News Column

Zetas Chief's Fall Spells Uncertainty for Cartel

July 16, 2013

Arguably the most feared drug lord in Mexico was arrested early Monday morning near Nuevo Laredo by the Mexican navy.

The arrest was made at 3:45 a.m. Monday about 16 miles south of Nuevo Laredo after the Mexican navy learned that the head of the Zetas cartel, Miguel Angel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, would travel along dirt roads between the states of Coahuila and Tamaulipas, according to comments made by Eduardo Sanchez, undersecretary for the Mexican Government Secretariat, during a news conference Monday night.

At the time of the arrest, Trevino, 40, was traveling along a dirt road with three other men when a helicopter from the Mexican navy moved in to intercept, forcing the vehicle to pull over while ground troops closed in and arrested the men without firing a single shot, Sanchez said.

At the time of the arrest, Mexican authorities also seized $2 million, eight rifles and 500 ammunition rounds of various calibers. The other two men were identified as Abdon Federico Rodriguez Garcia, 29, and Ernesto Reyes Garcia, 38, who were whisked away along with Trevino to Mexico City, where they will face charges, Sanchez said.

"This individual has seven arrest warrants signed by different judges for organized criminal activity, drug trafficking, murder, torture, money laundering and possession of restricted weapons," the official said in Spanish.

Sanchez stated that Trevino was responsible for ordering the kidnapping and execution of 265 migrants in San Fernando, Tamps. The bodies of those migrants were found over time in various mass graves throughout the region.

During the news conference, Sanchez stated that the arrest was done by Mexican authorities and didn't mention any U.S. cooperation. Such collaboration was standard during the previous Mexican federal administration, when the two countries played a role in the capture of several kingpins.

The capture of Trevino comes at a crucial time for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has tried to minimize raging drug violence in Mexico, said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary and co-author of The Executioner's Men, a book detailing the history of the Zetas.

"It's so ironic," the author said. "Pena Nieto talks about everything but the drug war and then he captures the second most important capo in the country."

The Sinaloa cartel's Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, more powerful but less brutal than Trevino, remains at large.

Zeta history

The Zetas began as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel, the transnational criminal organization that has historically controlled drug trafficking in Tamaulipas and South Texas. The group was made of former Mexican military and federal police officers who were recruited by then-Gulf Cartel head Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who feared betrayal by other Gulf Cartel members. The two groups split in early 2010, leading to a bloody struggle that continues to this day.

While not one of the original Zetas, Trevino assumed control of the organization after the death of Heriberto "Executioner" or "El Lazca" Lazcano, who was killed by the Mexican military in the Mexican state of Coahuila on Oct. 12, 2012.

Trevino, a Nuevo Laredo native, began his criminal career as a teenager in Dallas and Nuevo Laredo stealing car parts before moving up to small-time drug dealing and smuggling, through which he drew the attention of the Gulf Cartel in the early 1990s and soon climbed the organization's ranks thanks to his ruthlessness.

In the U.S., Trevino is named in a 33-count indictment filed against a large number of Gulf Cartel and Zeta bosses accusing him of drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping and ordering murders in both the U.S. and Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Justice had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Uncertain future

The arrest delivers a devastating blow to a drug trafficking organization that has set itself apart as the most brutal and violent group, Grayson said.

In all likelihood, the leadership of the organization will fall to Trevino's brother, Omar "El 42" Trevino Morales, Grayson said, adding that most of the original Zetas as well as other potential leaders have been either killed off or arrested.

"I think Omar will hunker down in Coahuila because that is where they have the strongest presence," the author said. "He has worked that plaza before."

While the leadership of the group will likely not be heavily contested by the other Zetas, the outlook is not very promising, Grayson said.

Omar Trevino "is not his brother, nor is he El Lazca," the author said. "Lazcano knew military strategy; he was a GAFE (Mexican Special Forces member). The Trevinos are more involved in business and in sadistic violence."

Monday's arrest is a cause for celebration for El Chapo, Mexico's most powerful drug lord, who has been at war with the Zetas for a long time, Grayson said.

Guzman has formed an alliance with his former enemies from the Gulf Cartel in 2010 to take out the Zetas, which at this point are all alone, he said.

"They sought to make themselves out to be the most sadistic most brutal criminal organization," Grayson said. "It has backfired."

The Zetas are hated by the Mexican armed forces, by the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, the Knights Templar and the Nueva Generacion de Jalisco.

"Their only allies are the Juarez Cartel and the Beltran Leyva organization -- both of which are very weak," Grayson said.


(c)2013 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)

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