MEXICO CITY – With the capture of two top drug lords in little more than a month, the new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is following an old strategy it has openly criticized for causing more violence and crime.
Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, a top leader of Mexico's Gulf Cartel, was detained Saturday in a military operation near the Texas border, just weeks after the arrest of the leader of the brutal Zetas cartel near another border city, Nuevo Laredo.
Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong came to his post last December saying the strategy of former President Felipe Calderon to focus on cartel leadership only made the drug gangs more dangerous. The new administration, he said, would focus less on leadership and more on reducing violence.
Yet the new strategy appears almost identical to the old. The captures of Ramirez and top Zeta Miguel Angel Trevino Morales could cause a new spike in violence with battles for leadership of Mexico's two major cartels.
"The strategy of the military is exactly the same," Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said Sunday. "It's not a failure of the new government. It's the reality they face ... Changing strategy is a very slow process. In the short term, you have to act against the drug-trafficking leaders."
Ramirez, a drug boss in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, had been vying to take over the cartel since the arrest of the Gulf's top capo, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," last September. Some say he succeeded by reportedly killing his main Gulf rival, Miguel Villarreal, known as "Gringo Mike," in a gunbattle in March. Villarreal's death is still disputed by some.
The U.S. State Department also offered a reward of $5 million for the capture of Ramirez for several federal drug violations.
He was taken down during a major military offensive that involved air and ground forces in Rio Bravo, according to the Tamaulipas state government.
The once-powerful Gulf Cartel still controls most of the cocaine and marijuana trafficking through the Matamoros corridor across the border from Brownsville, Texas, and has an international reach into Central America and beyond. But the cartel has been plagued by infighting since Costilla's arrest, while also being under attack in its home territory by its former security arm, the Zetas.
The split is blamed for much of the violence in Reynosa, where there have been regular, public shootouts between Gulf factions and authorities in the last six months. The factions are willing to fight for the largest piece of the lucrative business of transporting illegal drugs to the biggest market, the United States. Mexico continues to be the No. 1 foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamines to the U.S. An estimated 93 percent of South American cocaine headed to the U.S. travels through Mexico, according to 2010 FBI statistics.
Before leaving office, Calderon repeatedly touted the fact that his forces had captured 25 of Mexico's 37 most-wanted drug lords, a strategy backed by the U.S. government with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and close cooperation with American law-enforcement, military and intelligence agencies.
With that strategy, Osorio Chong said, "we have moved from a scheme of vertical leadership to a horizontal one that has made them more violent and much more dangerous."
The new government also said it was going to limit the widespread and casual access that U.S. agents had to Mexican forces under Calderon.
But security analysts agree that close cooperation between the Mexican military and the U.S. continues along the border, despite messages from Mexico City. The coordinated efforts to track and capture Zeta leader Trevino had started under Calderon and continued, said George Grayson, a College of William & Mary professor who has written extensively on the Gulf and Zetas cartels.
"Enrique Pena Nieto would really like to not be going after capos," Grayson said Sunday. "He wants to change the agenda. He doesn't want the headlines to be about capos. But the situation in Morelos and Michoacan (states), and now the takedowns in the north have kept the capos on the front pages."
Violence also continues in the western state of Michoacan near the border of Jalisco state, where two other cartels fight for territory.
The administration tactic again has mirrored that of Calderon, sending more troops and federal police to try to regain control of the region, so far with little result.
Nine bodies, hands bound and shot, were found on an abandoned property near the town of Buenavista Tomatlan in Michoacan on Saturday. At least 23 bodies in total were found, counting those in neighboring Guerrero state, where drug cartels, vigilantes and security forces also have been fighting for much of the year.
Meanwhile, the Pena Nieto government continues to say its focus is on crime prevention to bring down violence. But there is very little evidence so far.
"It's a campaign slogan, a political discourse designed to convince the public," Benitez said. "They're giving very few resources to the prevention campaign."