ALICIA A. CALDWELL
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas drug cartel, was captured before dawn Monday in the first major blow against an organized crime leader by a Mexican administration struggling to drive down persistently high levels of violence, officials announced.
Trevino Morales, 40, was captured by Mexican Marines 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 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.
Sanchez said the Marines had been watching rural roads between the Texas border states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas for signs of Trevino Morales, who is charged with murder, torture, kidnapping and other crimes.
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, kidnapping and human trafficking.
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, 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 for various reasons, including their refusal to work as drug mules.
Trevino Morales is charged with ordering the kidnapping and killing of the 265 migrants, Sanchez said.
President Enrique Pena Nieto came into office promising to drive down 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 and the deaths of untold scores of Mexicans and Central American migrants, will almost certainly earn praise from Pena Nieto's U.S. and Mexican critics alike.
Trevino Morales' capture adds to the long list of Zetas' leaders who have been arrested or killed in recent years, including Zeta head Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, whose fatal shooting by authorities last year left Trevino Morales in charge.
"There continues to be the perception that capturing this type of individual has a strategic value and the logic persists that it's preferable to fragment criminal groups and reduce them in size. On this point there isn't much change," said Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico's domestic intelligence service.
The debilitation of the Zetas has been widely seen as strengthening the country's most-wanted man, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who has overseen a vicious turf war with the Zetas from hideouts believed to lie in rugged western Mexico.
"El Chapo is greatly strengthened because he will now have access to the crown jewel of narco-trafficking, Nuevo Laredo," said George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
Trevino Morales is expected to be succeeded by his brother, Omar, a former low-ranking turf boss seen as far weaker than his older brother.
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales began his career as a teenage gofer for the Los Tejas gang, which controlled most crime in his hometown across the border from Laredo, Texas. He soon graduated from washing cars and running errands to running drugs across the border, and was recruited into the Matamoros-based Gulf cartel.
Trevino Morales' brother, sister and mother lived in Dallas but he had many relatives around Nuevo Laredo and, while moving frequently to avoid authorities, he was believed to often return to his hometown, the U.S. official said.