Mexico Creates Job Opening for a New Drug Kingpin
The government of Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto has good reason to trumpet the capture yesterday of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, head of Los Zetas, one of the country's most brutal and most powerful drug cartels.
Even by the gory standards of Mexican drug lords, Trevino stood out for his sadistic streak: He is accused of orchestrating, in several large-scale incidents, the kidnapping and killing of 265 migrants in northern Mexico. (According to one survivor, they were killed when they refused to work as drug mules.) The U.S. and Mexican governments had offered a combined bounty of as much as $7 million for his capture. Let’s hope that they have more money in the reward pinata, because they’re going to need it.
From his base in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas, Trevino was responsible for building the Zetas’s drug smuggling network into the U.S., straight up Interstate 35 to Chicago. According to an April 2010 report by the U.S. Justice Department, the Zetas had distribution points in 37 U.S. cities.
Yet drug trafficking is only part of their wide-ranging business: Last May, four men (including Trevino Morales’s brother) were convicted in a money-laundering scheme that included buying, training, breeding and racing horses in the U.S. In addition to prostitution, extortion and taxation schemes, the Zetas have been involved in, among other things, pirating CDs and DVDs, coal-mining and stealing oil from PEMEX, Mexico’s state oil company.
Trevino’s arrest marks the first takedown of a major cartel leader by Pena Nieto’s administration, which has generally downplayed the fight against drug gangs in favor of an effort to reduce the level of violence and spur economic growth. If past captures and killings are any guide, however, removing one kingpin just creates a job opening for another, or a vacuum to be filled by another gang –- in this case, the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo Guzman (Shorty Guzman). In March 2012, the head of the U.S. Northern Command, General Charles Jacoby, testified that although Mexico had captured or killed 22 out of 37 of its most-wanted traffickers, their removal had not had “any appreciable positive effect” in reducing drug violence.
So brace yourself. While it’s good that Mexican Marines have arrested a guy who liked to stuff his enemies in 55-gallon drums and set them on fire, in the short run his capture may lead to more, rather than less, violence.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)