‘Don Zefe’, the mysterious founder of Los Zetas

Latin America World
“MX” for Borderland Beat
Early life and career: 1990s
It was the 1990s, and Gilberto García Mena (“El June”) ruled over drug trafficking operations in La Frontera Chica, a border stretch in Tamaulipas that includes the municipalities of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, Miguel Alemán, Mier, and Guerrero. One of his top enforcers was Zeferino Peña Cuéllar (“Don Zefe”), a man who would later become one of the founders of Los Zetas. Don Zefe was friends with Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Barrera (“El Chupón”), a federal police officer who would later become the mayor of Miguel Alemán (1999–2001). But the story of Don Zefe is worth the tale. He was born in Tamaulipas and grew up in a seemingly ordinary family of multiple siblings. He graduated from college with a degree in civil engineering, and then went on to join the Miguel Alemán Municipal Police force just like his father did. However, once in the police, Don Zefe decided to pursue a different career: organized crime.

Besides his police duties, Mexican authorities suspected that Don Zefe also worked with the Gulf Cartel, a criminal group based in Tamaulipas. He reportedly worked alongside El June and his lead smuggler Edelio López Falcón (“El Yeyo”). Don Zefe originally started as El June’s financial operator, but both eventually became involved in drug trafficking activities together.  During that time, the Mexican military was stationed in Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, to combat drug trafficking activities in the area. Among their prominent members were Arturo Guzmán Decena (“Z-1”) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (“Z-3”). But the drug money was too enticing, and Z-1 and Z-3 – along with multiple others – switched sides and began to work for El June’s faction.

In 1997, Don Zefe and El June recruited them as their personal bodyguards. El June’s legal team advised him and Don Zefe to hire mercenaries because illegal possession of firearms was considered a more serious crime than drug trafficking at that time. This meant that Don Zefe could “arm” himself with the military and get away from facing illegal firearm charges. Don Zefe was reportedly responsible for paying the corrupt military personnel stationed in Tamaulipas in large cash amounts. The money he used to pay them was collected in the U.S. by Don Zefe, who travelled there in a vehicle and smuggled the money in bags disguised with food supply. On his way back to Mexico, Z-3 and Z-1 provided him with armed protection to transport the money. This group of military men that Don Zefe relied on would later become the foundation of Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel’s former paramilitary group that was originally composed of ex-commandos.

Leadership tenure
In the late 1990s, El June met and befriended Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, a rising drug trafficker who was working in Miguel Alemán with the federal police. Cárdenas Guillén eventually became the top leader of the Gulf Cartel, and appointed Don Zefe and El June as regional leaders of drug corridors in La Frontera Chica, a border stretch in Tamaulipas. Don Zefe was assigned as the leader of the Gulf Cartel in the municipalities of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Camargo, Miguel Alemán, Mier, and Guerrero. Little was known of Don Zefe’s involvement within the cartel. The Gulf Cartel regarded Don Zefe as a skilled leader and negotiator, specifically with rival cartels. He also commanded a squadron of assassins under Cárdenas Guillén.
According to Mexican federal authorities, Don Zefe mastermined multiple murders in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León since 1999. Among them included Armando Meléndez Sánchez, a political opponent of the mayor Rodríguez Barrera, and Jaime Rajid Gutierrez Arreola and Pablo Gaytán Mejía. The former was a commander in the Federal Judicial Police and the latter the Miguel Alemán Rural Police chief. In 2002, he was accused of participating in the murder of the local journalist Félix Alonso Fernández García, a harsh critic of the mayor. In 2005, Don Zefe was also suspected of ordering the murder of Alejandro Domínguez Coello, who was killed hours after becoming the Nuevo Laredo police chief. Investigators stated that Don Zefe murdered these people because they worked against his interests, or because of drug or money settlements.
Assassination attempt: 2001
On 30 October 2001, fourteen gunmen dressed in military uniforms stormed an estate in Hacienda Santa Lucía neighborhood in Monterrey to kill Don Zefe. They arrived at the property at around 5:45 a.m, and surrounded it with two Hummers and two Suburbans. The gunmen then went inside the premises by placing several portable stairs that helped them reached the estate’s rooftops. Other gunmen destroyed the main entrance gate. A shootout broke out between the gunmen and Don Zefe’s henchmen. Around twenty of Don Zefe’s henchmen were inside the premises when the shootout occurred. After nearly an hour of gunfire, Don Zefe’s men surrendered; some were kidnapped and forcibly taken in the assailants’ vehicles. René Montiel Muñiz and Eduardo Luna Estrada, two of Don Zefe’s alleged operators, were injured in the attack. Daniel de la Garza Aguilar, a former police officer and chauffeur, was killed. Don Zefe was not at the scene when the attack occurred, but he frequented the estate and was there hours prior.

The main line of investigation authorities were pursuing was that organized crime members linked to the Gulf Cartel tried to kill Don Zefe. Investigators stated that the attack was likely stemmed from the April 2001 arrest of El June. Initially, the Gulf Cartel suspected that El Yeyo provided authorities with information that led to his arrest. However, the police suspected that El June later discovered that it was Don Zefe and not El Yeyo who plotted against him. Other versions from the police stated the attack may have been ordered by El Yeyo as vengeance after he discovered that Don Zefe was the one that started the rumor that El Yeyo was the one responsible for El June’s arrest.
The assassination attempt against Don Zefe brought an increased attention against him and his properties. A few days later, Mexican federal authorities raided the Hacienda Santa Lucía estate and another one known as El Faisán, properties linked to Don Zefe. Don Zefe’s legal team has tried to recover the properties over the years, but they have been unsuccessful.

Possible whereabouts
Over the years in organized crime, Don Zefe reportedly amassed a fortune and bought multiple properties from his drug proceeds, including a cattle ranch in Miguel Aléman. Don Zefe defended the criminal accusations multiple times by stating that he was a legitimate cattle rancher, agriculture engineer, and businessman.
Unlike the rest of his accomplices, who were eventually arrested and/or killed during their manhunts, Don Zefe fell off the radar over the years and reportedly went into hiding outside of Mexico. In Mexico, he is wanted for drug trafficking and homicide and remains a fugitive. According to several accounts within organized crime circles, Don Zefe retired from the Gulf Cartel with the fortune he made during his tenure and may be in hiding in Brazil, Canada, or Cuba. His wife Manuelita Barrera de Peña still lives in Miguel Alemán, where she owns a kindergarten school under her name. Don Zefe used to sponsor the graduation ceremonies by giving out gifts, but he hasn’t been seen there in years.
Note: This post includes excerpts of the Wikipedia article of Zeferino Peña Cuéllar (“Don Zefe”), which I created/published on 17 July 2019.

Sources and notes