Mexico Captures Head of 'Zetas' Cartel -

MEXICO CITY—The Mexican government Monday said its navy captured the leader of the country's most violent drug-trafficking organization, an important victory for the new administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.


An undated photo of Miguel Angel Treviño, the leader of the 'Zetas.'

Miguel Angel Treviño, the head of the "Zetas" crime organization, was captured in northern Mexico, Deputy Interior Minister Eduardo Sanchez said in a televised news conference. Mr. Treviño had taken over the control of the feared crime group after leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a shootout with Mexican marines in October 2012.

A navy helicopter intercepted a pickup truck in which Mr. Treviño and two others were riding on a country road at 3:45 a.m. Monday, Mr. Sanchez said. "Not a shot was fired," he added. Marines also seized $2 million and eight automatic rifles. Among other crimes, Mr. Sanchez said Mr. Treviño was believed to be responsible for ordering the kidnapping and killing of 265 immigrants in two separate incidents. It wasn't immediately clear whether Mr. Treviño had legal representation.

The capture of Mr. Treviño is the first arrest of a top cartel leader since Mr. Peña Nieto came to power in December. Mr. Treviño is on Mexico's most-wanted list with a reward of more than $2 million for his capture. The U.S. has a $5 million reward for his arrest. Mr. Treviño is 40 years old, according to Mexican intelligence documents. He was born in Nuevo Laredo, but grew up with his family in Dallas.

Mr. Peña Nieto has promised to continue the fight against drug cartels that he inherited from his predecessor Felipe Calderón. But Mr. Peña Nieto has also vowed to reduce violence by focusing on solving crimes such as kidnapping and extortion. In Mr. Peña Nieto's first six months in office, around 6,300 people died in killings seen as linked to organized crime, a decline of about 18% from the estimated 7,700 in the previous six months. Close to 70,000 have been killed in Mexico's drug war over the past six years.

"This takedown will boost Peña Nieto several points in the polls, even as he has spurned talking about violence and the narco war," George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said in an email.

It is also a triumph for the Mexican navy, which works closely with the U.S. Mr. Sanchez lauded the Navy's intelligence work, which he said had begun at the same time the new government took over.

Mr. Trevino wasn't shown to the media in a "perp walk," as was the style in the Calderón administration when the government captured a major drug trafficker. Officials in the Peña Nieto government have said that such displays of captured criminals tended to glorify them.

The Zetas were originally a band of deserters from the Mexican military who became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, which controlled drug trafficking along Mexico's Gulf Coast and northeastern border with the U.S. But in 2010, the Zetas broke with their employers, and started a bloody turf war with their former colleagues which turned the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León into killing fields.

The group quickly developed a reputation for brutality. They are blamed by Mexican and U.S. officials for some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug violence, including the fire that killed 53 people in a casino in the city of Monterrey in 2011, as well as the massacre of 72 migrants who were kidnapped and killed while trying to reach the U.S. in 2010 in the city of San Fernando in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas.

Their barbaric methods of execution—such as beheading and dismembering victims—were adopted by other Mexican cartels as they each strove to outdo the other in brutality to cow rivals as well as the government. Because of their brutality, the Zetas have been a principal target for Mexican authorities.

The Zetas also engaged in extortion of all types of businesses throughout Mexico, officials and experts say, as well as well as in the smuggling of illegal immigrants to the U.S., gasoline theft, kidnapping, and the selling of counterfeit merchandise.

Experts differed about the impact the capture of Mr. Treviño would have on the criminal organization. "If this is not the end of the Zetas, it is the beginning of the end of the Zetas as a recognizable group," said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who now works for the nonprofit Mexican Institute of Competitiveness. "There will still be gangs that use the Zetas name and its modus operandi, but this is one of the last nails in the cartel's coffin."

However, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who studies border issues at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said Mr. Treviño's capture probably wouldn't have a big impact on the organization because of its horizontal leadership structure. "The organization won't be debilitated greatly because it operates with a cell structure," said Ms. Correa-Cabrera.

Mr. Grayson said Mexico's most powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, would likely be strengthened by the capture of Mr. Treviño. The two crime groups have been fighting for control of the important border crossing point of Nuevo Laredo.

One of Mr. Treviño's brothers, José, was arrested last year and charged with operating a money-laundering ring for the Zetas through a multimillion-dollar quarter-horse breeding ranch in Oklahoma. He was found guilty of money laundering earlier this year.

Mr. Grayson wrote that the Zetas, who he says are now led by Mr. Treviño's brother, Omar, known as Z42, "have become a franchise operation, not a vertical organization," he said.

—Laurence Iliffcontributed to this article.

A version of this article appeared July 15, 2013, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Mexico Captures Zetas Cartel Boss.