MEXICO CITY – Alleged drug lord Miguel Angel Trevino Morales fled into heavy brush and fell at least once scratching his face in a failed attempt to escape capture this week, a Mexican federal government official said Wednesday.
The attempt to run through the scrub brush and thorny trees near the border city of Nuevo Laredo could explain the apparent scrapes seen on Trevino Morales' face in photos distributed by authorities after his arrest.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the case, said the scrapes didn't result from mistreatment by the marines who stopped Trevino Morales' truck before dawn Monday.
He said two men travelling with the purported leader of the brutal Zetas cartel dropped to the ground when a navy helicopter positioned itself in front of their truck. Trevino Morales tried to run off into the brush on the side of the dirt road, but was caught, he said.
It was a strange end for the man considered Mexico's most vicious and violent drug lord. Authorities said they found eight rifles in the truck, but not a single shot was fired.
Federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said Wednesday that Trevino Morales would first face trial in Mexico on multiple charges before any extradition request by the United States is considered.
"There is a long list of accusations in Mexico that he will have to face," including homicide, torture, organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and weapons possession, Sanchez said.
Trevino Morales, 40, better known by his nickname "Z-40," has been indicated in the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges.
Sanchez said that as far as he knew, the U.S. had not yet made any extradition request. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City declined to comment.
Some Mexicans expressed cautious hope that their country might finally be emerging from six years of nightmarish drug violence that has been blamed for more than 70,000 deaths and thousands of people being reported missing.
"I think this capture (of Trevino Morales) is very important, and could make the difference," said Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor.
"These people (the Zetas) are the ones who invented the whole process of violence, of decapitations, of hanging people from bridges," Gonzalez said. "If, despite all that, you see one of their most violent leaders arrested, it means that even despite those methods, they're being brought to justice."
Gonzalez said that given the brutality, low educational level and lack of sophistication of many of the Zetas' foot soldiers, the cartel's local affiliates could splinter to the point "where local authorities could handle them" if no clear leader emerges to replace Trevino Morales.
Mexico released figures this month suggesting drug-related killings nationwide had dropped nearly 18 percent in the seven months since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office Dec. 1.
However, experts said non-drug-related killings had not dropped as much, suggesting some deaths might simply have been reclassified, and noted that a decline in drug killings had started under the previous president, Felipe Calderon.
U.S. government figures on killings of U.S. citizens in Mexico say such homicides have dropped precipitously, to levels not seen since 2008. From a peak of 113 killings of U.S. citizens in 2011 and 108 in 2010, such homicides dropped to 71 in 2012. The U.S. government has not provided any figures for the first six months of 2013.
Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico's domestic intelligence service, said that "it's too early to know" what will happen to violence in the wake of Trevino Morales' arrest.
In the past, Mexico has seen varied reactions to the take-down of a major drug lord.
Following the arrests of most of the leaders of the Arellano-Felix cartel in the 2000s, the border city of Tijuana quieted down and killings dropped sharply while the rival Sinaloa cartel moved in to quietly take over much of the drug trafficking.
But after Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed in a shootout with Mexican marines in 2009, his cartel split into competing factions that waged bloody turf battles in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero and the resort city of Acapulco.
"I wouldn't be surprised if in places like Nuevo Laredo, where Z-40 had control, there may be battles to take over the leadership" of the Zetas cartel, Hope said. "But in other areas that are more in dispute ... there may be a more Tijuana-style solution."