Fail to pay protection and you disappear.
ves, that’s another thing about business. You’re
never content. So you branch out. You got the money, the manpower,
the control, you take over small businesses, fringe businesses.
Bars, taxi companies, repair shops. You see an opportunity,
you jump at it.
immigrants from Central America, they’re illegal. So they’re
unprotected. A saleable product. Te digo mano, that’s
what smart business is. Taking advantage of opportunity. Discard
the culls that won’t sell, keep some of the good ones
for your own use. Profit, that’s the bottom line! That’s
what business is all about.
higher the profits, the greater the competition, the greater
the risk. The Zetas risk their lives. Ask anyone who’s
been in combat, any Salvadoreño guerrilla, any veteran
from Vietnam -- one who risks his life doesn’t put a high
value on other lives. Life is temporary. One lives for the moment.
Thrills. Money. Power.
at the same time: organization, discipline, training. The Zetas
are commandos, commandos with a mission. Recruit X’s job
is to ride the transfer route on a motorcycle to report on traffic,
army units, cops. Recruit Y’s job is to be with Comandante
Fulano of the state police to make sure a shipment goes through.
Recruit Z -- quién sabe? -- to stand armed guard
on a safe house crammed with hijacked refugees.
Very profitable business. Enough money to buy whatever is needed:
guns, airplanes, police, nightclubs, politicians. And a funny
thing. You arrest a Z-40 or a Z-Whatever and you do the rest
of the Zetas a favour.
Because there’s a horde of Z’s behind him who want
to move up. Take his place,” Osorio says. “Just
like in legitimate business everybody wants to claw their way
to the top.
can’t put a business out of business if there’s
demand for the product. All you can do is change suppliers.
That’s how the Zetas got in; the only way they’ll
get out is if somebody bigger comes in. Or if there’s
I tell you the truth. I don’t think that’s going
tape record this conversation with Gonzalo Osorio, although
I did take notes. As he commented himself, most of what he said
was common knowledge -- common at least to the extent that if
one wanted, one could come to the same conclusions without having
connections to Zetas or to political officeholders.
organizational structure that Osorio described was verified
by federal and state elaborations after the arrest of Oaxaca
Zeta leader Marcos (El Cabrito) Carmona Hernandez in 2011. Only
29 when he was captured, Carmona had worked his way from being
a shipment guard and advance scout to becoming the chief of
the southern Mexico branch of the Zeta organization.
being responsible for getting shipments of imported cocaine
through Oaxaca, he managed the wholesaling of smaller amounts
of drugs to Oaxaca retailers and supervised the paid-for protection
of nightclubs, bars, stolen car dealers, pirated goods and contraband.
He acknowledged (and news organizations reported) that he operated
with the support of municipal and state police, who kept him
informed of their activities. No investigations of these connections
have been reported either by news or law enforcement sources.
Osorio indicated, the capture or killing of a Zeta leader has
had little effect on the overall operations of the organization.
It is tightly structured, and the next in line is ready to step
up the day a vacancy occurs. That is not to say that within
the Zetas conflict does not exist. There is a constant jockeying
for advancement: betrayals, subgroups, dissidents, even executions.
Zetas risk their lives not only in combat with other drug corporations
and with law enforcement but with each other. Nevertheless discipline
is tight and nonconformity punished.
Oaxaca state policeman, who declined to have his name published,
ridiculed the commonly held idea that a Zeta is a snarling,
wild-eyed 20-something high on drugs with blood dripping from
his fingertips. “He is the guy in a polo shirt next to
you in a bar, the fellow checking out laptops in Office Depot,
the clean-cut big spender with a beautiful novia at
an auto show.”
recruits, many still in their teens, get a starting salary of
US $800 a month -- approximately 10,000 pesos -- twice that
of a policeman and more than a schoolteacher. In a state where
federal statistics list nearly 70 percent of the population
living in poverty, a teenage Zeta messenger, guard, hit man
or scout is financially in the upper echelon of Oaxaca society.
Payment to strategically placed citizens -- bureaucrats, officeholders,
police, bankers -- is even higher. Arresting a Z-40 does little
to alter business as usual.
Osorio advises, think business, not crime.
profits are very high.
also by Robert Joe Stout: