Nuevo Laredo is a border city in northeastern Mexico, surrounded by hills and earth burned by the sun. Thousands of trucks ride its main highway, delivering legal and illegal merchandise to the United States. Although not as well-known as Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo is one of the busiest land ports in all of Latin America. Its formal economy is wedded to Texas, although its black market is linked directly to New York City, where most of the cocaine that moves through Nuevo Laredo winds up.
Beyond its main highway and asphalt avenues, Nuevo Laredo is also surrounded by labyrinths of cracked, Western-flick-looking roads that go nowhere, old rancher routes where shadows also roam. In the early hours of Monday morning, according to official accounts, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales traveled on one of these. He was accompanied only by a bodyguard, eight firearms, and $2 million in cash. Something went wrong this time because neither the weapons nor the cash—in a region where both are essential for survival—prevented the arrest of the man known as the leader of the Zetas.
Treviño’s detention at the hands of Mexico’s Navy was immediately heralded by the government as a blow to organized crime in Mexico, and as a ‘win’ notch for President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government hadn’t nabbed any significant bad guys since it assumed power last December. The arrest was also met with a symbolic pat on the back by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which said in a brief statement posted Tuesday that Treviño, or code-name “Z–40,” was now among the “most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years.”
The Zetas organization formed in 2000 by 32 soldiers who deserted Mexico’s Army, with the blessing and financing of the then-leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Between 2004 and 2009, during their rapid ascent in the criminal world, the Zetas surprised observers with their dynamic horizontal structure, the cruelty of their attacks, and their capacity of organized resistance against the Sinaloa Cartel, the oldest and most powerful cartel in Mexico. Their ascent seemed limitless until an alleged deal was struck between the DEA and Cardenas Guillen of the Gulf gang, and by 2010, when a series of official and non-official armed groups began moving into their territory, the Zetas’ hold on power in eastern and northeastern Mexico began to decline.
In October 2012, the last of the founders of the group who remained active, Heriberto Lazcano, was taken out of the equation, killed in a shootout with authorities in the state of Coahuila, although his body was later kidnapped from a funeral home and remains missing to this day. With that, the mark of the Zetas’ founding—their military roots—was finished. At 40, Treviño, who never had military training (although he had been a police officer), became the new leader of the Zetas. In short time, the federal government, which offered $2 million reward for info leading to his capture, began calling him the bloodiest cartel capo in the country. He was blamed, for example, for the slaughter of 72 Central and South American migrants at a stop-house in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010. His dark fame was such that the extorsion racket in the Mexico City prison system began using his name for shakedown attempts via telephone; dozens of clips on YouTube have recorded calls from these false Z–40s.
The signal that the Zetas are done for is the belief that Treviño’s imminent successor is his brother Omar, who grew up between Nuevo Laredo and Dallas, one of the 12 Treviño Morales siblings. With that, it’s probable that the Zetas will cease being a mercenary force, feared for its efficiency and paramilitary strength, and become a family clan typical of the narratives of classic Mexican narcotraffickers. Just like the Tijuana Cartel, which turned into the Arrellano Felix gang, or the Juarez Cartel, which became the Carrillo Fuentes group, the Zetas will likely become the Treviño Morales cartel. Even so, the Zetas brand will probably survive, marked by its love of extreme and brutal violence.
This week, the new federal government in Mexico quickly launched a campaign to brag about the detention “without a shot fired” of the Zetas leader, but in Nuevo Laredo, no one could sing in celebration as some analysts did in Mexico City. El Mañana de Nuevo Laredo, a respectable daily newspaper with more than 80 years of publication, couldn’t even bring itself to reporting the news of Treviño’s arrest on its website. Instead it was posting detailed updates on the violence in Egypt.
Nuevo Laredo is in Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico where freedom of speech does not exist. Bloggers have been strung up and hung from bridges for a few tweets, while dozens of reporters have had to flee the city in silence, abandoned by the institutions meant to shield them. Journalists who’ve been killed or forcefully disappeared do not appear on the lists of well-intentioned NGOs like Reporters Without Borders because such groups have no guaranteed protections to enter this region and investigate disappearances. The enemy of the right to inform the populace has two faces here: the Zetas were not only created and raised in Tamaulipas, but the same political party has been in power for 90 years, the perfect combination for the dominance of a narcopolitick.
Just as preparations for the operation to capture Z-40 were underway, the top brass of Mexico’s Navy and Army flew to Washington this past weekend to meet the top brass at the Pentagon. It was the first official visit to the United States by the military representatives of Enrique Peña Nieto’s government. Coincidentally, also in recent days, in a few cities where the Zetas control territory, several narcomantas ("narcobanners") appeared on main avenues with a supposed message from the Sinaloa Cartel, directed at none other than Miguel Angel Treviño Morales. They read:
TO Z-40 AND CORRUPT AUTHORITIES
IT HAD TO BE YOU, COMPADRE, THE GRUBBINESS THAT YOU CAN’T WASH OFF, WE’LL WIPE IT OFF FOR YOU,
LOOK AT YOU ORDERING THE KILLINGS OF FARMWORKERS IN VICTORIA, YOU SICK FUCK, YOU DIDN’T HAVE BALLS TO SPARE, Z–40, YOU HAVE SOME MISSING … BUT WE’RE GONNA KEEP CLEANING UP NUEVO LAREDO, NOT EVEN THE SUPPORT OF “H” WILL HELP YOU.
THAT’S RIGHT, COMPA, EVERY EXTRA MINUTE THAT YOU LIVE, MORE INNOCENTS DIE. LOOK AT US IN THE FACE, DICK, FACE TO FACE. THE SUPPORT OF YOUR PUSSY-ASS COMMANDER WENCESLAO GAZNAREZ, OR YOUR CORRUPT MAYOR BENJAMIN GALVAZ, WON’T HELP YOU.
WE GIVE ALL OUR SUPPORT TO THE GULF CARTEL, TO RID MEXICO OF THE ZETAS.
ATTENTIVELY, EL CHAPO GUZMAN.
With Treviño’s arrest, there are signs that after a decade of savage economic competition for the control of drug-trafficking to the United States, which has included battles and massacres that ballooned under the erratic and militaristic policies of former President Felipe Calderon, narcotrafficking in Mexico could be returning to its old framework—from a violent oligopoly to a criminal, yet peaceful, monopoly.
In the meantime, cocaine consumers in New York might suffer a few days struggling to get their product due to the market turbulence caused by Z-40’s capture in Nuevo Laredo. But soon everything will return to normal in Manhattan. And soon everything will return to normal in Mexico as well. That is the message that Peña Nieto’s government appears to be sending: the return of the narco status quo is underway.
Diego Enrique Osorno is a Mexican journalist whose recent books include La guerra de los Zetas (Grijalbo 2012). More info at www.diegoeosorno.com.
To get a sense of the severity of Treviño’s brutality, watch this interview with Rosalio Reta. Treviño recruited Reta to be one of the many teenage hit men he employed in Texas to carry out ruthless killings on both sides of the border. Reta is now in a Texas prison serving time for one of the 30 murders that he claims to have committed under Z-40's tutelage. He spoke with the Center for Investigative Reporting from prison before Treviño's capture. Read more at CIR's website.
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