The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Forced Criminal Activities along Mexico's Eastern Migration Routes and Central America Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies


Northeastern Mexico is plagued with transnational criminal organizations. While the Gulf Cartel controls most of the state of Tamaulipas, the Zetas are mostly present in the state of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila as well as in a few, but highly important, cities in Tamaulipas. The cities of Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, and Piedras Negras in Coahuila are key locations in the migrant route where the Zetas have significant control. Our fieldwork research in these cities identified changes in the Zetas’ modus operandi. In recent years, the cartel has favored maintaining a seemingly low profile instead of having a conspicuous presence in the cities it controls. Nevertheless, it still operates at full force. Interested in expanding their revenue sources, the Zetas have expanded to the cities of Monterrey and Piedras Negras, where they dispute control with the Gulf Cartel.

Zeta Territory

After the Zetas severed its ties with the Gulf Cartel in 2010, they began a violent effort to expand its presence nation-wide. The Zetas successfully established themselves in key cities in northern Mexico, where they exert significant influence over local societies and municipal governments. As a result of Zetas’ operations, the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Piedras Negras have suffered high levels of violence. In these cities, the Zetas used threats and violence to shut down civil society and to curb freedom of the press.

The city of Nuevo Laredo is home of the Zetas. During the peak of cartel violence in Tamaulipas, infighting among different Zetas cells contending over the cartel’s supremacy chastised the city. In 2012, violence in Nuevo Laredo reached unprecedented levels. Despite violence within its own ranks, the Zetas have established a monopoly on power, extortion, drug trafficking, prostitution, and kidnapping in the city. In recent years, infighting and violence rates have decreased.

Field Research

The city of Nuevo Laredo is important because of its strategic location. It connects Mexican and American highways, enabling the transit of people and goods between the two countries. Despite Nuevo Laredo being controlled by the Zetas, migrants in Monterrey we interviewed deemed it to be safer for them than any other border city in Tamaulipas. In recent years, violence has been less conspicuous. Once one of the city’s hallmarks, public displays of mutilated bodies and violent threats are no longer a regular occurrence in Nuevo Laredo. Nevertheless, local experts still report that convoys of Zetas vehicles and Zetas infiltration of unused buildings are still common in the city.

Recently, the Zetas have increased their interest on migrant smuggling as a revenue source. But their connection with smuggling is confined to charging migrant smugglers with safe passage fees. The Zetas control the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River, and they demand fees for every migrant crossing the border. Although official reports list drowning as the cause of death of people found dead in the river, experts and migrants assert that many of those bodies belong to migrants who were killed by the Zetas for not paying their fees. A local expert on migration described one migrant smuggling system put in place by the Zetas.  The Zetas charge people, known as “panteras,” with the responsibility of collecting fees from smugglers and then paying the cartel. Each “pantera” is in charge of a group of smugglers, known as “coyotes.” The “coyotes” are the ones who get to move migrants across the border. They are usually young men and migrants themselves who were forced by the cartel to work as smugglers. In one of our interviews, we were told of an incident in which criminals invaded a local shelter and kidnapped two young migrants. Our source told us that the two men were suspected “coyotes” whose “pantera” did not pay the cartel on time. The whereabouts of the two men have since been unknown. Execution is the usual penalty for nonpayment.

As the Zetas have kept a mostly low-profile in the city and violence levels have decreased, local experts told us that they do not know if the cartel has been coercing migrants to join their ranks. However, they deem it possible that migrants may be working as lookouts or carrying out kidnappings and extortions for the Zetas. Circa 2010, the Zetas used to recruit migrants. In an interview with a shelter staff member, he told us that he and two colleagues were driving in Nuevo Laredo one time when they were ambushed by criminals. They were forced out of the vehicle and were brutally assaulted. The assault only ended when one of the victims identified one of his attackers as a migrant who stayed at the shelter a few months prior to the incident.

In Coahuila, we visited the cities of Saltillo, Torreon, and Piedras Negras. Each of these cities is important for migrants for distinct reasons. Saltillo and Torreon are triage cities, where migrants choose whether to move east to Monterrey or to go north to Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras is important due to its location. It is the last Mexican city that migrants reach before crossing into the United States. Migrants in Coahuila are not yet safe from danger. The Zetas control most of Coahuila and human traffickers operate in the state, particularly Saltillo. We interviewed government officials and migration activists who told us that the Zetas are no longer publically committing violence as they used to in 2009 to 2012, but they are still present and operating in Coahuila.

We were told that identifying human trafficking in Coahuila is difficult because potential victims are constantly moving to other states or out of the country. We were informed that there has not been any official report of human traffickers forcing migrants into sexual servitude in the state. Nevertheless, there seems to be evidence that criminals move human trafficking victims from the state to trafficking hotspots elsewhere. In our interviews, we were told that between 2010 and 2012, the peak years of the drug wars in Coahuila, cartels forced migrants to join their ranks. According to experts monitoring violence levels and cartel activity in the state, there is currently no conflict in Coahuila propelling cartels to recruit migrants. When violence was at its highest in Coahuila, the Zetas kidnapped, extorted, and forced migrants to perform domestic, sexual, and criminal activities. According to local experts, currently the Zetas restrict their involvement with migrants to only kidnappings and extortion.