MEXICO CITY — Mexico's most brutal drug cartel leader built a business empire stretching from the southwest United States to Central America, but Miguel Angel Trevino Morales' final days of freedom were spent lying low in the hinterlands of Tamaulipas state, traveling only at night over back roads as Mexican marines closed in on his trail.
The last of the Zetas drug cartel's old-guard leaders saw fate swoop in on him in the predawn hours Monday when a military helicopter flew low over his pickup truck then faced down the vehicle with its guns, Mexico Federal Security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
The vehicle stopped, and three men emerged. All were captured by marine ground forces who had been watching the movements of 40-year-old Trevino Morales, Sanchez told the Associated Press on Tuesday. Not a single shot was fired.
Trevino Morales had $2 million in cash and eight rifles with him when marines caught him outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, long the Zetas' base of operations. He was taken to Mexico City for questioning, but unlike the days of former President Felipe Calderon, there was no perp walk by a handcuffed suspect or piles of cash and guns put on display for the TV cameras.
Instead, the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto released a single video of a rumpled-looking, handcuff-free Trevino Morales walking through prosecutors' headquarters. Officials said they wanted to avoid glamorizing drug traffickers or risk rights violations that could lead to a dismissal of charges. Authorities didn't even refer to his nickname, "Z-40," a play on police radio code for a commander.
The Zetas are Mexico's most violent cartel, if not the richest with the largest turf. A New York indictment against Trevino Morales estimates he received $10 million per month in income from cocaine sales alone, not to mention the money brought in by the cartel's myriad other illicit activities, including kidnapping, extortion, migrant trafficking, weapons trafficking, even theft of oil from state pipelines.
Trevino Morales is accused of orchestrating a series of killings on the U.S. side of the border, including several by a group of young U.S. citizens who gunned down their victims on the streets of Laredo. His gang was also believed to be responsible for the slayings of U.S. ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in 2011 and American citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Zetas have kidnapped or held tens of thousands of migrants, often demanding ransoms of $3,000 each. Federal officials say the Zetas stole and smuggled at least $46 million worth of Mexican oil to U.S. refineries. Trevino Morales channeled about $16 million to his brother in the United States to buy, train and race horses.
Trevino Morales' methods, like those of Zetas leaders before him, led to a "Zetanization" of how cartels do their fighting, said George Grayson, an expert on the group and a professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
"Inflicting fear into the heart of your target is an extremely efficient way to get what you want," Grayson said. "That genie is out of the box."
Trevino Morales was being held for questioning along with a bodyguard and accountant captured in Monday's raid. Sanchez said government forces "have been able to obtain information on the possible movements of his other accomplices," and phones or computers carried by traffickers often provide such information, even if the suspects themselves don't talk.
While Trevino Morales is wanted on several counts in the United States, it was unclear whether Mexico would try him first at home or extradite him. He will probably be held at a top security prison near Mexico City, where no escapes have occurred.
It was a surprising end for a capo so violent he was notorious for an assassination method known as "the cookout" — stuffing his victim into a 55-gallon drum, dousing him with gasoline and roasting him alive. Many had thought he would go down with guns blazing, but Sanchez said the precision raid apparently caught him by surprise.
The Zetas have run their enormous turf with almost unbelievable brutality since the founders, a corps of special forces defectors who went to work for drug traffickers, splintered off into their own cartel in 2010 and metastasized across Mexico.
The Zetas were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug war, including the slaughter of 72 Central and South American migrants in the northern town of San Fernando in 2010, authorities said. The next year, federal officials announced the discovery of 193 bodies buried in San Fernando, most of them migrants kidnapped off buses and killed by the Zetas, some because they refused to work as drug mules. Sanchez said Trevino Morales is charged with ordering those crimes.
In 2011, a woman who angered the Zetas by blogging about crime and violence on a Nuevo Laredo website was found decapitated, her head placed atop a computer keyboard, with a message warning fellow bloggers about speaking out.