MEXICO CITY - Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas drug cartel, was captured before dawn Monday, officials announced.
It was the first major blow against an organized crime leader by a Mexican administration struggling to drive down persistently high levels of violence.
Treviño Morales, 40, was captured by Mexican Marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The truck was halted by a Marine helicopter and Treviño Morales was taken into custody along with a bodyguard and an accountant and eight guns, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.
Sanchez said the Marines had been watching rural roads between the Texas border states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas for signs of Treviño Morales, who is charged with murder, torture, kidnapping and other crimes.
The Zetas leader and his alleged accomplices were flown to Mexico City, where they are expected to eventually be tried in a closed system that usually takes years to prosecute cases, particularly high-profile ones.
Treviño Morales, known as "Z-40," is uniformly described as one of the two most powerful cartel heads in Mexico, the leader of 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, expanding from drug dealing into extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking.
Along the way, the Zetas authored some of the worst atrocities of Mexico's drug war, leaving hundreds of bodies beheaded on roadsides or hanging from bridges, earning a reputation as perhaps the most terrifying of the country's cartels.
On Treviño Morales' watch, 72 Central and South American migrants were slaughtered by the Zetas in the northern town of San Fernando in 2010, authorities said. By the following year, federal officials announced finding 193 people buried in San Fernando, most of them migrants kidnapped off buses and killed by the Zetas for various reasons, including their refusal to work as drug mules.
Treviño Morales is charged with ordering the kidnapping and killing of the 265 migrants, Sanchez said.
President Enrique Peña Nieto came into office promising to drive down levels of homicide, extortion and kidnapping but has struggled to make a credible dent in crime figures. U.S. authorities worried that he would ease back on predecessor Felipe Calderón's U.S.-backed strategy aimed above all at decapitating drug cartels.
The arrest of Treviño Morales, a man widely blamed for both massive northbound drug trafficking and the deaths of untold numbers of Mexicans and Central American migrants, will almost certainly earn praise from Peña Nieto's U.S. and Mexican critics alike.