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Notoriously brutal Zetas leader captured, but it's unlikely to quell violence

By Olga R. Rodriguez

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 10:58 a.m. MDT

A mugshot of the Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales is shown on a TV screen during a news conference given by the Mexican government in Mexico City, Monday, July 15, 2013. Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the Zetas, was captured by Mexican Marines before dawn Monday who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as their base of operations, officials announced.

Christian Palma, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — The capture of the notoriously brutal Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales represents a serious blow to Mexico's most feared drug cartel, but experts cautioned that taking down the group's command structure is unlikely to diminish violence in the border states where it dominates through terror.

Trevino Morales, 40, was captured before dawn Monday by Mexican marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The truck was halted by a marine helicopter, and Trevino Morales was taken into custody along with a bodyguard and an accountant and eight guns, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.

It was the first major blow against an organized crime leader by the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, which has struggled to drive down persistently high levels of violence. Experts on the Zetas said the arrest, at least the eighth capture or killing of a high-ranking cartel leader since 2011, could leave behind a series of cells scattered across northern Mexico without a central command but with the same appetite for kidnapping, extortion and other crimes against innocent people.

"It's another link in the destruction of the Zetas as a coherent, identifiable organization," said Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico's domestic intelligence service. "There will still be people who call themselves Zetas, bands of individuals who maintain the same modus operandi. There will be fights over illegal networks."

The Zetas remain active in Nuevo Laredo, the nearby border state of Coahuila, the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, parts of north central Mexico and Central America, although Trevino Morales' arrest means the gang has become "a franchise operation, not a vertical organization," said George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and a professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

The Zetas leader and his alleged accomplices were flown to Mexico City, where they are expected to eventually be tried in a closed system that usually takes years to prosecute cases, particularly high-profile ones.

Trevino Morales, known as "Z-40," is uniformly described as one of the two most powerful cartel heads in Mexico, the leader of a corps of special forces defectors who went to work for drug traffickers, splintered off into their own cartel in 2010 and metastasized across Mexico, expanding from drug dealing into extortion, human trafficking and other activity.

Along the way, the Zetas authored some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug war, leaving hundreds of bodies beheaded on roadsides or hanging from bridges and earning a reputation as perhaps the most terrifying of the country's numerous ruthless cartels.

On Trevino Morales' watch, 72 Central and South American migrants were slaughtered by the Zetas in the northern town of San Fernando in 2010, authorities said. By the following year, federal officials announced finding 193 bodies buried in San Fernando, most belonging to migrants kidnapped off buses and killed by the Zetas, some because they refused to work as drug mules.

Sanchez said Trevino Morales is charged with ordering the kidnapping and killing of the 265 migrants, along with numerous other charges of murder, torture and other crimes.

Pena Nieto came into office late last year promising to drive down high levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping but has struggled to make a credible dent in crime figures. And his pledge to focus on citizen safety over other crimes has sparked worries among U.S. authorities that he would ease back on predecessor Felipe Calderon's U.S.-backed strategy aimed above all at decapitating drug cartels.

The arrest of Trevino, a man widely blamed for both massive northbound drug trafficking, will almost certainly earn praise from Pena Nieto's U.S. and Mexican critics alike.

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