By E. Eduardo Castillo and Mark Stevenson
MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s most brutal drug cartel leader built a business empire stretching from the Southwest United States to Central America, but Miguel Angel Trevino Morales’ final days of freedom were spent lying low in the hinterlands of Tamaulipas state, traveling only at night over back roads as Mexican marines closed in on his trail.
The last of the Zetas drug cartel’s old-guard leaders saw fate swoop in on him in the pre-dawn hours Monday when a military helicopter flew low over his pickup truck, then almost touching the ground, faced down the vehicle with its guns, Mexico Federal Security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
The vehicle stopped, and three men emerged. Two hit the ground while the third tried to run. All were captured by marine ground forces who had been watching the movements of 40-year-old Trevino Morale, Sanchez told The Associated Press Tuesday. Not a single shot was fired.
Time was clearly running out for the cartel leader better known — and feared — by his nickname, “Z-40,” a play on police radio code for a commander. Mexico’s navy, which has brought down a number of top drug lords, “found out that he had been traveling in the early morning hours on dirt roads. They had been corralling him in little by little,” Sanchez said.
Trevino Morales had $2 million in cash and eight rifles with him when marines caught him outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, long the Zetas’ base of operations. He was taken to Mexico City for questioning, but unlike the days of former President Felipe Calderon, there was no perp walk by a handcuffed suspect or piles of cash and guns put on display for the TV cameras.
Instead, the government released only a single video of a rumpled-looking, un-handcuffed Trevino Morales walking through prosecutors’ headquarters, saying it wanted to avoid glamorizing drug traffickers or risk rights violations that could lead to a dismissal of charges. Authorities didn’t even refer to his nickname, Z-40.
The Zetas are Mexico’s most violent, if not richest, cartel, with the largest turf. A New York indictment against Trevino Morales estimates he received $10 million per month in income from cocaine sales alone, and that wasn’t even the gang’s strong suit.
His arrest was particularly pleasing for the United States. Trevino Morales allegedly orchestrated a series of killings on the U.S. side of the border, including several by a group of young U.S. citizens who gunned down their victims on the streets of Laredo. His gang was also believed to be responsible for the slayings of U.S. ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in 2011 and American citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trevino Morales is “one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said. “His ruthless leadership has now come to an end.”
The Zetas have kidnapped or held tens of thousands of migrants, often demanding ransoms of $3,000 each. Federal officials say the Zetas stole and smuggled at least $46 million worth of Mexican oil to U.S. refineries. Trevino Morales channeled about $16 million to his brother in the United States to buy, train and race horses.
Trevino Morales’ methods, like those of Zetas leaders before him, led to a “Zetanization” of how cartels do their fighting, said George Grayson, an expert on the group and a professor of government at the College of William &Mary.
“Inflicting fear into the heart of your target is an extremely efficient way to get what you want,” Grayson said. “That genie is out of the box.”
Trevino Morales was being held for questioning along with a bodyguard and accountant captured in Monday’s raid. Sanchez said government forces “have been able to obtain information on the possible movements of his other accomplices,” and phones or computers carried by traffickers often provide such information, even if the suspects themselves don’t talk.
U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents Laredo, Texas, and was briefed on the arrest by U.S. and Mexican officials, noted: “The U.S. was very involved in this.”
“The U.S. has been helping in trying to track him for a while. There have been some close calls,” Cuellar said. “Here you have U.S. intelligence combined with the (Mexican) marines implementing it.”
While Trevino Morales is wanted on several counts in the U.S., it was unclear whether Mexico would try him first at home or extradite him. He will probably be held at a top security prison near Mexico City, where no escapes have occurred.
It was a surprising end for a capo so violent he soaked rivals in diesel fuel and burned them alive in 55-gallon drums. Many had thought he would go down with guns blazing, but Sanchez said the precision raid apparently caught him by surprise.
For the group most terrorized by Trevino Morales, Central American migrants who were kidnapped, beaten and extorted by the tens of thousands, the arrest “will certainly be a relief,” said the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde. The Roman Catholic priest runs a migrant shelter in the state of Oaxaca and has spent much of the last decade living under death threats from the Zetas.
“This was a blow, but it’s only skin deep,” Solalinde said. “The Zetas operate in almost 20 states of Mexico. They have a lot of public servants on their payroll, a lot of police.”
Solalinde said that in southern Mexico, the Zetas have used their ties in Honduras and Guatemala, where they also ship cocaine and grow opium, to recruit street gang members to kidnap and kill Central American migrants in Mexico.
The Zetas forcibly recruit some migrants, kill those who won’t join and increasingly kidnap young girls, who are forced into prostitution at Zeta-run bars or are made to distribute Zeta drugs.
“We’re talking about human trafficking, organ trafficking, kidnappings, forced recruitment, everything,” Solalinde said.
The Zetas have run their enormous turf with almost unbelievable brutality since the founders, a corps of special forces defectors who went to work for drug traffickers, splintered off into their own cartel in 2010 and metastasized across Mexico.
The Zetas were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of Mexico’s drug war, including the slaughter of 72 Central and South American migrants in the northern town of San Fernando in 2010, authorities said.
The following year, federal officials announced the discovery of 193 bodies buried in San Fernando, most of them migrants kidnapped off buses and killed by the Zetas, some because they refused to work as drug mules. Sanchez said Trevino Morales is charged with ordering those crimes.
In 2011, a woman who angered the Zetas by blogging about crime and violence on a Nuevo Laredo website was found decapitated, her head placed atop a computer keyboard, with a message warning fellow bloggers about speaking out.
Experts say the arrest is unlikely to diminish the violence in the short term.
“The international experience … demonstrates that there is a danger of greater atomization, and extremely violent armed conflict, if the hundreds of legal businesses that the Zetas run are not frozen or seized,” said organized crime analyst Edgardo Buscaglia. He noted the many firms set up by the cartel “are where the Zetas real financial power is located.”
The Zetas operate in 16 different lines of business, both legal and illegal, he said, including pirated goods, importing contraband consumer goods and weapons trafficking. The Zetas reportedly use their turf in Cancun to smuggle Cuban migrants into Mexico, and their bases in northern Mexico to steal oil from government pipelines and sell it to refineries.
Sanchez said officials were on alert for possible flare-ups of violence following the arrest, and it was unclear who could be in line to replace him.
The Zetas remain active in Nuevo Laredo, the nearby border state of Coahuila, the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, as well as parts of north central Mexico and Central America, although Trevino Morales’ arrest means the gang has become “a franchise operation, not a vertical organization,” Grayson said.
One possible successor is Trevino Morales’ younger brother, Omar, a former low-ranking turf boss who’s seen as a far weaker figure. There are some reports that Omar is also suffering from a chronic illness that would weaken his chances of taking over.
In the past, the arrest or death of top Mexican capos have led some cartels, like the Beltran Leyva gang, to splinter into smaller, vicious warring gangs with small patches of turf. Others, like the Arellano Felix cartel, have largely been subsumed by the usual winner in these disputes, the Sinaloa cartel.
Any debilitation of the Zetas could strengthen the country’s most-wanted man, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who has overseen a vicious turf war with the Zetas from suspected hideouts in rugged western Mexico.
One thing is certain: The Zetas’ success has spawned imitators.
“Today, there are probably people calling themselves Zetas who don’t necessarily have any real link to the organization,” Sanchez said.