MEXICO CITY — The arrest of crime boss Miguel Ángel Treviño produced a big dose of drug-war optimism and back-patting this week among U.S. and Mexican officials, who said they’ve dealt his Zetas organization a potentially fatal blow.
But the shifting power balance among the country’s trafficking groups over the past several years has shown Mexico’s underworld to be a place of stubborn resilience and regeneration.
Kingpins fall and quickly pop up again. Cartels break apart, spin off and reemerge under new names. With billions to be made, the drug business goes on.
If anything, analysts say, the criminal-management model pioneered by the Zetas might make the group more likely to survive the loss of any one leader.
While more traditional Mexican crime groups have been based on family ties, such as the once-mighty Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana or the Juárez cartel led by the Carrillo Fuentes family, the Zetas are designed more like a modern corporation than a classic mafia, bound by neither blood nor geography.
With a reach deep into Central America and an ample portfolio of revenue sources, the Zetas operate more like “a meritocracy,” said Scott Stewart, a former State Department investigator, now an analyst for the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor.
Zetas co-founder Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano was slain by soldiers last fall, but Treviño quickly took his place. Even Treviño’s moniker “40” — taken from his radio call sign — is a reminder that he is just one of many high-ranking leaders produced by the organization, including his younger brother Omar Treviño, “42” who analysts say might be next in line.
“People have been focused on Treviño’s reputation for brutality, but he commanded a transnational logistical operation with a network of diverse criminal enterprises that included oil bunkering, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering and even the distribution of pirated DVDs and CDs,” Stewart said. “That’s something you don’t run alone, so his staff has to be fairly competent.”
If anything, the Zetas under Treviño seemed to refrain in recent months from some of the more spectacular acts of barbarity that made them Mexico’s prime public enemy, such as the massacre of 72 migrants in 2010 or the time in May 2012 that the group dumped 49 human torsos along a highway outside Monterrey.
Founded by ex-special-forces soldiers, the Zetas started out as musclemen for the Gulf cartel, then turned on their masters and built a criminal empire of their own. More than any other group, they managed to create a powerful brand identity, converting their trademark “Z” into a dreaded symbol of sadism and brutality across Mexico and much of Central America.
In places such as Nuevo Laredo, the key border crossing that became the cartel’s corporate headquarters, terrorized residents learned to draw a “Z” in the air when referring to the gang, too scared to even pronounce the letter.
Treviño was captured early Monday near Nuevo Laredo, in a thicket of brush where he tried to hide as Mexican marines chased him with a Black Hawk helicopter.
Despite a reputation for traveling with a retinue of dozens of armed commandos, he was swiftly taken into custody with a single bodyguard and a Zeta financial operative, as well as $2 million and several weapons. No one fired a shot.
U.S.-supplied intelligence contributed to Treviño’s capture, according to former U.S. counter-narcotics officials with knowledge of the operation, although Mexican officials have so far heaped praise exclusively on their own forces.
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 Jesús 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,” Mexican security analyst Raúl Benitez said.
Benitez and others note that Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, 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 Gen. Oscar Naranjo, the country’s most famous cartel-fighter, is now a top security adviser in Mexico City to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“As Colombia learned 25 years ago, it’s not necessarily smart to attack all cartels simultaneously. It spreads forces too far and too thin,” ex-DEA official Michael Braun said.
“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 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 whether he’ll be extradited.
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