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Mexico's Most Brutal Drug Lord Has Been Captured, But That Won't Change Anything

Experts say violent criminal organizations will continue to thrive under the U.S. drug prohibition regime

July 24, 2013 12:25 PM ET
Miguel Treviño Morales
Miguel Treviño Morales, the alleged leader of Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas.
Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

In the bloody world of Mexican drug bosses, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales  is about as nasty as it gets. He is said to be personally responsible for the deaths of thousands. According to one of his former assassins, he has a thing for beheading people himself. He's also reportedly fond of dipping those who cross him into vats of acid, turning their bodies into human stew.

Treviño's legacy and success in illicit drug trafficking is rooted in his well-founded reputation for extreme violence. As an operational commander and the eventual head of Los Zetas – a sadistic criminal organization with roots in Mexico's special forces – Treviño has led by example. His lessons in brutality have spread terror and pain to communities throughout Mexico and Central America. The Zetas have waged war against rivals in the streets, assassinated scores of law enforcement officials, strung corpses from bridges and massacred migrants seeking better lives in the north. Violence perpetrated by Treviño's men has spilled over onto U.S. soil as well, where they have reportedly contracted and trained American teens to kill.

On July 15th, Treviño – more commonly known as "Z-40" – was arrested without incident less than 20 miles south of the Texas border. He was riding in a pickup truck along a rural highway, accompanied by two of his men, when a helicopter carrying elite Mexican marines cut them off in the hours just before dawn. According to a senior U.S. law enforcement official, Treviño was visiting his newborn child at the time. Authorities on both sides of the border say they had been closing in on him for months. Despite the traffickers' eight-weapon arsenal, no shots were fired. Analysts suspect this is because the vehicle also was loaded with $2 million and Treviño likely believed he could buy his way out of any law enforcement entanglement.

Treviño's capture made international headlines, both because it was the most significant arrest of such a prominent cartel leader in several years, and because it marked the first major drug arrest under the administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico's recently-elected president. Nieto's December 2012 election raised concerns in some circles that collaborative U.S. and Mexican drug war efforts were under threat. President Barack Obama acknowledged those concerns in an interview last week, but saw Treviño's arrest as an encouraging sign: "What it shows," said Obama, "is that the new administration of President Pena Nieto is serious about continuing the efforts to break up these transnational drug operations."

With such a well-known cartel figure now in custody, can we expect to see a drop in the flow of drugs across the U.S.-Mexico borders and a reduction in violence in Mexico? Of course not, says Sean Dunagan, a former DEA agent who tracked Treviño's operations for two years and witnessed the bloodshed he caused firsthand. In the immediate future, Dunagan says Treviño's arrest could actually lead to more killing – and in the long term, it will do nothing to bring U.S. drug warriors closer to their vision of victory.

In 2008, Dunagan – a 10-year veteran of the DEA – was assigned to a post in the U.S. consulate office in Monterrey, Mexico. He was the DEA's lone intelligence analyst in Mexico's third-largest metropolis. Up until that point, Monterrey, one of Mexico's wealthiest cities, had largely escaped the violence that has left some 60,000 people in the country dead over the last seven years. That would soon change. 

Formed in the late 1990s by former Mexican special forces members, some of whom had U.S. training, the Zetas were initially hired to provide armed support to the well-established Gulf Cartel. In the mid-2000s, Miguel Treviño – a fluent English speaker born in Mexico but raised on both sides of the border – established himself as an operational leader in the organization, spearheading the takeover of Nuevo Laredo, a border town in one of Mexico's most lucrative drug-trafficking corridors. The takeover was due in no small part to Treviño's penchant for brutality. "[Treviño's] a uniquely violent person and, as a result of that, kind of rose through the ranks very quickly," Dunagan tells Rolling Stone. "He really got his stripes fighting over Nuevo Laredo and he won Nuevo Laredo for the Gulf Cartel."

As Treviño's stature within the Zetas increased, so too did the organization's criminal portfolio, steadily branching out into human trafficking, low-level extortion, protection rackets, the pirating of liquor and more. The Gulf Cartel's hired muscle eventually turned on their masters. "You can only make so much money as somebody's enforcer," Dunagan says. This realization resulted in a vicious, multi-year battle for control of the Mexican drug market which led to the Zetas' emergence as an independent organization. 

