MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Mexico's US-aided security forces have tacked another crime lord's pelt to the wall with the capture of brutal Zetas cartel boss Miguel Angel Treviño, but the ruthless gangsters he commanded remain active and perhaps as dangerous as ever.
In a well-coordinated operation, Mexican navy special forces captured Treviño in the early hours Monday as he drove with two other men on a dirt back road about 20 miles from the Rio Grande at South Texas. Treviño, accused of ordering or personally carrying out hundreds of murders, was captured without a shot fired, the Mexican authorities said.
Catching Treviño, one of Mexico’s most wanted men, marks the biggest drug war success under Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who began a six-year term last December promising improved tactics against the gangs.
From his base in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Treviño — known as Z-40 ("Zeta Cuarenta") — has nominally led a fearsome array of Zetas cells, with perhaps thousands of gunmen, operating in 20 of Mexico's 32 states as well as Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.
While Treviño's arrest will disrupt the gang's operations, it won't end them.
Treviño's younger brother, Omar, known as Z-42, is widely considered his presumed successor. Though he shares Miguel's reputation for brutality, it remains unclear how effective a leader Omar will prove. Zetas cells in recent months have bucked the boss’ orders, sparking internal bloodletting, even as rival gangs have moved into his territory and government forces kept the pressure on.
"Is this the end of the Zetas? As an identifiable and cohesive organization probably not much remains," Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican government intelligence analyst wrote in his security-focused blog, Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead). "There is very little that can contain the process of fragmentation."
Yet, Hope writes, there will "continue existing individuals calling themselves Zetas, who act like Zetas."
The Zetas were founded in the 1990s by army special forces deserters who went to work for the Gulf Cartel as assassins and enforcers. They broke with the Gulf leadership three years ago and have been waging bloody skirmishes with the cartel and other rivals since.
Lacking the drug trafficking expertise of other Mexican gangs, the Zetas make their money levying tolls to allow smuggling of cocaine, marijuana and meth and migrants through their territory. They've also become proficient at extortion, kidnapping, petroleum rustling and other rackets.
Like Treviño, few of the current Zetas have a military background. But many have been trained in military tactics and operate in the style of guerrilla warfare. Their signature is the beheading or other gruesome execution of rivals, often filmed and uploaded to the internet.
Among other atrocities, Mexican officials accuse Treviño of personally ordering the murder of at least 265 innocents, including at least 72 Central American migrants, pulled off inter-city buses or flatbed trucks and slaughtered in 2010 and 2011 near a town 100 miles below the Rio Grande.
"It's worth noting the cruelty with which they carried out their criminal acts and the brutality with which they attacked their victims," Eduardo Sanchez, the Mexican government’s security spokesman, said in announcing Treviño's arrest Monday night.
In addition to the $2.5 million reward offered by Mexico, the US government put a $5 million price on the head of Treviño, either 40 or 43 years old, who grew up partly in Dallas and began his criminal career there.
He stands accused in both the Mexico and the United States for drug trafficking, money laundering and murder.
A federal court in Austin in early May convicted another Treviño brother, Jose, of laundering millions of dollars in gang profits through a large racehorse farm in Oklahoma.
In the Monday press conference, Sanchez ignored a question about US participation in the capture, saying instead that it resulted in “practically a Mexican intelligence” operation. The US Embassy issued a terse congratulations: "yet another advance by the people of Mexico in the dismantling of organized crime."
Still, US fingerprints are all over Treviño's arrest.
The Mexican navy's special forces — some 400 highly trained men stationed in rapid response bases around the country, as well as a 1,800-strong marine brigade based in Mexico City — have worked closely with US military and intelligence units for at least the past five years.
That relationship has caused tension with Mexico's army and federal police, which the Peña Nieto administration has sought to ease by forging a unified command headed by the interior department and downplaying the importance of the individual security services.
Both Mexican Navy Secretary Vidal-Francisco Soberon and Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos are in Washington this week meeting with US officials. Soberon, a favorite of US officials and a close aid to the former navy boss who worked closely with Washington, was promoted by Peña Nieto last December over higher ranking officers.
"I don't see a downplay of the navy's role by the new administration at all," says Iñigo Guevara, a defense and security analyst with the Colectivo de Analisis Para La Seguridad Con Democracia, a Mexico City think tank focused on security issues. "Selection of its current leadership indicates a continuation of the navy's role as a principal internal security agency.
"While the role remains the same, the spotlight is different,” Guevara said. “The administration's unofficial slogan is less spotlight, more actions."
Surveillance of the border region by US and Mexican drones has forced gangsters largely to abandon the use of SUV convoys of gunmen that once plied the highways unmolested. It's no accident that Treviño was traveling at night, on back roads, accompanied by just a single bodyguard and, reportedly, a Zetas accountant.
Mexican marines last October killed Heriberto Lazcano, Treviño's predecessor as Zetas boss, who was attending a baseball game accompanied by just two other men in a small village in Coahuila state, not far from Nuevo Laredo.
What happens when you cut off a cartel's head?
Treviño's arrest will spark retribution in areas where the Zetas wield control, “given the fact that the Zetas organization is so vindictive,” said Mike Vigil, a former chief of the US government’s Drug Enforcement Administration Mexico operations who now works as a private consultant.
At the same time, the Zetas weakening will quickly spur the rival Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, to try to seize control of Zetas-dominated trafficking routes, Vigil said.
The deaths or arrests of other top gang bosses, notably the navy's killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009, sparked bloodbaths elsewhere as both their underlings and rivals battle to vied to take over their rackets.
Likely flashpoints following Treviño's fall include Nuevo Laredo and the cities below it on the Rio Grande, the adjoining border state of Coahuila and the industrial city of Monterrey, where the Zetas have been fighting an alliance of El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas onetime paymasters.
Guzman lost an attempt in 2004 and 2005 to seize control of Nuevo Laredo, the busiest crossing on the US Mexico border, but has been attacking the Zetas in the city in the past year, now in alliance with the Gulf Cartel drug trafficking organization.
"We are going to continue cleaning up Nuevo Laredo," vowed banners purportedly signed by Guzman that appeared Monday in Tamaulipas state, which includes the border city. "We're giving all the support to the [Gulf Cartel] to clear Zetas from Mexico."