MEXICO CITY — The top leader of Mexico's most feared and violent drug-trafficking paramilitary cartel, the Zetas, was captured Monday, Mexican authorities announced, the first significant blow to organized crime in the young government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexican naval special forces seized Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias Z-40, before dawn Monday in Nuevo Laredo, a border city across from Laredo, Texas, in the state of Tamaulipas, long a Zeta stronghold, government security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
Sanchez said Treviño Morales was wanted for numerous serious crimes including the slaughter of more than 260 migrants who were dumped into mass graves in Tamaulipas.
"It's worth emphasizing the cruelty with which he committed these acts," Sanchez said in a news conference.
Sanchez said that the navy, long considered Mexico's most efficient crime-busting organization, had mounted an extensive intelligence operation to track Treviño Morales to his headquarters near Nuevo Laredo. At 3:45 a.m., they zeroed in on him and his pickup with a helicopter and ground personnel, executing the capture "without firing a single shot," Sanchez said.
A load of guns and ammunition was discovered in the pickup, along with $2 million.
Sanchez showed a photograph of a jowly Treviño Morales, a gangster since his youth in both Mexico and Texas, with what appeared to be bruises or cuts on his face. Sanchez put his age at 40, although other sources have him both younger and older.
This is the most important arrest since Peña Nieto took office more than seven months ago. His government will certainly attempt to use it to prove its commitment in the drug war — a commitment that has been questioned in many circles, including among U.S. officials who had previously worked extremely closely with their Mexican counterparts but found the rules changing under the new administration.
Peña Nieto has preferred to downplay drug cartels and the sway they hold over vast parts of Mexico and instead focus on reducing slayings, kidnappings and extortion — with only spotty success.
Areas of cartel influence in Mexico
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The removal of Treviño Morales from his perch at the head of the most feared drug and smuggling gang in Mexico is an important success for the government and law enforcement. But it will also probably ignite a bloody wave of violence as his cohorts fight to succeed him.
It also strengthens the hand of the most powerful drug lord in Mexico, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, whose Sinaloa cartel competes with the Zetas and may now have its eyes on Nuevo Laredo, Treviño Morales' hometown and one of the most lucrative crossing points for the shipment of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.
An indictment in U.S. federal court from May of last year described Treviño Morales as a Zetas leader who laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds through U.S. businesses, including a thoroughbred horse-racing operation allegedly run by a brother.
Treviño Morales secured his own violent rise in the Zetas after the killing of Heriberto Lazcano, then the group's top commander, last October. Lazcano died in a shootout with naval forces. Shortly afterward, his body was spirited from the morgue by an armed commando and never recovered, in one of the more bizarre episodes of this long battle with cartels.
The Zetas were formed nearly a decade ago by leaders of the Gulf cartel as their muscle, recruited from a group of deserters from the Mexican army. But the Zetas eventually split from the cartel and surpassed it, spreading its operations through southern Mexico and Central America and exhibiting levels of brutality not previously seen with such regularity. Beheadings, massacres of migrants, torture and dismembering of live victims all became routine parts of the Zetas repertoire.
The U.S. government was offering a $5-million reward for Treviño Morales' capture, while the Mexican government was offering about $2.5 million. Sanchez would not say whether the U.S. had asked for Treviño Morales' extradition, the fate of many big crime bosses.
Most of Mexico's biggest scores in the drug war, like this one, came through intelligence work by the Mexican navy, which has had, out of all military forces here, the closest relationship with the United States.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.