The new head of the Zetas drug cartel is a former Dallas resident who is scorned as a traitor by many of his own cartel soldiers and mocked as an ex-"car washer" by his enemies, but has risen to power thanks to a fearsome reputation for violence.
"[Miguel Angel Trevino Morales] is extremely brutal, to the point of sadism," says George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas. "He is prepared to advance his interest through unspeakable violence." Grayson's recent book on the cartel, "The Executioner's Men," opens with a scene in which Trevino Morales slowly beats a female police officer to death, in front of her colleagues, with a two-by-four.
Trevino Morales, also known as El 40 or the Monkey, became the uncontested head of the Mexico's most feared drug cartel when former kingpin Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a shootout with Mexican Marines on Sunday. Lazcano had been linked to hundreds of murders, including the massacre of 72 civilians, but Trevino Morales is allegedly even more bloodthirsty. One of his preferred methods of dealing with enemies, say authorities, is burning them alive.
Trevino Morales, 41, was born in Mexico but spent some of his formative years in Dallas, Texas, where authorities say he had a criminal record as a teenager. He has a dozen siblings and reportedly still has family in the Dallas area.
According to the Associated Press, he became a teen go-fer for the Los Tejas gang, which was powerful in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas.
Trevino Morales joined the Zetas soon after their formation. The Zetas began in the late 1990s as the security wing of the Gulf Cartel. The 14 core members of the Zetas, including Heriberto Lazcano, all had military backgrounds, and took ranks based on when they'd joined the group. Lazcano was known as Z-3. By 2004, due to the death of Z-1 and the arrest of Z-2, Lazcano had become the leader of the Zetas.
Trevino Morales, who did not have a military background, got the designation 40, with his brother taking number 42. In 2005, Miguel Trevino Morales became the boss of the Nuevo Laredo "plaza," or drug territory.
As a newly minted underboss, Trevino Morales had traditional gangster tastes for fast cars, women and fancy guns, and reportedly liked to hunt game imported from Africa. He also, however, developed a developed a particular reputation for brutality in group already renowned for violence. His favored methods for dispatching enemies were dismembering them while still alive, or making them into a "guiso," or stew -- stuffing them in 55-gallon oil drums, adding gasoline and burning them alive.
By 2009, Trevino Morales had been named in multiple federal indictments in Texas, D.C. and New York for alleged crimes ranging from drug trafficking, kidnapping, and money laundering to ordering a half dozen murders in Laredo, Texas. The DEA offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction, and accused him of controlling more than 200 operatives and smuggling hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. weekly.
Early the next year, the Zetas finally split from the Gulf cartel after the Gulf Cartel crossed Trevino Morales. In January 2010, the Gulf Cartel tortured and killed one of his close friends. Trevino Morales responded with an ultimatum demanding that the cartel give up the killer. "Hand over the assassin of my friend," demanded Trevino Morales. "If you don't comply, there will be war."
The order was ignored, and Trevino Morales allegedly began killing members of the Gulf Cartel en masse. The Zetas, now an independent cartel with Trevino Morales second in command, were soon battling the Gulf Cartel for control of Northern Mexico, and winning.