Center for Strategic Communication

Alleged members of Los Zetas presented to media by the Mexican marines on Oct. 24. Photo: SEMAR

When Mexican marines killed the leader of the Zetas earlier this month, they killed the only person capable of holding Mexico’s most dangerous cartel together. But instead of collapsing, the cartel could become even more dangerous. That’s the conclusion reached in an upcoming report from West Point.

“I think it will be harder to detect and determine who the heads are of these smaller groups, and by that defeat them,” Samuel Logan, the director of intelligence firm Southern Pulse and the report’s author, tells Danger Room. The reason why involves the complex and shifting allegiances and economics of Mexico’s drug trade, and the risks in killing or capturing drug lords. Like insurgent warlords, killing one can provoke more bloodshed as rivals scramble to fill the vacuum.

The report appears in the forthcoming issue of CTC Sentinel, a monthly security newsletter from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, one of the military’s premiere think tanks on terrorism. Now, as the Afghan war winds down, it’s turning its eyes to Mexico — and specifically, to the Zeta Cartel.

Which isn’t exactly a cartel, at least not fully. Yes, the Zetas make money by trafficking narcotics from Guatemala to the U.S. border. They engage in extortion, kidnapping and smuggling. But the Zetas are structured differently from a traditional cartel, and are more like a decentralized network of criminal cells. Where a traditional cartel like the Sinaloa Federation is structured from the top-down like a pyramid, a Zeta cell may only be loosely connected to another in a nearby town, though they share the same brand name and the same distribution network. It’s the Zetas brand, and the cells are the franchises like armed and deadly fast food restaurants.

Nor did the Zetas start out as drug dealers at all, but as former Mexican army commandos who turned into enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, now the Zetas’ enemies. After a split with the Gulf Cartel in 2010, the Zetas applied their military training and loose structure to create an entire nationwide criminal enterprise. The formula worked regardless of the fact that few Zetas today have any military training, but because of who held the whole structure together: drug boss Heriberto “Z-3″ Lazcano. Individual Zeta cells would pay a cuota, or tax, to Lazacno and his second-in-command Jose “Z-40″ Trevino. In return the cells would be allowed to operate relatively freely.

Other than the tax, all the ex-military boss asked of his franchises was their loyalty. Logan notes the Zetas would distinguish themselves not only by their brutality and precision, but through “a level of espirit de corps more recognizable in a military unit than a criminal organization” seen in organized prison breaks, refusing to leave their dead Zetas behind, and “the dogged pursuit of arrested plaza bosses by their rank-and-file.”

After Lazcano was killed in a military operation earlier this month, the Mexican government handed his body over to a funeral home. What did the Zetas do? They showed up with guns and seized the remains. But with Lazcano gone, the loose franchise structure he built could be in trouble. Trevino was never a member of the Zetas’ old-school founding military cadre. ”Trevino is prone to confrontation and violence,” Logan writes. But Trevino also “likely does not receive the same level of respect Lazcano enjoyed among the rank and file.” The break-up could also spark violence that’s “spectacular at localized levels in cities and states where the organization once controlled its own rank-and-file.”

There are some signs this is happening. Following Lazcano’s death, narco-banners appeared in the border city of Nuevo Laredo announcing a declaration of war against the Zetas. The group, calling itself the Legionaries, described themselves on the banners as “renegade Zetas who were betrayed by ‘Z-40′” and promised “an eye for an eye” killings of “people from the Zetas and their families.”

They’re not the first. Prior to Lazcano’s death, Trevino was already muscling his way to replace the now-ex-kingpin. Another Zeta franchise boss named Ivan Velazquez Caballero — known by the alarming name “El Taliban” — waged a brief war on Trevino until he was captured by the Mexican military. He likely won’t be the last.