NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—A car whipped across the street, cutting off the taxicab. Six men, sporting military-style crew cuts and sunglasses and toting AK-47 assault rifles and walkie-talkies, quickly emerged and encircled the cab.
"What are you doing taking photos around here?" one demanded. He examined the photographer's press ID, which had been passed nervously through the window. Then, as quickly as they'd appeared, they vanished into the gloom as darkness approached.
The men were members of the Zetas, former Mexican elite commandos—trained to combat drug traffickers—who've switched sides. As the government dispatches federal police and soldiers to cities along the U.S. border in an effort to stanch a war between rival drug gangs, the Zetas are the major challenge it faces.
No one knows precisely how many former elite commandos are in the employ of drug cartels. But their work is well known in the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros, hard against the U.S. border, where they control neighborhoods and watch for any outsiders who might be government spies.
They're thought likely to have been responsible for the execution Jan. 20 of six prison employees near the federal maximum-security prison at Matamoros. And it was fear that they were plotting to bust out jailed drug traffickers that prompted a crackdown Jan. 15 at the La Palma prison in central Mexico, where one of the country's best-known drug bosses, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was housed.
"There's no antecedent to this type of phenomenon," said Jorge Chabat, a political analyst who studies the drug trade. "The majority of other criminals don't have this type of training. They move like guerrillas, appear in one city and then another. They're not a traditional army. ... Their violence is sophisticated, and that should worry the Mexican government."
The attorney general's office for years dismissed the Zetas as decimated. But officials now acknowledge that curbing them is a main goal of the current crackdown, in which hundreds of federal agents have been sent to border cities and dozens of inmates have been transferred within the correction system to break up prison gangs.
Maximum security prisons at La Palma, outside Toluca, and Matamoros remain under virtual military occupation, and Cardenas, for whom the Zetas are thought to work, has been transferred to Matamoros. Another major drug boss, Benjamin Arellano Felix, remains imprisoned in La Palma.
Whether the government can beat the Zetas is an open question. Many think the Zetas are better trained and better armed than their government opponents.
When 100 soldiers encountered a reported eight drug traffickers Jan. 28 in the state of Sonora, the troops withdrew. News reports quoted army commanders as saying, "They have better weapons. We could do little."
The Zetas drew their name from the serial numbers they were given when the commando unit they once were a part of formed in the second half of the 1980s, under the organized-crime unit of the attorney general's office. Each number began with the letter "Z." The unit's training included air and sea assaults.
In the 1990s, drug dealers recruited former members of the force, primarily as hit men, largely along the U.S. border.
Prosecutors say they now control nearly all illegal activity along the border. They're accused of more than 200 murders and are thought to be responsible for drive-by murders, executions and kidnappings. They extort money from small border businesses for protection, from used-car dealers to beauty shops.
"For the army, they are traitors who must be caught and punished," said Jose Luis Vasconcelos, the head of organized-crime prosecution in the attorney general's office.
They have ranged far beyond their original home on the border. Last May, Zetas dressed in military-type uniforms aboard pickups sprang two dozen inmates, including five members of Cardenas' Gulf Cartel, from the Apatzingan prison in Michoacan state in central Mexico, a thousand miles south of their first base of operations.
Fear of the Zetas is palpable along the border. "Everyone's afraid," said a businessman from Laredo, on the U.S. side. "Business is down on both sides. You don't mention the Zetas or traffickers. Word gets around."
"You say one wrong thing to the wrong person and you and your family end up dead in a ditch," one housewife said.
Federal police agents, on patrol in Reynosa, south of Brownsville, Texas, asked that they not be identified. "We don't want to die," one said. But they also said they believed they'd overcome the Zetas eventually.
"Sooner or later, something's got to give. They'll have to come out to resume their dealings. We call it the cockroach effect: They run, but come back to the place where there's food," said an officer who helped capture Cardenas in Matamoros in 2003.
Last month, the U.S. government warned Americans to stay clear of many parts of border cities. According to the State Department, 27 Americans have been kidnapped in the past six months, a majority in Nuevo Laredo. Two of them were killed, 14 were released and 11 are still missing.
The Zetas are just one sign of the strength of Mexico's drug gangs even from behind bars. The military takeover of La Palma found that drug traffickers jailed there had set up a parallel administration for the prison, with access to cell phones and other sophisticated communications.
La Palma had become lax, officials said. X-ray machines and metal detectors didn't work. Officials said that guards, who make $400 to $900 a month, allowed weapons and drugs in.
La Palma wasn't the only place where drug gangs operated. Last Sunday, federal authorities arrested the head of President Vicente Fox's travel staff, Nahum Acosta, for allegedly passing information to a drug cartel about Fox's travel agenda.
Acosta, 42, has denied the charge. He remains under guard at a secret safe house, according to Mexican news reports. Fox, who at first pronounced the arrest a sign of the drug rings' capabilities, has since tried to downplay its importance, saying Acosta had no access to "confidential information."
Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said his office had "serious" and "convincing" proof of a leak from the president's office.
"It's obvious the government was worried but they realized they had to be more cautious," said Chabat, the drug-trade expert. "The good news is that it was discovered. The bad news is why did it take them so long?"
Mexican officials said they'd continue the crackdown until they'd regained control from the drug gangs. More police and soldiers now range along a 200-mile swatch of north Mexico from Nuevo Laredo to Reynosa and Matamoros. Police said residents near the border welcomed the presence of federal police but wondered if violence would resume when they left.
Outside the Matamoros prison, guards in ski masks keep a tight cordon, allowing no visitors to pass.
"It's a fight that will never end," one police captain said. "There's always something new. We have reports the Zetas have moved. They're all over, but this is their territory. The question is what happens next?"
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-DRUGWAR
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