The capture of drug lord Miguel Angel Trevino Morales has dealt a blow to organised crime and scored political points for Mexico’s government, but it remains to be seen if the high-profile arrest will dampen the scourge of trafficking and violence.
Trevino – the leader of the ruthless Zetas cartel and nicknamed “Z-40” – was captured by helicopter-bourne Mexican marines, who intercepted a pickup truck carrying him and two foot soldiers. Some $2m in cash and several weapons were also recovered on a road on the outskirts of the border city of Nuevo Laredo on Monday.
The US government had offered a $5m reward for information leading to Morales’ capture, making him one of the most-wanted drug dealers in the world.
Mexico’s bloody drug war pits the military against rival gangs battling it out for control of the lucrative narcotics trade, worth tens of billions of dollars. More than 60,000 people may have been killed since 2007 after former president Felipe Calderón deployed 50,000 soldiers to patrol the streets.
|Trevino Morales, the Zetas Mexico drug cartel leader [Al Jazeera]|
The Zetas emerged in Mexico about a decade ago, mostly made up of former military-trained soldiers recruited by organised crime syndicates.
Its grisly reputation quickly grew with methods such as beheading and dismembering opponents, and innocent victims caught in the crossfire haven’t been spared.
The second-most powerful gang in Mexico is Sinaloa Cartel, however, it operates more like a corporation, rather than a bloodthirsty paramilitary force.
“They [Sinaloa] do not threaten the civilian population,” Professor Raul Benitez Manaut, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Al Jazeera.
Trevino has been accused of being one the country’s most barbaric drug traffickers, including allegedly overseeing massacres of Central American migrants in 2010 and 2011.
His ruthless leadership has now come to an end.
“Trevino Morales is accused of organised crime, homicide, crimes against health, torture, money laundering, importing firearms normally used exclusively by armed forces, among others,” government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters at a press conference in Mexico City.
Besides being the most brutal inside Mexico, the Zetas cartel also wields power outside the country, including connections with European drug markets, Professor Carlos García Cueva, from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Mexican-British Research, told Al Jazeera
Trevino also coordinated the shipment of hundreds of kilos of cocaine and marijuana each week from Mexico into the US, much of which had passed through Guatemala.
Some experts described Trevino’s arrest as President Pena Nieto’s biggest victory since taking office last December.
“This is a resounding success for the Mexican government,” Manaut said. “There was a rumour that the current administration could be negotiating with drug cartels, giving them some privileges and being corrupt, in exchange of stopping criminal actions. But this capture helps the government to refute that version.”
In the past 10 months, three of the Zetas’ four most-wanted leaders have been killed or captured by Mexico’s security forces. Drug-related killings in the first half of 2013 plummeted about 18 percent to 6,300 from the prior six months, the government said.
Trevino’s arrest could help lessen its violent reputation, one analyst said. “The [Zeta] drug gang has become a myth. They have become the most bloodthirsty group in Mexico,” said Professor Alexei Chevez, a contributor to the Mexico and Safety blog.
“The importance of this capture lies in the fact of attacking the violence this group represents. Their power is reduced since much of the fame of this criminal group was based on this man,” he added.
The Gulf Cartel was founded in the late 1990s and elite Mexican troops – some trained by US Special Forces – were recruited to act as the bodyguard for its leadership. Their training was designed to prepare them for counter-insurgency and, ironically, counter-narcotics operations.
With superior training and firepower, the cartel followed a basic premise: if you terrify your enemy enough, you may defeat them without even having to fight.
After consolidating control of Mexico’s Gulf coast for the Gulf Cartel during the early 2000s, a faction broke away on its own in 2004. The Zetas fanned out across the country, and so did their interests with involvement not only in drug smuggling, but also extortion and weapons and human trafficking.
“One of the main characteristics of this organisation is that they managed to emigrate to other areas of organised crime. This is one of the reasons of why they remain so feared,” Chevez noted.
Led by Trevino, the group is blamed for some of the drug war’s worst acts of violence, including the beheading of 49 people in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, and the killing of more than 260 Central and South American migrant workers.
News of Trevino’s capture was received with excitement among the Mexican media and the US government. “His ruthless leadership has now come to an end,” the US Drug Enforcement Agency said in a statement.
Trevino is now under interrogation and could face extradition to the United States.
The Mexican and US governments have not said whether the Americans helped with his capture, but some analysts have suggested it may have been a joint operation.
However, even if the arrest is viewed as a success for the country’s security, it could also launch a war of succession. Having neutralised such a high-profile gang leader raises questions as to what will happen now.
The Sinaloa Cartel and other organisations could try to move into Zeta territory while it’s vulnerable, sparking a new wave of drug-related carnage.
“The arrest of Trevino won’t have any effect on the flow of drugs into the United States, but it might create a spike of violence in Mexico,” warned Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.