MEXICO CITY -- The top leader of the vicious Zetas drug-trafficking paramilitary cartel was captured Monday, Mexican authorities announced.
Mexican naval special forces seized Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias Z-40, in Nuevo Laredo, a border city across from Laredo, Texas, in the state of Tamaulipas, long a Zeta stronghold, government security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
This is the most significant blow to organized crime since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office more than seven months ago. His government will certainly attempt to use the arrest to prove its commitment in the drug war -- a commitment that has been questioned in many circles, including among U.S. officials who had previously worked extremely closely with their Mexican counterparts but found the rules changing under the new administration.
Peña Nieto has preferred to downplay drug cartels and the sway they hold over vast parts of Mexico and instead focus on reducing killings, kidnappings and extortion -- with only spotty success.
The removal of Treviño Morales from his perch at the head of the most-feared drug and smuggling gang in Mexico is an important success for the government and law enforcement. But it will also probably ignite a wave of violence as his cohorts fight to succeed him.
It also strengthens the hand of the most powerful drug lord in Mexico, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, whose Sinaloa cartel competes with the Zetas and may now have its eyes on Nuevo Laredo, Treviño Morales’ hometown and one of the most lucrative crossing points for the shipment of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S.
An indictment in U.S. federal court from May 2012 described Treviño Morales as a Zetas leader who laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds through U.S. businesses, including a thoroughbred horse-racing operation allegedly run by a brother.
Treviño Morales secured his violent rise in the Zetas after the killing of Heriberto Lazcano, then the group’s top commander, in October.
Lazcano died in a shootout with naval forces. Shortly afterward, his body was spirited from the morgue by an armed commando and never recovered, in one of the more bizarre episodes of this long battle with cartels.
The Zetas were formed nearly a decade ago by leaders of the Gulf cartel as their muscle, recruited from a group of deserters from the Mexican army. But the Zetas eventually split from the cartel and surpassed it, spreading its operations through southern Mexico and Central America and exhibiting levels of brutality not previously seen with such regularity. Beheadings, massacres of migrants, torture and dismembering of live victims all became routine parts of the Zetas repertoire.
Sanchez said, for example, that among the numerous warrants for his arrest, Treviño Morales stands accused of the killings of more than 260 migrants.
The U.S. government was offering a $5-million reward for Treviño Morales' capture, while the Mexican government was offering about $2.5 million.
Most of Mexico’s biggest scores in the drug war, such as this one, came through intelligence work by the Mexican navy, which has collaborated most closely with the U.S. out of all military forces here.