Mob kidnapped 150 and dissolved them in acid
DONALD TRUMP branded them an enemy army camped on America’s border.
The FBI calls them the most dangerous and ruthless gang on the planet.
To their thousands of victims, they are the devil incarnate.
They call themselves simply Los Zetas (The Zs).
Long known as the most brutal of Mexico’s warring crime cartels, a new investigation is now uncovering even deeper levels of savagery among the organisation that rules whole tracts of the border with the U.S.
Their atrocities are on a par with Islamic State – who they accuse of upsetting their narcotics supply routes – and they even share a particularly macabre taste for beheadings with the jihadi extremists.
However, it is an extraordinary investigation into how the Zetas ran a ‘state within a state’, and turned a prison into a private extermination camp that has shocked a country already reeling from the violence of the cartels.
Mexico’s most violent drug gang turned Piedras Negras prison into a private torture chamber. They murdered kidnap victims and underworld enemies during a three-year killing spree, dissolving bodies in acid and disposing of them in rivers. They also used a chain of ‘ovens’ in a chilling echo from history.
Los Zetas, a massive crime syndicate, is recognised by the U.S. government as being one of the most ruthless cartels operating in Mexico, with interests spanning drugs, the sex trade and gun running.
The Zetas were born when the original Mexican Gulf Cartel leaders hired former army special forces to become their personal bodyguards and armed wing in the 1990s.
In the bloodthirsty world of Mexican cartels, the Zetas have always stood out for their savagery. Many of their members were trained by the elite Israeli Special Forces, passing their skills in marksmanship, intimidation and rapid deployment on to recruits.
They quickly established a reputation for military efficiency in dispensing death. Victims were beheaded, strung from bridges, tortured and dismembered.
Video and photos were posted online to fuel terror. Mass executions were another signature.
Based in Nuevo Laredo in the north-east of Mexico, they operate a stone’s throw from the border with Laredo in Texas, a territory which is one of the most important in the international cocaine industry due to its proximity to the U.S.
In 2010 the Zetas freed themselves from their original Gulf Cartel masters to form their own crime syndicate.
They have since waged war on rivals, including the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman – the man who threatened to put a €100 million bounty on the head of Donald Trump in retaliation for his pans to build a wall along the border.
The two savage groups killed and terrorised hundreds of innocent people and drug gang members as they vied for supremacy.
However, it was the Zetas’ tactics, which included beheadings, torture and the indiscriminate slaughter of men and women, that saw them eventually overtake the powerful Sinaloa.
While the Zetas have continued their campaign of relentless brutality, even veteran law enforcement officers were shocked last week when it emerged that the group had turned a state prison into their own private house of horrors.
Public prosecutors in the state of Coahuila revealed that over a three-year period to 2012, the notorious Cartel ruled Piedras Negras prison – just along the US-Mexican border region – as their own.
Authorities say they estimate the brutal enforcers took the lives of at least 150 people behind bars in the prison.
Many were tortured and then killed before their bodies were burnt or broken down in acid-filled tanks. Their remains were disposed of in a river 20 miles away from the jail.
In scenes similar to that of the holocaust, prosecutors say that the Zetas dressed up in prison uniforms and operated their own security at the jail, even wearing bulletproof vests and driving their own customised vehicles.
Testimony from 42 prisoners reads like a book of pulp fiction rather than the reality of life behind a state prison.
“We have received information that this place was governed autonomously by the Zetas,” a spokesman for the Coahuila state prosecution force announced, saying that Ramon Burciaga Magallanes was identified as the leader of the bloodthirsty Zeta mob.
Seven victims have so far been identified as having died inside the prison compound, but investigations are ongoing into countless more who remain unaccounted for.
Along with Magallanes, five other Zetas have now been arrested and it is likely all will face trial for their role in the mass slaughter.
According to José Juan Morales, spokesman for the investigation, the Zetas were allowed to leave the Piedras Negras prison at night to kidnap their victims, sometimes wearing fake police and army uniforms.
According to authorities, the remains of those killed were then dumped in the nearby San Rodrigo river and in the Rio Bravo estuary.
Morales said it was clear that the prison guards were at least complicit, though none have yet been arrested. “The guards had knowledge of the facts,” he told local reporters.
The three years of terror in the Piedras Negras prison apparently ended around the time of a mass breakout from the jail in September 2012, when 131 inmates escaped.
At the time of the atrocities, Coahuila was one of Mexico’s most violent states and its jails were overflowing with cartel members who ran the show.
The state was also known for the high number of people who had gone missing.
It was also during a period when the Zetas were emerging as an independent cartel and trying to show their power and strength to anyone who thought to challenge them.
In 2010, the cartel are believed to have murdered more than 350 farmers and migrant workers in Mexico and Guatemala who refused to join their ranks.
The group have since set up killing camps around Mexico where they train their enforcers, many as young as 15 years of age.
The FBI understands that the Zetas control many U.S.-based cocaine gangs, including the Mexican Mafia.
While most of the original Zetas who worked for the Gulf Cartel have either been captured or killed, younger and ever more violent, feral killers have been happy to take their place.