Trevino Morales Arrest Won't End the Mexican Drug War

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities captured Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, also known as Z-40, the leader of Mexico's most notorious drug cartel, Los Zetas. Mexican marines stopped and arrested him in a truck while he was travelling with an accountant, a bodyguard, and eight guns. Although a brutal criminal has been brought to justice, chances are that Morales's incarceration will do little to advance the war on drugs.

Morales leads a force predominantly of former drug enforcement agents who defected from Mexican authorities in the 1990s to work as bodyguards for the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas's parent cartel. Unlike the cartel's former military professionals, Morales began as a drug runner for the Los Tejas gang in his hometown Nuevo Laredo before trafficking into the U.S.; he was eventually recruited into the Gulf Cartel.

In 2008 Morales's former boss Heriberto Lazcano used the former drug enforcement agents to split from the Gulf Cartel and form the Los Zetas cartel. Lazcano died in a shootout with authorities last year, leaving Morales in charge. Shortly before Morales's capture, Los Zetas began to expand its turf to the U.S., recruiting U.S. prison and street gangs to work for the cartel, departing from its preferred method of recruiting military and law enforcement personnel.

Morales rose to notoriety for his grisly method of execution called "stew," in which he would put the victim in a large barrel, douse him in gasoline, and set him aflame. Additionally, Morales is responsible for the mass slaughter of civilians, women and children among them, including 72 migrants, as well as public beheadings to serve as warning signs to rival cartels and law enforcement agents.

Morales's capture is a huge boon to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who campaigned on a promise to reduce violence and crime. 70,000 people have been killed in cartel-related crime since 2007. Nevertheless, the president's strategy differs from his predecessors' in that he attempts to focus more on crimes that affect the average Mexican citizen, such as murder, abduction, and extortion, rather than focusing on pursing the leaders of drug cartels. Naturally, the U.S. which continues to waste over $51 billion per year on the ineffectual war on drugs, is skeptical of this strategy and some critics will point to the fact that homicide rates have not dropped during his few short months in office.

President Pena Nieto's security plan is fundamentally sounder than the misguided war on drugs. Focusing on combating individual drug cartels escalates violence that catches more civilians in the crossfire, ultimately boosting civilian casualties. Furthermore, the war on drugs emphasizes simply cutting off the proverbial head of the snake. Unfortunately, cartels are hydras and not snakes. Alejandro Hope, who was previously employed with Mexico's domestic intelligence service, asserts that authorities have a perception that capturing the leader of a cartel will cause it to fragment. In reality, many leaders of Los Zetas have been arrested or killed over the past few years to no avail, as the cartel is as strong as it's ever been.

Omar Morales, Trevino's younger brother, is widely expected to take his brother's place. However, Omar is relatively low in the cartel's hierarchy and many believe him to be weaker than his brother. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to assume that Morales's arrest will incapacitate, or even severely weaken, the Los Zetas cartel anymore than the death of Lazcano did. 

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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