At Large

Drug Lord Taken Down

The capture of Los Zetas' leader -- were drones involved?

By 7.30.13

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Miguel Angel (Z-40) Treviño Morales looks like a tough guy. His wide face features hard eyes that perfectly give the appearance of a cartel chief -- in this case, Los Zetas. Miguel Treviño, as is his anglicized name, until the night of July 14 was the acknowledged leader of one of the major illegal drug, extortion, and human trafficking combines in Mexico. Unlike his predecessor, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano aka “El Lazca,” who was killed a little more than a year before in a gun fight with a special unit of the Mexican Navy, Miguel Treviño was taken alive.

This latter fact alone can change the entire structure of not only Los Zetas, but also influence the operations of the other cartels -- depending on how much Treviño Morales knows about his competitors and what sort of deal he might cut with his interrogators. Another alternative also must be considered. Miguel Treviño is far too knowledgeable to be allowed to remain alive in official Mexican custody. The choice, therefore, from a cartel standpoint, is to have the captured leader of Los Zetas either killed -- or freed. In both cases the action would have to be fast, before Treviño’s interrogators wring him dry.

The fact that Miguel Treviño reportedly was quickly shifted to Mexico City from Nuevo Laredo, where he was captured, is an indication of the intent of Mexican officialdom to maintain maximum control of their prisoner. The move, however, also broadens the potential access to the process. In this case, “access” means a broadened scope of inside-the-system assets capable of everything from information gathering on what Treviño Morales is saying to a direct assassination program.

According to some sources, Miguel Treviño’s brother, Omar “Z-42,” has a possibility of replacing Miguel. The problem with that theory is that the Zetas previously have promoted from within the ranks based on perceived merit. Supposedly this was an outgrowth of the organization’s beginnings as a group of military deserters from a Mexican Army Air Mobile Special Forces unit. The fact is that Miguel Treviño Morales was the first boss not from the original group of organizing soldiers. Introducing brother Omar at this time as the new boss gives Los Zetas the status of just another of the family dominated gangs that the Zetas had previously disparaged.

The test really will be if the organization of the Zetas that has up to now controlled the Nuevo Laredo corridor -- and the eight states in the East running all the way down to Yucatan -- will be able to remain unified. The individual who will be able to maintain this unification will be the next leader -- if that job of holding things together can be accomplished under the stress of other cartels “cherry-picking” their assets. And, of course, if the Marines can be kept from decimating the various state gangs, one by one.

At this point the leaders of the Zeta operations in each state are struggling with the problem of agreeing on the new central leadership while keeping their “business” activities rolling along unimpeded. This is a particularly difficult task to accomplish as rival cartels and cartel leaders are making every effort to disrupt and acquire Los Zetas’ assets. There are just too many deals that can be made that weaken the Zetas’ state monopolies that will inhibit maintaining the overall organization of the cartel as it has existed under Treviño Morales and his predecessors.

On the operational side there is one thing that has to be bothering all the drug cartels: The manner in which the Los Zetas boss was captured is something not previously encountered. Reportedly a troop-carrying helicopter landed next to and blocked a small truck/van carrying Trevino Morales, a couple of body guards, and two million dollars in the boss’s possession. In spite of several rifles in the vehicle, there was no gun fight. Miguel Treviño was captured unharmed (except for some facial scratches) while attempting to run away through some brush.

There is every indication that real-time intelligence made this possible; that most likely means surveillance drones have been introduced into the anti-drug campaign in Mexico. A new chapter in the drug war has been written if in this case it included close technical cooperation with the United States. The effectiveness of drone attacks on Taliban leadership is certainly well known by the cartels. Drone use in clandestine surveillance most likely provided the Mexican Marines with the ability to “track and attack” Treviño Morales. They just as easily could have chosen to kill their target with rockets if the international politics of the affair had allowed it.

In this case Miguel Treviño was wanted alive; the reasons for which could include everything from “bringing the Zeta boss to justice,” to interrogating him, to protecting a valuable asset. The question has to be asked, “Will the real Miguel Angel Treviño Morales ever be seen again?”

Why was the Los Zetas’ boss carrying $2 million? To pay off someone or had he just received a payoff? Cartel bosses do not as a rule act as their own financial couriers unless something unusual is in the works. This is an element in this very curious capture that may never be explained, but it certainly deserves scrutiny. Somewhere along the line someone is missing $2 million, but even that is up for conjecture until we know under which jurisdiction Miguel Treviño is now being held.

It is ironic, if not rather suspicious, that the leader of the Mexican drug cartel with the worst reputation in recent years for gruesome violence was captured stumbling through heavy brush while running away from a detachment of Mexican Marines. In any case, the Mexican Navy and Marines have shown they have the power and will to reach into the narcotics community and pluck out or destroy their chosen targets. The signal has been sent to Mexico’s criminal confederacy. 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.