Leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas drug cartel captured

Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales is shown in a mug shot taken after his arrest. Mexican Interior Ministry via AP

MEXICO CITY — Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas drug cartel, was captured before dawn Monday, officials said.

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.

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's capture removes the leader of a corps of special forces defectors who splintered off into their own cartel and spread across Mexico, expanding from drug dealing into extortion and human trafficking.

Along the way, the Zetas authored some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug war, slaughtering dozens, leaving their bodies on display and gaining a reputation as perhaps the most terrifying of the country's numerous ruthless cartels.

The capture of Trevino Morales is a public-relations victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who came into office promising to drive down levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping but has struggled to make a credible dent in crime figures.

At the same time, Pena Nieto's pledge to focus on citizen safety over other crimes sparked worries among U.S. authorities that he would ease back on a bi-national strategy aimed 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' rise from the streets of Nuevo Laredo to the top of Mexico's drug trafficking world was fueled by a brutality that stunned a population inured to violence.

He 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, which absorbed Los Tejas when it took over drug dealing in the valuable border territory.

Trevino Morales joined the Zetas, a group of Mexican special forces deserters who defected to work as hit men and bodyguards for the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s.

Stories about the brutality of "El Cuarenta," or "40" as Trevino Morales became known, quickly become well-known among his men, his rivals and Nuevo Laredo citizens terrified of incurring his anger.

"If you get called to a meeting with him, you're not going to come out of that meeting," said a U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico City, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

One technique favored by Trevino Morales was the "guiso," or stew, in which enemies would be placed in 55-gallon drums and burned alive. Others who crossed the commander would be beaten with wooden planks.

Around 2005, Trevino Morales was promoted to boss of the Nuevo Laredo territory, or "plaza" and given responsibility for fighting off the Sinaloa cartel's attempt to seize control of its drug-smuggling routes. He orchestrated a series of killings on the U.S. side of the border, several by a group of young U.S. citizens who gunned down their victims on the streets of the U.S. city. U.S. officials believe the hit men also carried out an unknown number of killings on the Mexican side of the border, the U.S. official said.

In 2006, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas defeated the Sinaloa cartel in Nuevo Laredo, a victory that emboldened them as they began spreading south to towns and cities that had never before seen organized crime. They set up criminal networks to control transit routes for drugs, migrants, extortion, kidnapping, contraband of pirated DVDs and CDs and countless other criminal activities, intimidating local residents and committing gruesome murders as an example to the uncooperative.

According to U.S. official, Trevino Morales was in charge of Nuevo Leon, Piedras Negras and other areas until March 2007, when he was sent to the city of Veracruz following the death of a leading Zeta in a gunbattle there.

That same year, Trevino Morales and Zeta head Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano began pushing for independence from the Gulf cartel after cartel head Osiel Cardenas Guillen's extradition to the U.S.

The Zetas split from the Gulf cartel and by 2008 had operations in 28 major Mexican cities, according to an analysis by Grupo Savant, a Washington-based security think tank.

Trevino rose to the top of the Zetas last year after leader Lazcano died in a shootout with Mexican marines in the northern state of Coahuila.

Trevino Morales was indicted on drug trafficking and weapons charges in New York in 2009 and Washington in 2010, and the U.S. government issued a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

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.