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 that 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.
President Enrique Peña Nieto came into office promising to drive down levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping but has struggled to make a credible dent in crime figures. And his pledge to focus on citizen safety over other crimes has 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. But 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 Peña Nieto’s U.S. and Mexican critics alike.
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 than his older brother.