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Is Cartel Leader Capture Really A Win For Drug War?


Now we go to Mexico where this week brought a major development in the drug war. Authorities there captured the man they believe is the leader of the Zetas, a group that's been described as a paramilitary drug cartel responsible for some of the most grotesque violence connected to Mexico's drug war.

Miguel Angel Trevino Morales was caught in a border city earlier this week. For more on this and what it could mean, we turn to Alfredo Corchado. He's Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News and he's author of the book "Midnight in Mexico." Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You reported that Trevino Morales had been tracked for nearly a decade, but the actual capture was not nearly as dramatic as a lot of people would have expected. Could you talk little more about that?

CORCHADO: You know, Michel, a lot of people were shocked by that because he had so many associates that he would never be caught alive. In fact, he was known to carry a bullet just in case he was surrounded, he would just take his own life. But it happened very quickly. I think the whole operation took less than seven minutes. He was on a dirt road headed from Nuevo Laredo where he had just visited his wife and newborn child. The other thing that was surprising was he was only traveling with two people.

He usually would have up to 200 people surrounding him. So there's, you know, that - all that I think has caught a lot of Mexicans by surprise that not one shot was fired. They found $2 million, nine guns and something like 500 rounds of ammunition.

MARTIN: Wow. What do people think it means that A, he was captured at all and B, that he was captured without shots being fired?

CORCHADO: I think people want to believe that long-term it means that the violence will come down. I mean, no other criminal has defined the last decade with this kind of violence. I mean, the brand of violence that Miguel Angel Trevino was known for. His legacy, you know, of dropping bodies in acid, putting body parts along highways etched with the letter Z. That is an image that I think a lot of Mexicans will have for a long, long time.

I think - and Mexico is a country of conspiracy, so people will always wonder, why was it so easy? Why was no one really surrounding him? So you're going to have people who are going to wonder whether a deal was struck. I've been told by officials on both sides of the border that this was really an operation that has been in the works for months. The Mexican intelligence, along with the help of U.S. intelligence, and they finally found the perfect moment, you know, to nab him.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more if you would. You started telling us why he was so very much wanted. I mean, he had a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. The money apparently having been put up by both the U.S. government and the Mexican government. Why does he have the reputation that he has, and why do the Zetas have the reputation they have for this, kind of, really over-the-top violence? And if you could try to describe this to us without making us all sick, that would be helpful.

CORCHADO: Sure. I mean, the Zetas, the original members, were army deserters - deserters from an elite unit, 35 of them. Miguel Trevino Morales was not a trained soldier. Came of age watching cars for the big cartel leader in Nuevo Laredo. But instead of, you know, being more of a business guy like a lot of these drug cartel leaders are, his thing was to instill fear in communities. And so he would just, you know, hover over like a shadow over police departments, mayor's office, reporters.

One of the fascinating things was when this happened on Monday, I called a number of journalists to see if they knew anything, and many people said look, I'm not going to say anything unless the guy is six feet under or we see him behind bars. And that's the kind of fear he instilled. The other thing that's interesting is that he is a very kind of a transnational figure.

I mean, it was not just Mexico, it was not just Northern Mexico, but he actually came of age as a criminal in North Texas in the Dallas area - big family ties. Dallas, you know, has this whole distribution route, and that was really the Zetas' base of operations. So he was feared and, as you said, wanted on both sides of the border.

MARTIN: One of the points that I want to talk about is that there's drug trafficking and then there's the level of violence. You mentioned that there's the hope that the level of violence would decrease with his capture. But back in October of 2012, it was reported that Heriberto Lazcano, who was then described as the leader of the Zetas, was killed, but clearly other people rose within it. So why do people think now that this would be a step toward bringing the level of violence down?

CORCHADO: That's a great question. I mean, and I think there are two points here. One is the Zetas were not just focused on drug trafficking alone. I mean, they had their hands into everything. Anything that was elicit, illegal, they were in it. You know, whether it was kidnapping, whether it was extortion, human smuggling, piracy, these guys were there, and they were incredibly violent. Many people will say Lazcano was much more of a, kind of a thinking guy, a business sort of person, but it was Trevino who gave the Zetas reputation of being the most violent group in Mexico.

People long-term hope that the violence will go down. But I think in the weeks to come, days to come, you're going to see a spike in violence because it is one of the most lucrative, if not the most lucrative route along the U.S.-Mexico border, and I don't think people are going to walk away and say, OK, it's over. I mean, you know, expect some violence to renew it in the days to come.

MARTIN: I did want to mention again that one of the things you've talked to us about is the involvement of the drug cartels and human trafficking. Particularly, you know, people from Central America trying to pass through Mexico. And one of the, you know, dastardly deeds that this group has been associated with was the death of hundreds of migrants in one location.

So I do think that's important to highlight. But, Mexico's president has been criticized for being vague about what his strategy is toward addressing the drug cartels. I mean, he said during his campaign that he wanted to create kind of a change or break with the past. Does this offer any indication of what his strategy is?

CORCHADO: I mean, people I've talked to have said, look, this was really a Marine operation. And this has been going on since before the president took over, before the new president took over. So it still isn't clear to what extent you can credit the new administration. The president, Pena Nieto, came out 24-hours after the capture and praised the Marines. And there hasn't been the big parade where the drug trafficker was paraded in front of the cameras and, you know, everyone would applaud that something [unintelligible] the former President Calderon.

So it's really unclear how much the administration had to do. It does kind of give you the sense that the cooperation between the United States and some Mexico officials, especially at the regional level, is still there and is still very strong. So that kind of gives you a sign that, you know, things may not change as dramatically as Pena Nieto and as people have said in the past. But, you know, I think people are hopeful that Pena Nieto's main focus has been, hey, let's bring the violence down. And I think by capturing the Trevino Morales, El Cuarenta, it really gives people a sense that OK, maybe we're on to something, maybe this will happen. I mean, let's face it, this guy's nickname is death. I mean, I think death says it all.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado is Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News and author of "Midnight in Mexico." He joined us from Mexico City. Alfredo Corchado, thank you.

CORCHADO: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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