MEXICO CITY – The capture of the notoriously brutal Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales is a serious blow to Mexico's most feared drug cartel but experts cautioned that taking down the group's command structure is unlikely to diminish violence in the border states where it dominates through terror.
Trevino Morales, 40, was captured before dawn Monday by Mexican Marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The truck was halted by a Marine helicopter and Trevino Morales was taken into custody along with a bodyguard and an accountant and eight guns, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.
It was the first major blow against an organized crime leader by a Mexican administration struggling to drive down persistently high levels of violence. Experts on the Zetas said the arrest, at least the eighth capture or killing of a high-ranking Zeta since 2011, could leave behind a series of cells scattered across northern Mexico without a central command but with the same appetite for kidnapping, extortion and other crimes against innocent people.
"It's another link in the destruction of the Zetas as a coherent, identifiable organization," said Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico's domestic intelligence service. "There will still be people who call themselves Zetas, bands of individuals who maintain the same modus operandi. There will be fights over illegal networks."
The Zetas remain active in Nuevo Laredo, the nearby border state of Coahuila, the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, parts of north central Mexico and Central America, although Trevino Morales' arrest means the gang has become "a franchise operation not a vertical organization," said George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
The Zetas leader and his alleged accomplices were flown to Mexico City, where they are expected to eventually be tried in a closed system that usually takes years to prosecute cases, particularly high-profile ones.
Trevino Morales, known as "Z-40," is uniformly described as one of the two most powerful cartel heads in Mexico.
The Zetas authored some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug war, leaving hundreds of bodies beheaded on roadsides or hanging from bridges, earning a reputation as perhaps the most terrifying of the country's ruthless cartels.
On Trevino Morales' watch, 72 Central and South American migrants were slaughtered by the Zetas in the northern town of San Fernando in 2010, authorities said. By the following year, federal officials announced finding 193 bodies buried in San Fernando, most belonging to migrants kidnapped off buses and killed by the Zetas for various reasons, including their refusal to work as drug mules.
Trevino Morales is charged with ordering the kidnapping and killing of the 265 migrants, along with numerous other charges of murder, torture and other crimes, Sanchez said.
The debilitation of the Zetas has been widely seen as strengthening the country's most-wanted man, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who has overseen a vicious turf war with the Zetas from hideouts believed to lie in rugged western Mexico.
Trevino Morales is expected to be succeeded by his brother, Omar, a former low-ranking turf boss seen as far weaker.
Stories about the brutality of "El Cuarenta," or "40" as Trevino Morales became known, quickly became well-known among his men, his rivals and Nuevo Laredo citizens terrified of incurring his anger.
One technique favored by Trevino Morales was the "guiso," or stew, in which enemies would be placed in 55-gallon drums and burned alive, said a U.S. law-enforcement official in Mexico City, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. Others who crossed the Zeta commander would be beaten with wooden planks, the official said.
Trevino Morales was indicted on drug trafficking and weapons charges in New York in 2009 and Washington in 2010, and the U.S. government issued a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
According to the indictments, Trevino Morales coordinated the shipment of hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana each week from Mexico into the U.S., much of which had passed through Guatemala.