MEXICO CITY — Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas drug cartel, has been captured in the first major blow against an organized crime leader by a Mexican administration struggling to drive down persistently high levels of violence, a U.S. federal official said Monday.
Several Mexican media outlets reported that Trevino Morales was captured by Mexican Marines in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas’ base of operations.
Trevino Morales, known as “Z-40,” is uniformly described as one of the two most powerful cartel heads in Mexico, the leader of a corps of special forces defectors who splintered off into their own cartel in 2010 and metastasized across Mexico, expanding from drug dealing into extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking.
Along the way, 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 numerous ruthless cartels.
The capture is a public-relations victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came into office promising to drive down levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping but has struggled to make a credible dent in crime figures. It adds to the long list of Zetas’ leaders who have been captured or killed in recent years, including Zeta head Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, who was shot to death last year.
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.
“El Chapo is greatly strengthened because he will now have access to the crown jewel of narco-trafficking, Nuevo Laredo,” said George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
Pena Nieto’s pledge to focus on citizen safety over other crimes sparked worries among U.S. authorities that he would ease back on predecessor Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed strategy aimed above all at decapitating drug cartels. The arrest of Trevino, a man widely blamed for both massive northbound drug trafficking and the deaths of untold scores of Mexicans and Central American migrants, will almost certainly earn praise from Pena Nieto’s U.S. and Mexican critics alike.
“There continues to be the perception that capturing this type of individual has a strategic value and the logic persists that it’s preferable to fragment criminal groups and reduce them in size. On this point there isn’t much change,” said Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico’s domestic intelligence service.
Trevino Morales, who is in his early 40s, is expected to be succeeded by his brother, Omar, a former low-ranking turf boss seen as far weaker than his older brother.