Violent urban legend has always swirled around Mexican drug traffickers, but few of them have ever set out to build a reputation as vicious as that of Heriberto Lazcano, 28. As leader of the Zetas, a new and ruthless drug gang situated along the U.S. border, Lazcano has perpetrated crimes that range from the brutal to the bizarre. In one instance last summer, Mexican officials say, Lazcano murdered a prominent Tijuana publisher in his car in broad daylight as his two young children watched horrified from the backseat. In January the Zetas attempted a raid on a federal prison in Matamoros, Mexico, during which they allegedly blindfolded, handcuffed and shot six prison employees in the head. Lazcano's men--many of them former commandos in the Mexican military--have launched rocket-propelled grenades at police, and Lazcano is purported to have fed human victims to lions and tigers that he keeps on his ranches. It's little surprise that Lazcano is known as "El Verdugo"--the Executioner.
While savagery like El Verdugo's might evoke a Hollywood gangster movie, it has become a grim reality of life in some Mexican border towns. Upstart groups like the Zetas have emerged largely as a result of the Mexican government's recent crackdown on the big cartels that have long monopolized the country's $25 billion-a-year drug trade. Experts call the phenomenon "atomization": as the large Mafias decompose, more reckless "microcartels" spin off or move in. In their heyday in the 1980s and '90s, Mexico's biggest kingpins ran networks that employed thousands of people; now gangs like the Zetas, whose members number at most in the low hundreds, are waging vicious battles against one another--and against remnants of cartels like the Sinaloa Mafia--to gain a foothold in the trade. Officials in the U.S. and Mexico believe those turf fights are behind a surge in murders, kidnappings and criminal extortion in several towns along the U.S.-Mexico border. The border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, never known for drug violence until the Zetas moved there a few years ago, saw more than 60 gangland-style killings in 2004, and they have continued at the same bloody pace this year.
That is causing alarm among U.S. officials, who see signs that the violence is spilling across the border. About 30 U.S. citizens have been kidnapped or killed in Nuevo Laredo since last summer. A clash there between local police and gang members last month culminated in a shoot-out on the Gateway to the Americas Bridge, which spans the Rio Grande and connects the town to Laredo, Texas. U.S. officials fear that recent drug slayings as far north as Dallas have involved Zeta triggermen. Last September the Zetas allegedly kidnapped Yvette Martinez, 28, a Laredo woman, along with a friend; the women are still missing. "These criminal organizations used to have rules about women and children," says Martinez's stepfather William Slemaker. "Now they're out of control."