MEXICO CITY – Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas drug cartel, has been captured in the first major blow against an organized crime leader by a Mexican administration struggling to drive down persistently high levels of violence, a U.S. federal official said Monday.
Several Mexican media outlets reported that Trevino Morales was captured by Mexican marines near the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas’ base of operations. The U.S. federal official was not authorized to speak to the press and asked not to be identified.
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 splintered off into their own cartel in 2010 and spread 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 his 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, officials found 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’ capture is a public-relations victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came into office promising to drive down levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping. It adds to the long list of Zetas leaders who have been captured or killed in recent years, including Zetas head Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, whose fatal shooting by authorities last year left Trevino Morales in charge.
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.
“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, who is in his early 40s, is expected to be succeeded by his brother, Omar, a former low-ranking turf boss seen as far weaker than his older brother.