MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexico's most brutal drug cartel leader built a business empire stretching from the Southwest United States to Central America, but Miguel Angel Trevino Morales' final days of freedom were spent lying low in the hinterlands of Tamaulipas state, traveling only at night over back roads as Mexican marines closed in on his trail.
The last of the Zetas drug cartel's old-guard leaders saw fate swoop in on him in the pre-dawn hours Monday when a military Black Hawk helicopter flew low over his pickup truck, then almost touching the ground, faced down the vehicle with its guns, Mexico Federal Security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
The vehicle stopped, and three men emerged. Two hit the ground while the third tried to run. All were captured by marine ground forces who had been watching the movements of 40-year-old Trevino Morales, Sanchez told The Associated Press Tuesday. Not a single shot was fired.
Time was clearly running out for the cartel leader better known -- and feared -- by his nickname, "Z-40," a play on police radio code for a commander. Mexico's navy, which has brought down a number of top drug lords, "found out that he had been traveling in the early morning hours on dirt roads. They had been corralling him in little by little," Sanchez said.
Trevino Morales had $2 million in cash and eight rifles with him when marines caught him outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, long the Zetas' base of operations. He was taken to Mexico City for questioning, but unlike the days of former President Felipe Calderon, there was no perp walk by a handcuffed suspect or piles of cash and guns put on display for the TV cameras.
Instead, the government released a single video of a rumpled-looking, un-handcuffed Trevino Morales walking through prosecutors' headquarters, saying it wanted to avoid glamorizing drug traffickers or risk rights violations that could lead to a dismissal of charges. Authorities didn't even refer to his nickname, Z-40.
The Zetas are Mexico's most violent, if not richest, cartel, with the largest turf. A New York indictment against Trevino Morales estimates he received $10 million per month in income from cocaine sales alone, not to mention the money brought in by the cartel's myriad other illicit activities, including kidnapping, extortion, migrant trafficking, weapons trafficking, even theft of oil from state pipelines.
His arrest was particularly pleasing for the United States. Trevino Morales allegedly orchestrated a series of killings on the U.S. side of the border, including several by a group of young U.S. citizens who gunned down their victims on the streets of Laredo. His gang was also believed to be responsible for the slayings of U.S. ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in 2011 and American citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
President Barack Obama praised the Mexican government and vowed to continue supporting the country's fight against drug traffickers.
"I think what it shows is that the new administration of President Pena Nieto is serious about continuing the efforts to break up these transnational drug operations," Obama said in an interview with Univision Tuesday.
"We have to continue doing our part here in the United States to reduce demand, reduce the flow of guns and cash down south," Obama added. "That's the kind of cooperation that I think President Pena Nieto is looking for."
Trevino Morales is "one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said. "His ruthless leadership has now come to an end."
The Zetas have kidnapped or held tens of thousands of migrants, often demanding ransoms of $3,000 each. Federal officials say the Zetas stole and smuggled at least $46 million worth of Mexican oil to U.S. refineries. Trevino Morales channeled about $16 million to his brother in the United States to buy, train and race horses.
Trevino Morales' methods, like those of Zetas leaders before him, led to a "Zetanization" of how cartels do their fighting, said George Grayson, an expert on the group and a professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
"Inflicting fear into the heart of your target is an extremely efficient way to get what you want," Grayson said. "That genie is out of the box."
Trevino Morales was being held for questioning along with a bodyguard and accountant captured in Monday's raid. Sanchez said government forces "have been able to obtain information on the possible movements of his other accomplices," and phones or computers carried by traffickers often provide such information, even if the suspects themselves don't talk.