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Zetas leader Treviño Morales captured: Big win for Mexico’s Peña Nieto

The capture of Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales is an important success for Mexico’s eight-month-old Peña Nieto administration, but the previous president may deserve a tip of the hat.

A months-long investigation led the Mexican government to one of its most-wanted men on Monday, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the leader of the brutal Zetas criminal organization.

The man known as “Z-40” eluded United States and Mexican authorities for a decade, during which time the organization that eventually came under his control terrorized large swaths of Mexico with extraordinary violence. In the predawn hours, around 3:45 a.m., a Marines helicopter intercepted a pick-up truck and apprehended Mr. Treviño Morales and two other men.

Not a single shot was fired.

The capture represents the biggest success yet in security matters for the eight-month-old administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. But the victory is likely the result of the power and experience gained by the Marines during the previous administration, according to Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, which researches and analyzes organized crime in Latin America.

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The Marines were key to President Felipe Calderón’s kingpin strategy, focused on apprehending organized crime leaders. [Related: A glimpse of Mexico’s new crime fighting strategy.]

“I don’t think we should discard this ability to take down kingpins: It shows advancement,” says Mr. Dudley. “This means the country’s security forces and intelligence capabilities are getting better. The bad side is that you fragment these organizations; if you don’t simultaneously go after the mid-level guys, you will upset the balance of power.”

In the short term, the regions controlled by Treviño Morales could see a spike in violence as a fight ensues among his underlings to assume control, Dudley says.

The Zetas not only move large quantities of drugs but are also responsible for piracy, human trafficking, and the extortion, kidnapping, and murder of hundreds of migrants headed to the US. Specifically, Treviño Morales is accused of organized crime, torture, homicide, and money laundering, said Eduardo Sanchez, spokesman for the government’s security cabinet, in a press conference.

The Zetas originally served as the protection arm of the Gulf cartel, formed in 1997 by soldiers who deserted an elite, US-trained Mexican army force. Their name, according to InSight Crime, came from the radio code used for top-level officers in the army.

Treviño Morales wasn’t one of the original army deserters, nor was he a soldier. Yet he worked his way up in the organization and became feared for his extraordinary violence. He is accused of ordering the massacre of 265 migrants, whose bodies were discovered in a mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011.

The US had offered a $5 million award for information that could lead to his capture.

The Mexican government said it apprehended Treviño Morales and two others, Abdón Federico Rodriguez García and Ernesto Reyes García, 17 miles south of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.