In light of Treviño’s “level of command and his capacity for violence,” said Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong, “this is an enormous blow by the Mexican state.”
Headline writers in Mexico have celebrated the group’s “decapitation,” a morbid play on Treviño’s reputation for beheadings and butchery.
On Thursday, Attorney General Jesus Murillo called Treviño’s arrest “a step toward the elimination of violence” in Mexico, blaming the group he led “for the majority of violence” in a country that has seen more than 70,000 gangland slayings since 2006.
But many drug-war observers doubt his removal will slow the killings, particularly if a power struggle follows within the Zetas hierarchy or if other groups sense an opportunity to move in on the cartel’s turf.
“Their rivals will want to retake the territory they’ve lost,” said Mexican security analyst Raul Benitez.
Benitez and others note that Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, made an unsuccessful bid to take Nuevo Laredo in 2004 and 2005, resulting in a bloodbath. “Chapo still wants the city,” Benitez said.
The Zetas’ biggest rival, the Gulf cartel, has rebounded in recent years, even as its leaders have been taken down one after another by Mexican security forces. It might attempt to reassert dominance in strategic trafficking hubs in northern Mexico, such as Monterrey, Reynosa and Saltillo.
The next phase of the fight will be critical, other security experts said, because the Mexican government has a chance to choke the Zetas while they’re reeling and further debilitate the organization.
“It’s like a boulder,” said David Gaddis, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regional chief of operations who was based in Mexico from 2006 to 2009 and now runs a security-consulting firm, G-Global Protection Solutions. “If you can break them up into pebbles, you’re much more able to manage the security threat.”
That was the strategy the Colombian government used in the 1980s and 1990s to take back the country from drug lords. Retired Colombian general Oscar Naranjo, the country’s most famous cartel-fighter, is a top security adviser to President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City.
“As Colombia learned 25 years ago, it’s not necessarily smart to attack all cartels simultaneously. It spreads forces too far and too thin,” said former DEA official Michael Braun.
“One of the things Mexico has learned is they need to focus on one or two at a time,” said Braun, now a private security consultant with Spectre Group International. “Over time, you can turn these situations around.”
Treviño is in the custody of prosecutors in Mexico City. He faces federal drug-trafficking and other charges in the United States, but there has been no word from U.S. or Mexican officials on whether he’ll be extradited.