MEXICO CITY — The capture of the purported leader of Mexico’s savage Zetas drug gang has boosted the crime-fighting bona fides of new President Enrique Peña Nieto, analysts say, but they warn that it may bring a new flood of violence to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Helicopter-mounted Mexican marines chased down the pickup truck of alleged cartel boss Miguel Ángel Treviño, a.k.a. “Z-40,” and took him into custody outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo on Monday without firing a shot. They also grabbed two other cartel suspects, $2 million in cash, and a small arsenal of guns and ammunition.
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.
The syndicate’s stronghold is the busy border crossing of Nuevo Laredo, and some observers warn that Treviño’s capture could unleash a power struggle for control of the city — either with other cartels or within the Zetas hierarchy.
“Treviño’s arrest could change Mexico’s criminal landscape substantially if Los Zetas begin to unravel in his absence,” said Scott Stewart, an analyst at Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor.
Enemies of the Zetas gang, such as the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, Mexico’s most powerful, could attempt a push into Nuevo Laredo if they smell weakness, he said.
“The places where cartel-
related violence could rise as a result of Treviño’s capture will depend on the ability of Los Zetas to replace their top leader as well as the strategies of Los Zetas’ rivals,” Stewart said.
A question now is whether Treviño will be extradited to the United States for prosecution. He faces federal U.S. drug trafficking and weapons charges for allegedly shipping hundreds of pounds of cocaine and other narcotics across the border each week.
Extraditions of Mexican cartel suspects to the United States reached record levels under Calderón, but the Peña Nieto administration said it wants more crime lords convicted at home to strengthen the country’s justice system.
“We’ll have to see to what extent the new administration wants to follow in Calderón’s footsteps,” said Martin Barron Cruz, a researcher at Mexico’s Institute of Criminal Sciences. “But I don’t think they’ll extradite him.”
Treviño’s quiet arrest was also a chance for Peña Nieto’s administration to show it was departing from the Calderón-era convention of parading captured crime bosses before television cameras, flanked by heavily armed soldiers and police officers. The good guys wore masks — making them look scarier than the suspects — while the alleged criminals smirked and mugged for the cameras.
Peña Nieto officials say they are no longer interested in making media celebrities out of drug lords. When news of Treviño’s capture was delivered by Mexican officials late Monday, it came with none of the usual pageantry.
Television viewers instead saw a few mug shots of Treviño, nothing more.