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 near the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The U.S. federal official was not authorized to speak to the press and asked not to be identified.
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.
On his 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' 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, whose fatal shooting by authorities last year left Trevino Morales in charge.
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.
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales began his career as a teenage gofer for the Los Tejas gang, which controlled most crime in his hometown across the border from Laredo, Texas. He soon graduated from washing cars and running errands to running drugs across the border, and was recruited into the Matamoros-based Gulf cartel, which absorbed Los Tejas when it took over drug dealing in the valuable border territory.
Trevino Morales joined the Zetas, a group of Mexican special forces deserters who defected to work as hit men and bodyguards for the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s.
Stories about the brutality of "El Cuarenta," or "40" as Trevino Morales became known, quickly become well-known among his men, his rivals and Nuevo Laredo citizens terrified of incurring his anger.
"If you get called to a meeting with him, you're not going to come out of that meeting," said a U.S. law-enforcement official in Mexico City, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
One technique favored by Trevino Morales was the "guiso," or stew, in which enemies would be placed in 55-gallon drums and burned alive, the official said. Others who crossed the commander who be beaten with wooden planks, he said.
Around 2005, Trevino Morales was promoted to boss of the Nuevo Laredo territory, or "plaza" and given responsibility for fighting off the Sinaloa cartel's attempt to seize control of its drug-smuggling routes, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. He orchestrated a series of killings on the U.S. side of the border, several by a group of young U.S. citizens who gunned down their victims on the streets of the American city. American officials believe the hit men also carried out an unknown number of killings on the Mexican side of the border, the U.S. official said.
In one attack in the U.S., the killers shot the intended victim's stepbrother and fled the scene, according to testimony at one of the hit men's trial. As the hit men fled, Trevino Morales called them from Mexico and ordered them to return and shoot the man he had originally wanted killed, who was accused of not paying the Gulf Cartel for drugs.
In 2006, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas defeated the Sinaloa cartel in Nuevo Laredo, a victory that emboldened them as they began spreading south to towns and cities that had never before seen organized crime. They set up criminal networks to control transit routes for drugs, migrants, extortion, kidnapping, contraband of pirated DVDs and CDs and countless other criminal activities, intimidating local residents and committing gruesome murders as an example to the uncooperative.
According to the U.S. official, Trevino Morales was in charge of Nuevo Leon, Piedras Negras and other areas until March 2007, when he was sent to the city of Veracruz following the death of a leading Zeta in a gunbattle there.
That same year, Trevino Morales and Lazcano began pushing for independence from the Gulf cartel after cartel head Osiel Cardenas Guillen's extradition to the U.S.
The Zetas split from the Gulf cartel and by 2008 had operations in 28 major Mexican cities, according to an analysis by Grupo Savant, a Washington-based security think tank.
In February 2008, Lazcano sent Trevino Morales to Guatemala, where he was responsible for eliminating local competitors and establish Zetas control of smuggling routes. He orchestrated the military-style ambush of Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon in March 2008 and may even have fired the bullet that killed him, the U.S. official said.
Trevino Morales was then named by Lazcano as national commander of the Zetas across Mexico despite his lack of military background, earning him the resentment of some of the original ex-military members of the Zetas, the official said.
The promotion involved Trevino Morales in virtually every decision by the Zetas, the official said.
Trevino rose to the top of the Zetas last year after leader Lazcano died in a shootout with Mexican marines in the northern state of Coahuila.
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.
He also moved bulk shipments of dollar bills back into Mexico, the documents say.
Trevino Morales' brother, sister and mother lived in Dallas but he had many relatives around Nuevo Laredo and, while moving frequently to avoid authorities, he was believed to often return to his hometown, the U.S. official said.
Follow Michael Weissenstein on Twitter at — http://twitter.com/mweissenstein
Caldwell contributed to this report from Washington D.C. Olga R. Rodriguez and E. Eduardo Castillo contributed from Mexico City.