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Z-40 Is a Product of the American Drug War: You’re Welcome, Mexico

A former DEA analyst said, "Our policy of prohibition is what creates people like Morales. It incentivizes violence to a tremendous degree, so we shouldn’t be surprised when someone rises to the top and commits 2,000 murders to get there, because in...

Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales

Last week’s capture of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales made news all over the world, and was celebrated in the mainstream press as a blow against Los Zetas and a decimation of their leadership. The New York Times went so far as to claim his capture could represent a “crossroads” in the four-decade war on drugs.

These media reports are mainly based on anonymous official sources and analysts who spend too much time on YouTube. Thankfully, there are still some people out there whose bullshit detectors work. These are the folks who can help us get beyond the official line and understand the on-the-ground impact of apprehending a guy nicknamed Z-40 and putting him in jail.


First, it’s important to have a sense of Treviño’s true role in the organization, a nuance that seems to escape even the most hardened stay-at-home keyboard warrior analysts. I asked Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, who teaches in the governance department at the University of Texas in Brownsville, across the river from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, if the mainstream media has oversold the importance of men like Treviño Morales and the role of hired killers within Los Zetas.

“The problem is the media is looking at the lil sicario as if he were the whole organization,” said Cabrera. She’s writing a book titled Zetas Inc., where she compares their structure and operations to that of a corporation. The way she sees it, the assassins who work for the Zetas are basically like a marketing department, and, far from a cartel overseer, Treviño Morales was more like a top salesman.

“[Los Zetas] generate terror through the news media and social networks with the decapitations, dismemberment, hanging people from bridges, the narco-banners… all of it is a strategy that for them generates a brand. And then you add extorsion, kidnapping, the ‘taxes’ on businesses… that makes them an incredible threat,” the professor said. “But that’s just one part of the organization.”

Correa Cabrera insists that Los Zetas is much more than a drug trafficking organization, having branched out long ago into extortion, pirated DVD sales, control of migrant routes, and more. But on top of mimicking a corporation, the Zetas still follow a military model, and perhaps much more closely than we think.


She points out that the increased military presence in Tamaulipas State, home to Nuevo Laredo, the border city where Treviño Morales was captured, has done little damage to the Zetas and has instead spread the group’s reach.

“It’s taken away very little from them. I mean, it’s made them expand into [the states of] Durango, Coahuila, which are states where there is no trafficking of drugs,” said Cabrera.

If you’ve been paying attention to the drug war in Mexico since Felipe Calderón started his term in December 2006, you’ll probably agree that it is no surprise that using the army to chase around criminal groups is a futile way to slow down the drug trade.

Shannon O’Neill, a US government policy wonk who supports the drug war wholeheartedly put it well when she testified in front of US senators about the Merida Initiative, a US antidrugs aid package, earlier this year. "When the Merida Initiative was signed in 2007, there were just over 2,000 drug-related homicides annually; by 2012, the number escalated to more than 12,000,” she said. “Violence also spread from roughly 50 municipalities in 2007 (mostly along the border and in Sinaloa) to some 240 municipalities throughout Mexico in 2011, including the once-safe industrial center of Monterrey and cities such as Acapulco, Nuevo Laredo, and Torreon."

Data like that makes it clear that violence and bloodshed in Mexico has spiked alongside US funding programs designed (in name, at least) to combat drugs and violence. How does this connect to Z-40, you’re wondering? Sean Dunagan, a jovial former Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence analyst in Monterrey, Mexico, and Guatemala, thinks US policy is what creates people like Treviño Morales, who is said to have killed over 2,000 people.


“The one thing that really stands out, that really isn’t reported, is that we created Miguel Treviño,” said Dunagan. “I mean he is entirely a product of American drug policy. Without our current drug policy he wouldn't exist. He might have been a car jacker who probably would be sitting in a Mexican jail right now.”

Dunagan was collecting intelligence in Monterrey before leaving the DEA and joining a group of ex-cops against the drug war known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

“Our policy of prohibition is what creates people like that. It incentivizes violence to a tremendous degree, so we shouldn’t be surprised when someone rises to the top and commits 2,000 murders to get there, because in the scheme that we’ve created and forced on the Mexican government, that’s necessarily going to happen,” Dunagan told VICE Mexico from his home in Washington, DC. “If we want people like him to stop terrorizing Mexico we need to stop our policies. He’s just a logical product of what we’ve done.”

But instead of focusing on how US policy is at the root of the violence taking place in Mexico, the official story says that by arresting a capo, the Mexican Marines might just have undone a criminal organization that is spread out through vast swatches of Mexican territory. Stratfor, an Austin, Texas, based think tank, did a lovely homage to this version of events by running a headline asking: “Will Los Zetas Unravel Without Their Leader?


I asked Carlos Resa Nestares, a professor of applied economy at the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain who has written a series of critical texts on the myths of drug trafficking in Mexico, for his opinion on the intelligence created by groups like Stratfor.

“Stratfor has no fucking clue what is happening. Which is to say, I’ve interviewed Stratfor people and they seem to have no fucking clue. They simply copy what is said in the papers and more or less give it some analysis,” he said, putting strong emphasis on the word fucking (or puta in this case) both times. “It doesn’t seem to be that Stratfor is a serious source of information.”

Resa Nestares insists that the Zetas are in fact a paramilitary group that is more focused on extortion than drug trafficking. He claims that the DEA plays up the links between the Zetas and drugs in order to keep US funds flowing to the drug war.

“Narcos’ principal activity is the sale of drugs, buying drugs cheap, and selling drugs at high costs,” said Resa Nestares in an interview from Madrid. “Los Zetas doesn’t do that. They extort people. They extort other drug traffickers, cantinas, a wide range of things, but they do not dedicate themselves fundamentally to drugs, not even to exporting them,” he said.

Resa Nestares doesn’t think killing Z-40 will create a traditional power vacuum as is known to happen when the heads of traditional drug cartels are murdered and lower ranking members vie for power, attempting to re-create the contacts and routes of their former bosses. He compares the Zetas to a mafia, whose main income source is extortion or providing protection to people trying to avoid it. Recreating this following the killing of a higher ranking member is another story altogether. “What happens when you behead a mafioso? Well, the situation gets much more complicated.”


A ministerial source who asked to remained anonymous confirmed to VICE Mexico Monday afternoon that Treviño Morales, aka Z-40, was being held at the Altiplano Maximum Security Prison in Mexico State. “The two charges for which he was detained are use of illicit funds, and storage and possession of weapons that are for exclusive use of the armed forces,” the source said.

More Mexican drugs:

The Zetas' Leader Has Been Captured, but Is That Really Such a Good Thing?

Los Zetas Drug Cartel Have Their Own Radio Network

Murderous Little Boys Are the Future of Mexico's Drug War