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

With Miguel Angel Treviño Morales captured, it looks likely that existing cartels and the newly independent factions within Los Zetas will duke it out over territory. And by that I mean relentlessly massacre each other with bloody gun battles in the...

The mugshot of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the captured leader of Los Zetas cartel.

On Monday, the leader of the most brutal crime syndicate in Mexico was captured alive. Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the boss of the notoriously violent Los Zetas drug cartel, was tracked down driving a pick-up truck in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. When Mexican marines apprehended him, reportedly without a shot being fired, he was found to be carrying an array of assault rifles and two million dollars in cash.


Miguel—or "Z-40," as he's commonly known—and his organizaton made a name for themselves by ordering the beheading of journalists who spoke out against them, orchestrating prison riots, and Miguel personally overseeing the massacre of hundreds of innocent migrants trying to make their way into the US over the Mexican border. The guy is like a highly vicious, Central American George Jung, only with a personal army that would rival that of a small country rather than a Hollywood biopic and an impressive collection of bad turtlenecks.

So you'd be forgiven for describing the kingpin's arrest as "a major victory in [the] battle against murderous drug cartels." But is his capture really the gargantuan victory that many are claiming it to be? With Z-40 now off the streets, it's the perfect opportunity for the already fragmented divisions within Los Zetas—as well as all of Mexico's other cartels—to take advantage of the break in leadership and forge their own way to the top of the pile.

The drug trade, i.e. the financial grease that keeps Mexico's cartels moving along, is unlikely to screech to a halt just because one man, albeit a very powerful one, has been arrested. In fact, Miguel's arrest is more likely to create a free-for-all in the scramble to control the drug market, inevitably causing even more of a bloodbath than when he was keeping tabs on everything.

I called Steven Dudley from InSight Crime, an NGO that investigates the development of organized crime in Latin America, to ask him what Z-40's arrest means for the future of Mexico's drug trade.


Mexican marines, the same marines who caught "Z-40". (Photo via)

VICE: Is the capture of Z-40 really “a major victory in the battle against drug cartels”?
Steven Dudley: I don’t know what a "major victory" is for the war on drugs, to be honest. But it certainly is an important step in slowing the type of hyper-violence that this group—and this individual, in particular—promoted. Whether it will slow the flow of drugs, I don’t know.

Is violence actually going to decrease?
In many ways, Z-40 was the last stich that held the Zetas together. His capture may cause a spasm of violence within an organization that is highly prone to violent acts, and with him gone it just throws everything up in the air again. Some individuals may attempt to control the organization and step into the power void, and then you will also have rival organizations looking to take advantage.

If you were a member of one of those rival cartels, what would you be planning right now?
I think that there’s no question that the epicenter of what comes next in Mexico is going to happen in Nuevo Laredo, the most important commercial crossing point between the US and Mexico. Around 10,000 to 12,000 trucks cross every day, making it the crown jewel in terms of trafficking, as it provides such an easy way to camouflage merchandise going north and weapons and money going south. This is where you'll find other criminal organizations gearing up to make a move. It's an area that's been held by the Zetas for the past ten years.


Yeah, it's where Z-40 was captured, right?
Yes, he’s from there—that was his stomping ground. Nuevo Laredo has a lot of geographical advantages; it’s highly secluded and very hard to get there without people noticing. It’s in the middle of the desert.

What about the new leadership? Who is going to take over the Zetas?
The bottom line is that this is an organization that is made up of disparate pieces. There are only a few voices that are strong enough to pull these different pieces together like Z-40 did. And Omar, his hotly tipped younger brother, does not appear to be one of those voices.

So now, without a strong leader, these divisions could become even greater?
Even greater, yes. Lots of these pieces of the Zetas are already independent in some way within the local crime market, which is highly lucrative, growing, and very easy to enter. You will find more and more organizations breaking off, and there may be a dozen different Zetas organizations—though we’ll see if they start calling themselves something else entirely. But the Zetas brand name is very important—it's the Coca-Cola of the underworld.

Thanks, Steven.

A suspected drug trafficker being arrested in northern Mexico. (Photo from the Knight Foundation Flickr account

So with Z-40 captured, it looks likely that existing cartels and the newly independent factions within Los Zetas will duke it out over territory. And by that I mean relentlessly massacre each other with bloody gun battles in the streets of Mexico's border towns, undoubtedly catching many more civilians in the crossfire.


The Mexican government seems to be anticipating this surge in violence, reportedly upping security in the northern part of the country. And as the consequences of Z-40's arrest unravel, it seems much less like a victory against the cartels and more like the authorities inadvertently ringing the death knell for its citizens—citizens who have already witnessed an estimated 80,000 murders since 2006.

Worryingly, Count the Costs, a program set up to quantify just how much of a disaster the war on drugs has been, told me in an email that, "80,000 [deaths] is a conservative estimate." This is due to the Mexican government's reluctance to release any conclusive figures and because many parts of Mexico don't have the capability to effectively monitor how many people are being murdered. On top of that, the figure fails to account for the thousands of people who have "disappeared" over the course of the conflict and aren't officially dead, but aren't officially alive, either.

However, it’s not all bad news. Along with Steven, Adam Isacson from the NGO Washington Office on Latin America feels that Z-40’s capture might prompt a change in the cartel’s approach to business, away from trigger-happy chaos toward a more surreptitious, calculated way of doing things.

Adam Isacson. (Screenshot via)

VICE: Are the citizens of Mexico actually going to be safer with this man behind bars?
Adam Isacson: Overall, they may be. Z-40 really pioneered a new level of bloodthirstiness, and it’s possible that his capture may lead to the rise of a "better behaved" drug trafficker.


You mean that this hyper-violent approach might fall out of fashion because of his capture?
Right. And especially the kind of actions that impact people who are not in "the game." I think we’ll probably see the Sinaloa cartel model more. Sinaloa don’t do as much extortion, kidnapping, and other things that impact civilians. They always prefer to buy out officials, bribe everybody, and keep violence to a minimum to avoid detection.

So perhaps the Zetas could follow that approach with a different leadership?
I think that is the outcome the Mexican government is trying to achieve by targeting the more violent leaders and not those who don’t cause as much mayhem. It sends a message to the drug trafficking community that, if you can do this [drug trafficking] with a minimum of violence, we’re not going to use as many law enforcement resources to go after you. Plus, the cartels that allow normal people to move more safely and don’t disturb the peace seem to move more product—Sinaloa is a much wealthier cartel.

Thanks, Adam.


Clearly on one level Z-40's arrest is a good thing—nobody wants homicidal psychopaths rampaging around, destroying the lives of innocent people. But if all his arrest is really going to do is create a spike in violence before conditions return to "normal levels"—which, even when calm, still qualify Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world—what can be done to weaken the cartels instead?


Perhaps a more effective way of dismantling Mexico's institutions of organized crime would be ridding them of their most lucrative product and primary source of power: the drugs themselves.

Lisa Sanchez, head of the drug policy foundation Transform's Latin American program, summed up the issue by telling me, "The arrest of drug cartel bosses is a step forward, but it ignores the underlying problem. Through drug prohibition, we are continuing to allow cartels a complete monopoly over the drugs trade, in turn financing them and allowing them to undermine democratic institutions through corruption and their violent ways. As long as we continue to give cartels power through the illegality of drugs, I don’t think we’re going to see a significant change in Mexico’s situation."

So even after the capture of a man who was known for "stewing" his victims in barrels of boiling oil, it seems that Mexico is still condemned to a future of murder, kidnapping, and political turmoil. Until something is done to take the drugs out of the hands of the cartels, of course.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

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