Vicious Cartel Leader Arrested In Mexico

The leader of the notorious Zeta drug organization was apprehended Monday in an operation involving the Mexican military. The capture of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, 40, took place on a country road less than 20 miles south of the Texas border.

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One of the most brutal and vicious cartel leaders in Mexico has been arrested. Early yesterday morning, Mexican marines, caught the leader of the notorious Zeta gang organization. The country has killed or captured dozens of kingpins in recent years without managing to bring an end to the high murder rates in many areas.

But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, authorities say this gang boss was behind some particularly heinous killings.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The capture of 40-year-old Miguel Angel Trevino Morales took place before dawn Monday morning on a dirt country road less than 20 miles south of the Texas border.

Interior Ministry spokesman Eduardo Sanchez Hernandez says Mexican armed forces had been on the lookout for Trevino in the area and at three in the morning spotted a suspicious pickup truck.

EDUARDO SANCHEZ HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: A military helicopter intercepted the pickup. Three people were inside. Trevino, known as Z-40, his accountant, one bodyguard, eight weapons, dozens of rounds of ammunition and $2 million in cash.

HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Sanchez said not one shot was fired in the operation. He read off a long list of crimes Trevino is accused of in Mexico.

HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Organized crime, murder, torture, arms trafficking, money laundering. The list, however, doesn't do justice to the terror and fear Trevino perpetrated on residents, particularly in Northern Mexico around the cartel's base of Nuevo Laredo.

GEORGE GRAYSON: He was probably the most sadistic mafia boss in the Americas.

KAHN: George Grayson of the College of William and Mary is an expert on the Zetas. He says Trevino and his traffickers became infamous for beheadings and public hangings of the cartel's tortured victims.

Trevino grew up on both sides of the border and spent much of his teenage years in Dallas, where he joined a local gang and rose from washing cars and doing errands to running drugs across the border. He joined the Zetas, which was a gang of Army deserters turned bodyguards for the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990s. Trevino rose the ranks of the Zetas and by 2007, when the group broke off to form their own cartel, he became one of its top commanders, despite his lack of military experience.

Mexican officials say he's responsible for the deaths of more than 200 Central and South American migrants, who the Zetas target for extortion and use as mules for cross border drug shipments. He's also wanted for murder and drug trafficking in the U.S.

Catching Trevino is a big coup for the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who unlike his predecessor, has chosen not to discuss the drug war much in public. In fact, earlier Monday, Pena Nieto chose instead to announce a $100 billion five-year plan to boost Mexico's roads, airports and rail lines.

Zeta expert George Grayson says Pena Nieto has done little to define his strategy for tackling the cartels.

GRAYSON: But what we are finding is that the intelligence forces in Mexico - especially in the Navy - are improving with the help of their U.S. counterparts.

KAHN: Earlier this year, Pena Nieto shocked U.S. officials by restricting anti-narcotic operations between the two countries and routing all coordination through a single entity, the powerful Interior Ministry.

A ministry spokesman declined to comment on the role the U.S. played in Trevino's capture.

For its part, the U.S. said little too. The Embassy in Mexico City issued a short statement congratulating Mexico on the arrest.

How Trevino's arrest will affect Mexico's unabated drug violence is unclear. In the past, the arrest of kingpins has actually brought on more violence as leaderless underlings fight over how to divide up the drug turf.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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