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Mexico captures Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of brutal Zetas drug cartel

The cartel has been blamed for many of the worst atrocities carried out by Mexican drug gangs, acts that have sullied the country's name and put fear into tourists and investors alike.

Mug shots of the Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales are shown on a TV screen during a news conference by the Mexican government.
Mug shots of the Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales are shown on a TV screen during a news conference by the Mexican government.

MEXICO CITY // The Mexican government captured the brutal leader of the Zetas drug cartel in an early-morning raid, the biggest victory for president Enrique Pena Nieto in his fight against gang violence.

Marines arrested Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, also known as Z-40, after intercepting his pick-up truck with a helicopter a few kilometres from his home town of Nuevo Laredo on the US border on Monday, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said in Mexico City.

"Not a single shot was fired," Mr Sanchez said.

The Zetas have been blamed for many of the worst atrocities carried out by Mexican drug gangs, acts that have sullied the country's name and put fear into tourists and investors alike.

Following a tide of gang-related beheadings, massacres and gunfights that have claimed more than 70,000 lives since the start of 2007, Mr Pena Nieto said his No1 priority when he took office in December was to restore stability.

Murders have fallen slightly, according to official statistics, but violent crime is still rampant in parts of Mexico and, until now, the new government had few outstanding successes to celebrate in its campaign to pacify the country.

Trevino, 40, was caught with two associates following a months-long operation to track him down, Mr Sanchez said. Authorities also seized more than US$2 million (Dh7.35m) in cash and a cache of arms in the operation, he said.

Trevino's capture follows a string of blows last year against the Zetas, whose previous leader was killed by marines in a firefight in northern Mexico last October.

Among the most shocking incidents pinned on the Zetas were massacres of migrant workers, an arson attack on a Monterrey casino in 2011 that killed 52 and the dumping of 49 decapitated bodies near to the same city last year.

The government said Trevino was wanted for a litany of crimes including murder, torture, money laundering and ordering the kidnapping and execution of 265 migrants near the northern town of San Fernando. The bodies of dozens of murdered migrant workers were recovered there in 2010 and 2011.

By the time Mr Pena Nieto took power, much of Mexico was worn out by the bloodshed under his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Mr Calderon, a conservative, had staked his reputation on bringing Mexico's powerful drug gangs to heel, sending in the armed forces to regain the upper hand.

Though his forces captured or killed many of the top capos, the bloodletting increased, led by the excesses of the Zetas.

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.

The US state department had offered a reward of up to $5m 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 US and Europe.

Trevino's reputation for extreme violence also helped to facilitate his rise.

"He's the most sadistic of them," said George W Grayson, a US political scientist and Zetas expert. "He really gets off on inflicting diabolical pain on people."

In the months leading up to Lazcano's death, rumours of a split in the cartel were rife after 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 that the gang was splintering.

Then, in the space of a few weeks, Zetas staged a mass jailbreak on the US-Mexican border, assassinated the son of a top politician, and Lazcano was killed. Trevino was left 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 labelled "car washer" by some detractors.

Turning to criminal enterprise, Trevino and his brothers set up a sophisticated money-laundering ring in the US, using racehorses as a front.

In June last year, hundreds of FBI agents across the US raided their stables, arresting Trevino's older brother Jose. According to the FBI, the stables received more than $1m 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, on to the latter's home turf in Sinaloa state. In so doing, Trevino helped to escalate the levels of gang violence then ravaging Mexico, which rose notably after the Zetas split with their former bosses, the Gulf Cartel.