It is a remarkable endorsement of Peña Nieto’s public relations strategy that it took a high-profile arrest to put the Mexican drug war back on the radar of the U.S. media. Prior to yesterday’s capture of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales aka Z-40, I can’t recall any recent reports on drug trafficking organizations on my local NPR station. The relatively low profile of the capture and its subsequent announcement suggests that Peña Nieto intends to continue his strategy of giving the cartels as little publicity as possible. Whether the capture is an indication that the administration simultaneously plans to pursue the cartels with vigor is unclear. Peña Nieto is yet to announce an official anti-crime program and in the first months of his government there was a pullback from the aggressive strategies of the Calderón administration.
There are plenty of good commentaries on the capture, especially Alejandro Hope’s here. Most analysts think this is the end of the Zetas as a coherent organization, and that is probably accurate. Some have pointed out that Z-40 controlled the group’s narcotics smuggling into the U.S., and his arrest will prove a huge blow. The group’s cellular structure, however, means that there will continue to be narcos behaving with the militaristic macho brutality under the name “Zetas.” It will be interesting to see whether they become mercenaries for other trafficking organizations, heavily-armed local gangs operating locally, or something else entirely.
The fact that the Marines were responsible for the capture is interesting on several levels. First, this is a continuity of trends under Calderón when the Marines were the organization responsible for most high-profile captures or killings. As Hope points out, this also suggests that there is still communication and cooperation with the DEA despite the early (and very public) disagreements between Peña Nieto’s administration and U.S. agents, since the Marines were the DEA’s trusted and preferred institution. I would also note that this is a reminder that there is still no police option in Mexico for such arrests, even though Peña Nieto has promised reform.
Update 7/17/2013: A New York Times report on the capture confirms that U.S. intelligence sharing contributed directly to Treviño’s capture:
A senior American law enforcement official posted along the border, who was not authorized to speak on the record, described a recent meeting with his counterparts in Mexico City. “What I got from that meeting is that Mexico wants to prove it can handle this fight on its own — or at least on its own terms,” the official said.
Still, the Mexicans recognized the need for American help, and the two governments began sharing information on Mr. Treviño several months ago, with the Americans passing along word of the birth of Mr. Treviño’s child a little more than a month ago, the official said. The Americans also shared the information that he appeared to be making trips to visit the baby in the Nuevo Laredo area, near where he was captured, the official said.
The authorities traded intelligence gleaned from conversations caught on wiretaps and informants’ tips that led Mexican authorities to Mr. Treviño’s truck, moving before dawn on a highway near the border, the official said. Mexican marines in a helicopter intercepted Mr. Treviño and arrested him and two aides without a shot. Eight guns and $2 million in cash were confiscated.
“The reason they caught him without layers of security and without firing a shot,” said Art Fontes, a former F.B.I. official who spent years tracking Mr. Treviño, “is because he had $2 million in the vehicle and he thought he could buy his way out.”