Ending the “ruthless leadership” of the Zetas?

Trevino’s arrest doesn’t mean drug related violence in Mexico is over.

A frame grab taken from a video filmed by the SEMAR of captured Miguel Angel Trevino
Miguel Angel Trevino, the leader of the Zetas cartel, was captured by Mexican security forces on Monday [Reuters]

On Monday morning, Mexican security forces captured Miguel Angel Trevino (alias Z-40), the leader of the brutal Zetas cartel. Trevino was arrested along with two other Zetas, a bodyguard and an accountant, $2m, and some weapons at 3:45 am in the town of Anahuac, southwest of Nuevo Laredo, a city on the US-Mexican border. The Zetas leader is wanted in both Mexico and the United States on drug trafficking, money laundering and murder charges. There is good reason to celebrate his capture as a man responsible for so much violence in the Americas has been caught and will now face justice either in Mexico or the US. However, the impact of his arrest on the Zetas – the overall levels of drug trafficking, violence and organised crime – and US-Mexican security cooperation remain fraught with uncertainty.

The Zetas were founded in 1999 by deserters of the Mexican Army’s elite special forces who went on to work for the Gulf Cartel as assassins and enforcers. Over time its members grew to include former Mexican police and former Guatemalan Kaibiles special forces. They broke with the Gulf leadership in February 2010 and have since become one of the most feared criminal organisations in Mexico and the region. To an extent greater than some of the other drug cartels, the Zetas are known to have gotten involved in all sorts of criminal activities, including extortion, kidnapping, homicide and theft and to have used excessive violence to control territory and their business operations. The Zetas are partly responsible for over 70,000 Mexicans who have lost their lives to the drug war in the last six-plus years.

This combination played itself out in a grotesque August 2010 slaughter of 72 undocumented migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, who were trying to cross Mexico and reach the United States. It is believed that the migrants were killed because they could not pay the extortion demanded of them by the Zetas nor were they willing to go work for them. Nearly two hundred bodies of undocumented migrants were found in mass grave the following summer in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, as well. The Zetas have been well-known to videotape the beheadings of their victims and to upload the videos to the internet for mass effect and to leave their victims’ bodies hanging from bridges in well-populated areas. Trevino is also known to have cooked his enemies in diesel fuel and to have removed their faces to make it difficult for family members to recognise their lost loved one. In a brutal world, Trevino stood out.

What is nearly certain is that his arrest will have no effect on the amount of illegal drugs making its way to the US and that someone else in the organised crime hierarchy will replace him as one of the “new” most ruthless and most feared drug traffickers.

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Trevino took control of the Zetas following last October’s killing of Heriberto Lazcano in a firefight with Mexican marines. Now analysts are speculating what his arrest will mean for the Zetas and other cartels serving the US drug market. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) congratulated the government of Enrique Pena Nieto and stated that Trevino’s capture put an end to the “ruthless leadership” of the Zetas. Manuel Rueda and Santiago Wills at ABC/Univision wrote that his capture “may have dealt a crippling blow to one of that country’s biggest drug gangs,” a sentiment shared by several others.

It’s unclear to many whether Trevino’s younger brother Omar Oscar Trevino Morales (alias Z-42) has the skills to command the thousands of presumed members of the Zetas cartel. There is a good chance that Trevino’s capture will accelerate the fragmentation of the Zetas that has been going on for several months, especially since Lazcano’s death. Steven Dudley at InSight Crime speculates that rivals within the Zetas will challenge Omar and each other for control leading to an increase in drug-related violence.

It is also possible that should the Zetas be unable to recover or there is a prolonged and violent leadership struggle, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel might benefit the most: they can move to take control of the Zetas drug trafficking routes, which is something they might have already been doing. At best, then, the people of Mexico are looking at no effect on the level of violence in the country and, at worst, an explosion of violence as new and old groups accommodate the vacuum that might be created with the arrest of Trevino, especially with it following the October 2012 death of former leader Lazcano.

It is unclear what, if any, role the US played in Trevino’s capture. In the past, the US has been known to have provided Mexican authorities with information leading to the arrest of high-profile drug traffickers. However, President Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has tried to distance his security officials from the US since taking office in December, and neither the US nor the Mexican authorities have addressed US involvement in the most recent capture.

On Monday afternoon, Mexican authorities held a relatively subdued press conference to announce Trevino’s arrest,  a far cry from the more celebratory arrests that dominated the six-year term of Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party. Pena Nieto should get a bump in his approval ratings and a freer hand in tackling organised crime regardless of whether Trevino’s capture was the result of a new strategy in the war on drugs, a holdover from Calderon’s presidency and or the result of continued US involvement in the drug war in Mexico.

In short, there is great uncertainty surrounding what impact Trevino’s arrest will have on violence in Mexico. Internal feuding within the Zetas over leadership and drug routes could lead to greater violence. Attempts by the Sinaloa cartel to take over routes currently dominated by the Zetas could also lead to an increase in violence. The particular brutality that marked Zetas’ killings might be reduced without Trevino leading the charge, but very few people think that overall levels of violence will decrease.

What is nearly certain is that his arrest will have no effect on the amount of illegal drugs making its way to the US and that someone else in the organised crime hierarchy will replace him as one of the “new” most ruthless and most feared drug traffickers.

While Trevino’s arrest should be celebrated, it should not derail the growing conviction in Latin America and the US that there needs to be significant reforms to international drug policies, including a major reorientation toward treating drug dependency as a public health issue and, perhaps, the decriminalisation of certain illegal drugs.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog here

You can follow Mike on Twitter @CentAmPolMike