MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines captured the leader of the nation’s most feared drug trafficking group, Los Zetas, along the northern border with Texas, marking a major blow to a crime gang with tentacles deep within the United States, authorities said Monday night.
Miguel Angel Trevino was detained before dawn near Nuevo Laredo, the border city across from Laredo, Texas, that is a stronghold for the drug trafficking syndicate, Eduardo Sanchez, a spokesman for the Interior Secretariat, said in a brief news conference.
Following a lengthy intelligence operation over a period of months, authorities launched an operation in which a naval helicopter forced a pickup truck carrying Trevino and two other men to stop along a remote dirt road at 3:45 a.m., Sanchez said. No shots were fired. The vehicle contained $2 million in cash, and eight firearms, he added.
Sanchez did not answer a question about whether U.S. agencies had played a role in Trevino’s capture. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration have worked closely with the Mexican navy on anti-drug trafficking operations in the past.
Sanchez displayed an overhead mug shot of Trevino, in which he bore apparent bruises on his face. The other two detained men were identified as Abdon Federico Rodriguez, 29, and Ernesto Reyes Garcia, 38.
The capture of Trevino, known by the nickname Z-40, marks the first major arrest of a crime gang leader under the seven-month-old government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came to office promising to lower the levels of violence afflicting Mexico.
The capture may spark greater violence in the near term around the northeast border as other crime groups try to muscle into Los Zetas’ turf. Nuevo Laredo is the busiest inland truck crossing along the U.S.-Mexico border and a key smuggling corridor. Los Zetas lost a previous leader just nine months ago, however, and appear able to survive succession struggles without unraveling.
The U.S. government had offered a $5 million reward for Trevino’s capture, and he faces multiple U.S. federal charges for money laundering and drug trafficking. Mexico had offered a 30 million peso (about $2.5 million) reward for his capture.
Trevino’s seizure marked a victory for Mexican marines, who work closely with U.S. counter-narcotics officials, and may alleviate concerns that U.S.-Mexico cooperation would diminish under Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party was accused in the 1980s and 1990s of accommodating drug traffickers.
Trevino, who is listed as either 40 or 42 years old, joined another notorious drug gang, the Gulf Cartel, in the late 1990s, where he formed an enforcement wing that included dozens of defectors from the Mexican army’s Airborne Special Forces Group. The enforcers took on the name Los Zetas, or “The Zs.”
In February 2010, a dispute between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel led to open warfare between the two groups.
In subsequent years, Los Zetas brought a new crime model to Mexico, using terror, beheadings, mass killings and brutal tactics to expand their empire, push out rival crime groups and establish control over large swaths of the country. The group engaged in extortion, kidnapping, migrant smuggling as well as trafficking in cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.
According to a federal indictment against Trevino and other Zetas filed last year in Austin, Texas, Los Zetas now “are the largest drug cartel in Mexico in geographical presence and control 11 states in Mexico.” Mexico has 31 states and a federal district.
Trevino has a reputation for grotesque savagery, even stuffing his enemies into drums and burning them alive or disemboweling them.
Over the years, first with the Gulf Cartel then with los Zetas, Trevino is believed to have operated in Nuevo Laredo and in Veracruz state along the Gulf Coast. Earlier in his life, he is believed to have lived in the Dallas area in Texas.
Trevino rose to become a co-leader of Los Zetas along with Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano. But after Lazcano’s apparent killing last October (an armed squad took his body from a funeral home and he is officially missing), Trevino became its top boss.
“He reportedly is responsible for smuggling multi-hundred kilogram loads of cocaine each week from Mexico to the United States and also facilitates smuggling of cocaine through Guatemala to the United States,” according to a State Department profile.
The U.S. government called Los Zetas “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.” In recent years, it has pushed its operations into Central America and the Andean region.
Despite his fierce image, Trevino has weaknesses, and one of them is American quarter horses. Trevino’s older brother, Jose Trevino, was among 15 people charged in June 2012 after U.S. agents swooped down on a ranch in Oklahoma, saying the cartel had spent $1 million a month on the horses. A jury convicted the elder Trevino and three others in May, and they face up to 20-year prison terms.
Who will succeed Trevino was not immediately clear. The Stratfor private intelligence company said in a brief note about the arrest that “Trevino’s brother, Omar ‘Z-42’ Trevino, will likely continue to maintain his role in criminal operations but it remains to be seen whether he has the capability or respect within the organization to replace his brother.”
Last week, the Interior Secretariat said 869 people were killed in June, bringing the year-to-date toll to 7,110, which a bulletin described as an 18 percent reduction over the same period a year earlier.
Some analysts dispute the assertions of a fall in killings, saying the government may be using different benchmarks to measure crime-related murders.
Just late last week, authorities said Mexican soldiers killed 13 gunmen linked to organized crime in northern Zacatecas state.
Still, the pace of mass killings appears to have diminished in the past year, along with news coverage of organized criminal activities.
Trevino’s reported arrest marked another triumph for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the rival Sinaloa Cartel and a bitter rival who has long sought to cripple Los Zetas. Guzman, whose crime group prefers to bribe high-level officials, has lashed out at Los Zetas for using tactics that bring government action against drug trafficking groups.