Soon after Dunagan assumed his post in Monterrey, violence in the city began to increase as the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fought for turf. Residents and agents alike were shocked, Dunagan says. "It was really frightening for the residents, and for us as well," he recalls. "People were not used to it." Local law enforcement and judicial infrastructures were ill-equipped to respond. Because "every municipal law enforcement agency in Mexico is aligned with one cartel or the other," Dunagan says there were "a lot of killings of municipal law enforcement," in addition to the deaths of rivals and innocent bystanders. 

By 2009, the U.S. government declared the Zetas "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico." The following year, as the security situation in Monterrey worsened, the State Department declared the city a "no-child post." Dunagan's wife and four children were evacuated to the U.S.

Dunagan stayed behind, probing the Zetas' senior leadership for potential weaknesses. At the time, the group was headed by Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano, who would remain in command until his death in 2012, which resulted in Treviño's rise to the official Number One position. While Dunagan describes Lazcano as the "the nominal leader" of the Zetas throughout the final years of his career, he says "people didn't fear Lazca near the extent they feared Treviño." Treviño, Dunagan says, was "certainly the power behind the throne." 

Miguel Treviño's brother, Oscar, once unwittingly bragged to informants that Miguel had personally killed over 2,000 people. "I think that's entirely possible," Dunagan says. "Of course nobody, probably not even Treviño, knows or remembers how many people he killed or how many killings he ordered."

Dunagan says it was the prospect of bringing killers like Treviño to justice that motivated him to continue his work for the DEA, though earlier in his career he had privately questioned the efficacy of drug prohibition. "Because it wasn't working," he says flatly. "There was no metric you could point to that would suggest success on any sort of scale. And in the meantime, we arrested millions and millions of people on drug charges and spent billions and billions of dollars with nothing to show for it." Disillusioned by his experiences in Monterrey, Dunagan left the DEA at the end of 2010. He now works for a conservative think tank on the East Coast.

Dunagan applauds the Mexican marines who captured Treviño. "It's tremendous," he says. "He's certainly the most violent drug trafficker in Mexico in recent history. So as a moral victory, I think it's wonderful." 

But beyond that, Dunagan says that Treviño's arrest will do little to stem the tide of violence in Mexico. "I don't think it will have any lasting impact," he says. Even worse, he fears that murder rates in Mexico could go up, not down, as rival gang leaders fight to fill the power vacuum left by Treviño.

This, Dunagan argues, is the tragic, cyclical nature of drug prohibition. "As terrible as it is, there are lots aspiring Miguel Angel Treviños in Mexico," he says. "One of the things that he proved is that you can become very, very successful in an organization, not through shrewdness and alliances and corruption, but through violence. That was really his hallmark."

Other experts agree that Treviño's arrest is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on the drug trade. "On the trafficking side of things, it's going to have little to zero effect, and in fact it may ultimately exacerbate it in terms of lowering the barriers to entry for rivals," says Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies and director of the institute's drug policy program since 1998. "At the end of the day, as long as there's demand in the United States, Mexico is in an impossible situation. There are no good options. Prohibition is the problem."

Sylvia Longmire, a consultant and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, cannot recall any instance in which removing the head of a major cartel has reduced the flow of drugs into the U.S. "Over at least the last dozen years," she says, "there has been absolutely no statistical correlation whatsoever with the arrest or the death of a kingpin and the volume of drugs being moved across the border."

Dunagan, the former DEA intelligence analyst, is convinced that the key to eliminating the violent, criminal organizations that profit from drug prohibition is to remove their primary reason for existing. "The only way to solve the problems caused by having something in the black market is by creating a legal, regulated market," he says, adding that he supports the regulated legalization of all drugs in order to "take the industry out of the hands of people like Miguel Treviño Morales." 

In the last decade, the U.S. has spent $20 billion waging a militarized war on drug trafficking organizations in Latin America. In 2012 alone, $2.8 billion was spent on guns, planes and the latest technology in the effort to stop people from selling drugs to each other there. Private contractors, meanwhile, have made a fortune from the drug war: Last year, the State Department held a conference in Melbourne, Florida for private security companies interested in securing up to $10 billion in aviation contracts, the bulk of which will support international counter-narcotics operations.

The illicit international drug trade, meanwhile, continues to generate at least $320 billion each year, according to U.N. estimates – with the U.S. as the planet's top consumer. Until this changes, people like Treviño will always be able to find work. "Drugs are not hard to get in this country," says Dunagan. "Addiction rates are not low. And yet, we have this tremendous apparatus fighting the drug war, that is really having a terrible, terrible impact on Mexico and Guatemala and other countries in Latin America, and in this country . . . . All it does is foster violence and addiction, and wastes a lot of money in the process."

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