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Leader of Brutal Zetas Drug Cartel Captured Near Texas Border

July 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The reputed leader of one of Mexico’s most vicious drug gangs was behind bars today. But it was unclear just how much that will do to ease drug violence that has raged for years.

A warning: Some of the images in our story are disturbing.

A Mexican newspaper headline this morning said it all: “Intelligence Action Decapitates the Zetas,” a macabre play, no doubt, on one of the gang’s grisly murderous methods.

The man named Z-40 was captured early Monday without a shot being fired, in the violence-wracked border city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas.

EDUARDO SANCHEZ, Mexican Interior Ministry spokesperson (through translator): Members of Mexico’s armed forces detained Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, 40 years old. He’s accused of organized crime, homicide, crimes against health, torture, money laundering, and importing firearms normally used exclusively by the armed forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a trade marked by its brutality, the Zetas have earned a special reputation. Beyond the wanton killings of police, military, judges, politicians and civilians, Zetas have left a bloody trail of dead bodies, scattered in town squares or strung from bridges, and often left with profane “narcomantas,” messages to their rivals and to the Mexican public.

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Last summer, the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner interviewed relatives of some of the 52 killed in a casino torched by the Zetas in 2011. One woman wouldn’t even utter the word Zetas.

SAMARA PEREZ, family member of victim: If I tell you on an international network the name of the criminal organization, it’s going to cost me my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Zetas were formed by former Mexican special forces as the security arm of another cartel. From there, they muscled their way to the top of the lucrative drug business and now control the trade in 11 Mexican states.

They are perhaps most active in Tamaulipas, where Trevino Morales was captured, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon, home to Monterrey, Mexico’s second largest city and its business capital.

Indeed, the gang’s influence is so widespread that many Mexicans caution today against expecting immediate improvement.

RICARDO CAMARGO, Mexico (through translator): I don’t think it will be over by catching one, because they arrest one and 20 crop up. On the other hand the government also knows who they are and I imagine know where they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s believed that Trevino Morales’ younger brother, Omar, will assume the Zetas’ leadership. As such, he will largely oversee the eastern drug corridors into the United States.

Zetas’ only real rival now in terms of strength and breadth of operation is the Sinaloa cartel, which controls much of the Western Mexican routes into the U.S. The arrest of Trevino Morales marks a victory for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but the challenge remains daunting.

His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, militarized the war against the cartels in 2006. But since then, at least 60,000 people have been killed. When the number of disappeared and presumed dead is added, that figure is more than 100,000.