Mexico's President Felipe Calderon speaks during a news conference. (Virginia Mayo / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — An alleged local commander of the Zetas paramilitary cartel in the troubled border state of Coahuila has been captured, the Mexican navy announced Thursday, expressing hope that he might lead authorities to the notorious group's remaining top leader.
Said Omar Juarez was taken into custody on a prominent street in Saltillo, Coahuila's capital, the navy said in a statement released as the suspect was presented to reporters in Mexico City. In his possession were weapons and packages containing what may be cocaine and marijuana, the statement said.
Juarez was described by the navy as the Zeta operative in charge of Saltillo, who "presumably" has direct ties to Miguel Angel Treviño, the Zetas' top leader. Treviño emerged as the undisputed Zetas capo after Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a shootout with navy special forces last month.
Coahuila, which borders Texas and is Mexico's third-largest state, has recently been the subject of increased scrutiny after a series of high-profile events that revealed the extent to which the Zetas had grown to dominate the region.
In addition to Lazcano's killing, the subsequent stealing of his body by armed commandos, and the acknowledgment by officials that he was living freely in Coahuila, there were other events:
The former governor's son was slain in October, allegedly by Zeta operatives working in cahoots with local police, and in September one of the largest mass prison breaks in history took place, in the Coahuila town of Piedras Negras, staged by Zetas to free Zetas. The warden and 16 guards and other officials were detained on suspicion of aiding the escape; eight of the officials were released Thursday.
All of that was followed by a stunning series of interviews by the former governor, Humberto Moreira, who accused the state's lucrative mining industry of entering into a devil's pact with the Zetas and helping to finance their murderous ways. Moreira, who is mired in a scandal involving a $3-billion debt that he saddled the state with, offered to supply proof of the complicity but has not yet done so.
With less than a month left in office, President Felipe Calderon has sought to vigorously fend off a mounting chorus of criticism of the military-led offensive against drug trafficking networks, which he launched in the first days of his administration but which has yielded mixed results. More than 55,000 people have been killed in what authorities describe as drug war-related violence, and the two largest organizations, the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas, have grown to dominate large swaths of territory throughout Mexico and deep into Central America.
The Calderon strategy has been to go after cartel leaders like Lazcano and many others in hope of fragmenting the groups and making them easier to contain. But often, more violence follows as power struggles erupt, and new leaders eventually emerge.
"There are fewer leaders, but the operational capacity of the criminal groups does not seem to be weakened," Ernesto Lopez Portillo, executive director of the Mexico City-based Institute for Security and Democracy, said Thursday. "Organized crime is more powerful today than ever."