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Home / Culture and Society / Dark History: Mexico’s Drug Cartels, Part 2
Cartel conflict and politics took many twisted turns between the 1994 election of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León and the emergence of the ultra-violent Zetas.

Dark History: Mexico’s Drug Cartels, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

From the perspective of the Mexican Cartels, the drug business became more difficult in 1994, when Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León was elected president of Mexico. Zedillo Ponce de León immediately appointed Fernando Antonio Lozano Gracia as attorney general. Lozano Gracia didn’t waste any time. He immediately arrested the brother of the outgoing president, who had $160 million in a Swiss bank account. Drug money. Then Lozano Gracia went after the Federales, investigating 4,400 federal officers for corruption. Over 1,200 federal officers were fired for accepting bribes from the cartels.

Next Lozano Gracia appointed Ernesto Ibarra Santes as head of the Tijuana Police. Two days after taking the job, de Ibarra, along with two of his bodyguards, was murdered when leaving the airport in Mexico City. Two cars full of cartel hit men boxed in de Ibarra’s car. The hit men opened fire with AK-47s, making Swiss cheese of Ibarra’s car.

President Zedillo thought Lozano Gracia wasn’t getting the job done. So Lozano Gracia was fired. Zedillo appointed Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar to take his place. Cuéllar, learning from his predecessor’s mistakes, immediately named General José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo to be Mexico’s Drug Czar. Rebollo lasted two weeks. He had been accepting bribes – cash, real estate, and expensive automobiles – from the Juarez Cartel.

The leader of the Juarez Cartel was Amado Carrillo Fuentes aka “The Lord of the Skies.” Fuentes was the one with 27 Boeing 727s, in which he transported cocaine from Colombia. Worth a cool $25 billion, Fuentes was cool, calm and collected. Often forming alliances with the other cartels, Fuentes avoided violence as much as was possible in his line of work. When Rebollo’s indiscretion was revealed in the national media, Fuentes opted to undergo plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Fuentes died during the operation from an overdose of anesthesia. Learning of Fuentes’ death, which left the Juarez Cartel in chaos, the Sinaloa Cartel made a push, absorbing much of the Juarez Cartel’s territory and recruiting its gang members.

Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in 2000. Just after taking office, Fox got lucky. Ramon Arellano Félix, a trafficker with the Tijuana Cartel, was stopped in his VW Bug and died in a shootout with police in Mazatlan. A few weeks later, Benjamin Arellano Félix, leader of the Tijuana cartel and brother of Ramon, was arrested in a safe house in Puebla. The army raided the house, finding Benjamin in his pajamas and millions of dollars in cash. Arrested and tossed into a maximum security prison cell, the Tijuana kingpin sat twiddling his thumbs while his attorneys fought his extradition to the U.S.

Then in 2001, Shorty Guzman, head of the Sinaloan Cartel, broke out of prison in Guadalajara. He had been spreading money around like candy, bribing prison guards and prison officials. Prison officials let him bring hookers into the prison. Shorty also had a close personal relationship with Zulema Hernandez, a 30-something, tall, blond, sexy armed robber. Two prison guards helped Shorty escape, smuggling him out in the prison’s laundry. Shorty was back.

Meanwhile, the Sinaloa Cartel allowed four brothers – Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo, and Hector Beltrán Leyva – to establish their own mini-cartel, kind of a cartel within a cartel. The rationale was that the Beltrán Leyva Cartel would keep the Tijuana Cartel off-balance, and shoulder the brunt of any hostile moves by the Tijuana Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel would soon regret making this error in judgment.

The boss of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel was Arturo, aka “The Beard” because of his characteristic Paul Bunyan-like beard. A massive hulk of a man, Arturo’s malevolent personality was complemented by the vicious natures of his brothers. Arturo had close ties to the Cali Cartel in Colombia, from which he imported his cocaine.
To counter the growing strength of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel decided they, too, needed allies. So they hooked up with the Gulf Cartel. In effect, the gauntlet had been thrown down. And the Sinaloan Cartel picked it up. They upped the ante by adding the Juarez Cartel to their alliance. Now it was the Sinaloa/Beltrán Leyva/Juarez coalition versus the Tijuana/Gulf partnership.

The war began in 2004, in the city of Nuevo Laredo, through which passed 10,000 trucks and 2,000 railroad box cars every day, 365 days per year. Nuevo Laredo was a drug trafficking super-highway straight into Texas. Supposedly, the Gulf Cartel controlled this area. Anyway, that was the theory. The reality of the situation was that the Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva Cartels had dozens of armed men operating in the city. One day, Shorty Guzman, the Big Wheel of the Sinaloa Cartel, along with 30 armed men, strolled into Paseo Colon, a ritzy restaurant in Nuevo Laredo. Shorty’s crew locked the place down. Diners and employees were instructed to hand over their cell phones. Then Shorty and his men sat down and enjoyed a lavish meal with expensive wine. Two hours later, Shorty paid the tab for everyone, including the other diners, and left a big tip.

Shorty was giving notice to the Gulf Cartel: there was a new Boss in town.

Photo courtesy
Shorty Guzman. Photo courtesy

Needless to say, when the Gulf Cartel heard about Shorty’s brazen behavior, they were pissed. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén aka “The Friend Killer” had been the Boss of the Gulf Cartel until his arrest in 2003. Guillén, a big fan of violence, had, a few years earlier, recruited Arturo Guzmán Decena, an officer in the Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE), to put together a group of elite cartel enforcers. This group of highly trained killers was composed of former members of Mexico’s elite military groups. Because of their Z-call sign, the group called themselves the Zetas. However, Guzmán Decena had died in a bloody shootout in 2002. And now Cárdenas Guillén was behind bars.

At first, when Cárdenas Guillén was still running the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas functioned as bodyguards. But as time passed, their duties expanded. They would be handed special jobs, like collecting money owed to the cartel and capturing new territory. Before long, the Zetas were taking care of the cartel’s wet work, targeting and killing specific individuals. When it came to killing, the Zetas were very efficient. They not only killed people, but employed psychological warfare at the same time. When Los Zetas killed, they made a statement: they terrorized by lopping off the heads of their enemies. But the decapitations weren’t only psychological, they were also religious. For the Zetas were disciples of Santa Muerte, aka the White Sister or Saint Death.

So Shorty and the Sinaloa Cartel had decided this was a good time to take over the Gulf Cartel’s territory. There was a bundle of money waiting to be made. And the only thing standing between the Sinaloa Cartel and all that money was a bunch of hicks from the sticks called the Zetas.

But the Zetas were more than anyone bargained for.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch,,, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine,, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites:,, and, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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