The capture Monday of Los Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales may have dealt a major blow to the Mexican drug cartel, but experts say the take down won't lead to a decline in gang violence in the near future — and will likely just set the stage for a bloody power struggle and turf war.
Trevino Morales, 40, and two companions were traveling between the border town of Nuevo Laredo and the state of Coahuila when Mexican Marines, in vehicles and a helicopter, began pursuing them around 3:45 a.m. Monday. They were captured without firing a single shot, the government said.
Inside Trevino Morales' car, authorities found $2 million, weapons and ammunition, according to Eduardo Sanchez Hernandez, spokesman for Mexico’s interior secretary. The Zetas leader and his alleged accomplices — a bodyguard and an accountant — were flown to Mexico City, where they will eventually be tried.
Trevino Morales is charged with ordering the kidnapping and killing of 265 migrants, along with numerous other charges of murder, torture and other crimes, according to the government spokesman.
"This is the takedown of the most sadistic capo at least in the Americas,” said George Grayson, co-author of "The Executioner's Men," a book about the Zetas, and a professor of government at the College of William & Mary. “This is a resounding blow to a diabolical organization.”
Yet others, who live in fear of the Zetas every day, weren't optimistic.
"This was a blow, but it's only skin deep," the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a Roman Catholic priest who runs a migrant shelter in the state of Oaxaca and has spent much of the last decade living under death threats from the Zetas, told the Associated Press.
"The Zetas operate in almost 20 states of Mexico. They have a lot of public servants on their payroll, a lot of police."
The Zetas forcibly recruit some migrants, kill those who won't join and increasingly kidnap young girls, who are forced into prostitution at Zetas-run bars or are made to distribute Zetas drugs.
"We're talking about human trafficking, organ trafficking, kidnappings, forced recruitment, everything," Solalinde said.
Nevertheless, Trevino Morales' capture was seen as a victory for the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came into office in December 2012 promising to reduce the violence in Mexico. But his approach has been based more on intelligence information and has been less aggressive than that of former President Felipe Calderon.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City even congratulated the government and law enforcement officials for getting Trevino Morales, whom they characterized as "one of the most wanted criminal suspects in Mexico."
"This is yet another advance by the people of Mexico in the dismantling of organized crime," the statement released Monday read.
But the kingpin's capture may simply result in more violence in the near future, as rivals move to make a play for his area of influence and internal foes fight over the cartel's top position.
"To be sure, Miguel Trevino may have been the final stitch that held what was left of this disparate federation together," wrote Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight, a joint initiative of American University and the Fundacion Ideas para la Paz that looks at organized crime in the Americas. "What comes next could be a spasm of violence as the group balkanizes."
Trevino Morales' brother, Alejandro "Omar" Trevino Morales, is expected to succeed him, but Grayson believes his days might be numbered, as he is seen as a weaker figure.
"The Zetas used to be a hierarchical organization, now they’re so fragmented, they’re like McDonald's franchises," Grayson said. They lack the savvy and leadership they had when [former leader Heriberto] Lazcano was around, he added.
The disruption of Zetas leadership could also cause other cartels to get more aggressive.
The Zetas and Sinaloa cartel -- led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman -- have been involved in a bloody turf war that sparked a rise in homicides in the north. So violence will likely rise if Sinaloa makes a play for more Zetas-controlled areas, Grayson said.
And not only will Trevino Morales's capture lead to more violence, but, according to Michael Levine, author and former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, it does nothing to stem the Mexican drug war.
"It means zero in the scheme of things," Levine said. "It's not even a blow to the Zetas. You think there aren't 15 guys ready to take his place or are already taking his place?"
"You will see no difference," he said, adding that the capture is nothing but "career points" and a feather in the cap for the Pena Nieto administration.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published July 17 2013, 1:07 AM