MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican government said on Monday it captured the violent leader of the Zetas drug cartel in an early-morning raid, marking the biggest victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto in his fight against gang-led bloodshed.
Marines arrested Miguel Angel Trevino after intercepting his pick-up truck with a helicopter a few miles (km) from his home town of Nuevo Laredo on the U.S. border, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.
"Not a single shot was fired," Sanchez said.
The Zetas have been blamed for many of the worst atrocities in Mexico's struggle with drug gangs. Pena Nieto has pledged to restore peace to a country that has suffered more than 70,000 deaths to cartel violence since the start of 2007.
Trevino, 40, was caught along with two associates following a months-long operation to track him down, Sanchez said. Authorities also seized more than $2 million dollars in cash and a cache of arms in the operation, he said.
Trevino's capture was the latest in a string of blows to hit the Zetas, whose previous leader was killed by marines in a firefight in northern Mexico last year.
Among the crimes attributed to the Zetas is the massacre of dozens of migrants in northern Mexico in 2010, an arson attack on a Monterrey casino in 2011 and the dumping of 49 decapitated bodies near the same city last year.
Pena Nieto came to office in December 2012 promising to improve security in a country increasingly worn down by the bloodshed under his predecessor Felipe Calderon.
Calderon had staked his reputation on bringing Mexico's powerful drug gangs to heel. But bloodletting increased during his administration, with the Zetas at the forefront of it.
The U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Trevino's capture.
Security experts said Trevino, who was born in Nuevo Laredo, took over the Zetas after the marines killed the cartel's longstanding commander, Heriberto Lazcano, in October.
Unlike most top Zetas, Trevino had no military background, building up a power base within the gang as a financial fixer and logistics expert, and helping to extend its operations running cocaine and crystal meth into the United States and Europe.
Trevino's reputation for extreme violence also helped cement his rise.
"He's the most sadistic of them," U.S. political scientist and Zetas expert George W. Grayson said. "He really gets off on inflicting diabolical pain on people."
In the months leading up to Lazcano's death, rumors of a split in the cartel were rife following a massacre of Zetas reportedly carried out by other members of the gang in the central city of San Luis Potosi.
Not long before Lazcano was killed in Coahuila state, banners accusing Trevino of being a "Judas" to the Zetas leader began to appear, fueling talk the gang was splintering.
Then, in the space of a few weeks, Zetas staged a mass jailbreak on the U.S.-Mexican border, assassinated the son of a top politician, and Lazcano was killed. Trevino was in control.
Believed to have been born on June 28, 1973, Trevino spent many of his formative years in Dallas, doing menial work that led him to be labeled "car washer" by some detractors.
Turning to criminal enterprise, Trevino and his brothers set up a sophisticated money-laundering ring in the United States using race horses as a front.
In June 2012, hundreds of FBI agents across the United States raided their stables, arresting Trevino's older brother Jose. According to the FBI, the stables received more than $1 million a month from Mexico and had more than 300 stallions. One of the horses was called Number One Cartel.
Trevino, whose younger brother Omar was one of his top lieutenants, sought to expand the gang's power by taking the Zetas' fight with Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, onto the latter's home turf in Sinaloa state.
In so doing, Trevino helped escalate the levels of gang violence then convulsing Mexico, which rose notably after the Zetas split with their former bosses, the Gulf Cartel.
Founded by army deserters in the late 1990s, the Zetas initially acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. But cracks began to appear and the rupture was sealed in early 2010, setting off the most violent phase in Mexico's drug war.
(Reporting by Dave Graham and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Paul Simao and Xavier Briand)
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