It was the first major cartel takedown for Peña Nieto, who began his term in December amid doubts about whether his government would hunt crime bosses as aggressively as his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, given the reputation of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for making deals with Mexico’s underworld.
On Tuesday, the new president praised the capture of Treviño, saying it was an example of “coordinating intelligence and technology to fight gangsters and criminality.” Neither Mexican nor U.S. officials would say whether American agents had a hand in the operation.
Mexico’s marines, in particular, have worked closely for years with the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to target cartel bosses, but policy changes ordered by Peña Nieto have put limits on those contacts, leading Washington to grumble that the crime-fighting partnership would suffer.
U.S. officials offered congratulations on the operation.
“Treviño is one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years,” the DEA said in a statement, “and DEA will continue to support the Government of Mexico as it forges ahead in disrupting and dismantling drug trafficking organizations.”
Treviño, a wanted man on both sides of the border, had a reputation for extreme brutality, allegedly butchering rivals and orchestrating some of the Zetas cartel’s most loathsome crimes, including mass killings of Central American migrants in 2010 and 2011.
By arresting Treviño and pointing to a decline in drug-related killings, Peña Nieto’s team can claim that the government is making progress on two fronts: breaking up cartels and reducing violence.
The latter was a campaign promise made by Peña Nieto when he ran last year amid widespread frustration in Mexico with Calderón’s drug war strategy, which emphasized “capture-or-kill” missions, fed by U.S. intelligence, targeting cartel kingpins.
Treviño lasted less than a year as an alleged cartel leader. He assumed control after the previous Zetas commander, Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano, was killed in a gun battle with Mexican troops in October, officials said. Lazcano’s body was promptly stolen from the morgue, fueling speculation that he may still be alive.
Security analysts say Treviño’s brother Omar, alias “Z-42,” is in line to assume command of the Zetas, which operates a sprawling smuggling-and-extortion empire across eastern Mexico that reaches deep into Central America.