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We've been reporting this week on Mexico's drug mafias, and this morning we'll talk about a drug cartel about which there are as many legends as facts. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers Los Zetas to be the most dangerous drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. They've earned a reputation as super-gangsters, adept at military-style ambushes and bold jailbreaks.

NPR's John Burnett tries to separate fact from fiction.

JOHN BURNETT: Here on the Tex-Mex border, the Zetas are mythic, their crimes chronicled in the media and memorialized in narco-ballads.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: They're the most feared, most emulated criminals in Mexico. But who are the Zetas? I started my search with the DEA's head of intelligence, Anthony Placido.

Mr. ANTHONY PLACIDO (Head of Intelligence, Drug Enforcement Administration): They are a formidable criminal organization. They're heavily armed with .50-caliber sniper rifles and heavy, military-grade ordnance.

BURNETT: Placido knows them well: In July, the DEA announced indictments of 19 top Zeta and Gulf Cartel leaders. None has been captured or killed yet.

Mr. PLACIDO: They are every bit as ferocious and as capable as a military force as some of the rumors believe them to be.

BURNETT: There were 31 original Zetas - elite army counter-narcotics commandos who defected and went to the dark side to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. They're called Zetas after their radio code, the letter Z.

But after the 2003 arrest of Gulf drug lord Osiel Cardenas, as one observer put it, the lion wised up and now controls the handler.

The Zetas have morphed into their own cartel. Their zone of influence ranges from the lower Texas border, south along the Atlantic and Caribbean coastal states of Mexico, through Chiapas and all the way into Guatemala, where they trans-ship South American cocaine to Mexico.

But their base remains the charmless, industrial, border cities in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

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BURNETT: Nuevo Laredo is the most important trade border crossing in Latin America, and it's Zeta territory.

From 2004 to 2007, the Zetas fought a savage turf war with Sinaloan interlopers with bazooka and grenade attacks. Now, the gun battles have quieted, and the streets of Nuevo Laredo seem outwardly normal again.

Unidentified Man: Hola, hola, hola, hola. Como esta? hola. Aqui esta.

BURNETT: Residents still won't talk about the Zetas, fearing retribution. A well-connected local journalist agreed to speak candidly if she would not be recorded.

Her comments are read here by NPR's Marisa Penaloza.

MARISA PENALOZA: People feel more secure now, that's for sure, but we're still wary. No one even honks their horn in the streets here. You might anger the wrong person. And now, every thug with a pistol says he's a Zeta because he knows it terrifies people here. I had my car spray-painted with graffiti recently - Zeta 25. It was some gangbangers. They're all little Zeta wannabes.

BURNETT: To get the official story, I went to the ornate Presidencia Municipal and sat down with Mario Mendoza, the fresh-faced, recently appointed, 28-year-old police chief of Nuevo Laredo. Mendoza is understandably reticent. Four years ago, an earlier police chief announced on his first day on the job: I'm not beholden to anyone. By day's end, he was lying dead with 30 bullet holes in him, the work, reportedly, of a Zeta hit squad.

I asked Mendoza point-blank about the extent of the Zeta underworld. He blanched.

Chief MARIO MENDOZA (Police Chief, Nuevo Laredo): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: I can't tell you if they exist or not. You read a lot about them, but I can't tell you if they're here. What I can say is that our city is very, very, very tranquil.

To get a clearer picture of what the Zetas are doing in Nuevo Laredo, you actually have to cross the international bridge to Laredo, where people are not as afraid to talk.

Roberto Garcia is a homicide detective in the Laredo Police Department who earned local notoriety for sending two Zeta assassins who operated in Laredo to prison.

Garcia says as a border cop for 18 years, even he's shocked by the cartels' gruesome games of one-upmanship.

Mr. ROBERTO GARCIA (Homicide Detective, Laredo Police Department): Well, I'll kill two of you. OK, you kill two of me, I'll kill three of yours, plus cut off their heads. Okay, I'll make a - agiso(ph). And it's like they're trying to…

BURNETT: Agiso?

Mr. GARCIA: Yeah, agiso. They'll put them in a 55-gallon drum, fill it with gasoline, and they'll burn the body and they'll just, you know, be just bones or ashes. OK, let's - let me top you off. You know, let's - you do this, I'm going to do that.

BURNETT: Law-enforcement sources say it's hard to tell who is a true Zeta anymore. Many of the original 31 military deserters have been killed or captured. What's more, Garcia says, there are copycats.

Mr. GARCIA: A lot of people say, we're Zetas, and they're not even involved with the Zetas. They don't have nothing to do with the Zetas. They terrorize people. They do a lot of extortions, calling business owners: Hey, we're Zetas. We're going to kidnap you if you don't do this.

BURNETT: The real Zetas, like any ambitious mafia, have expanded into all sorts of rackets, says Stephen Meiners. He's a Latin America analyst for STRATFOR, a global intelligence company based in Austin.

Mr. STEPHEN MEINERS (Latin America Analyst, STRATFOR): The Zetas have been a very good case study for what happens to Mexican criminal organizations when the government crackdown makes it harder to traffic drugs across Mexico. The result for the Zetas has been that they expand into all these other forms of criminal activity in order to make money: extortion, kidnapping for ransom, human smuggling and now oil siphoning.

BURNETT: That's right, pipeline siphoning. In August, Mexican authorities reported the Zetas used false import documents to smuggle at least $46 million worth of oil in tankers to U.S. refineries. What law enforcement fears the most are Zeta jailbreaks - broad daylight, frontal attacks to free their captured comrades.

Today, authorities in Guatemala are taking extraordinary security measures to guard a top Zeta commander, Daniel Perez Rojas, alias Cheeks. They're anxiously awaiting his extradition to Mexico. He was arrested in Guatemala last year for drug trafficking.

Mr. EDY MORALES (Chief of Guatemalan Prison System): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: This is a highly delicate matter, said Edy Morales, chief of the Guatemalan prison system. He said the high-value prisoner is constantly rotated between cells, his hearings are held in secret chambers inside the prison, and he's guarded by Guatemalan army special forces.

Mr. MORALES: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: We know very well who the Zetas are, the prison chief said, and we're ready to prevent whatever kind of escape attempt, by land or air.

Zeta influence here in the United States is debatable. Local police say Zeta operatives have been identified in Texas cities such as Laredo and Dallas, though the DEA still maintains cartel spillover violence is minimal. But they don't necessarily have to cross the border to be dangerous.

On September 4th, there was a firefight between traffickers and Mexican soldiers in the streets of Matamoros, right across the Rio Grande from the University of Texas at Brownsville. Bullets flew across the river and struck the rec center and a parked car on campus, says interim provost Tony Zavaleta.

So what does that mean when you have bullets flying across your campus from a drug shootout in Matamoros?

Mr. TONY ZAVALETA (Interim Provost, University of Texas, Brownsville): I'm not going to say that it's becoming normal or that we're going to take it cavalierly, but it's not that unusual anymore.

BURNETT: So who are the Zetas? They're very, very dangerous.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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