July 16, 2013— -- The Mexican government may have dealt a crippling blow to one of that country's biggest drug gangs on Monday when it captured Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino.
Trevino is believed to have taken control of the Zetas operations following last year's killing of its longtime leader, Heriberto Lazcano.
Known as Z-40, this feared gangster ran smuggling corridors that stretched from Guatemala to the Texas border. He became famous for torturing his opponents and inciting massive executions in towns like Nuevo Laredo and Veracruz, and is even wanted in the U.S. for ordering murders in southern Texas.
Trevino was not just a drug dealer. He also helped the Zetas to expand from drug trafficking to other activities like kidnapping immigrants for ransom. He's even wanted for the mass execution of 72 immigrants who were found in a mass grave in northern Mexico in 2010.
Now, Trevino's arrest is sparking widespread speculation on the future of his organization.
The Zetas who, just two years ago, were described by analysts as the drug cartel that had the greatest presence in Mexican territory, are starting to fracture. This goes back to internal issues that started in early 2012 when disputes arose between Trevino and Lazcano.
Security analysts say that the internal conflict intensified after Lazcano was killed by Mexican marines in October of 2012. At the time, Trevino's followers and Lazcano's followers accused each other of being sellouts.
So what happens now?
Here's what some experts are saying about the Zetas' future, and how Trevino's capture will shape the drug business in Mexico.
This Mexican news site was one of the first to analyze the implications of Z-40's demise. It says that the capture of Trevino leaves the Zetas with little "room to act," as the group only has four leaders left who have the capacity to control drug routes, and cells of armed men around the country.
"The greatest problem facing the Zetas is that the [drug] routes [controlled by this organization] heading to the U.S. were mainly controlled by Z-40," Animal Politico points out.
Insight, which focuses on organized crime in the Western Hemisphere, anticipates that Trevino's demise will lead to an outbreak of violence, as lower ranking members of the Zetas gang try to secure control over Trevino's drug routes.
Insight says that one area that might be particularly hard hit is the town of Nuevo Laredo, just across from the Texas border, where Trevino was most influential. It says that Trevino's capture may also provide an opportunity for the Sinaloa cartel to bust its way into Nuevo Laredo, where some 10,000 trucks cross into the U.S each day and provide ample opportunities for drug smuggling.
Insight also says that with Trevino's capture the Zetas are likely to disintegrate into smaller factions.
"Miguel Treviño may have been the final stitch that held what was left of this disparate federation together… In many ways, the Zetas are following a larger trend in Mexico, and indeed the region, of fragmentation. Large scale, vertically integrated organizations are going the way of the dinosaur."
Hope, a well-known Mexican security analyst, says that while Trevino's capture might unleash infighting and violence it does make sense, on some occasions, for the government to go after cartel bosses.
"Miguel Angel Trevino fell into this category [of cartel leaders who must be captured] for two reasons. First of all, he had a history of being extremely violent, so chasing him down sent the right message [to criminals] that brutality has serious consequences. Secondly, taking him down will help to finish off the Zetas capacity to act as a coherent organization," Hope wrote on Monday.
Hope also suggested that Mexico quickly extradite Trevino to the U.S. where he is wanted on gun and murder charges.
"To have such a dangerous individual in a Mexican prison, even if it is a high security one, could generate too many risks for the government. Even while he is detained, Trevino has a high capability to intimidate and bribe public officials."
George W. Grayson
Grayson is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who thinks the capture of the Zetas leader may be very important to other cartels.
"Treviño's capture greatly strengthens El Chapo, [the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel]" Grayson says. "Above all it enhances his chance of taking over Nuevo Laredo. El Chapo's been trying to do that since he got out of prison in 2001 because that is the main portal for moving drugs, weapons and cash back and forth across the border."
According to Grayson, this does not signal a turning point for the Zetas. That's because he believes the organization has been fracturing since 2011, when then-president Felipe Calderón doubled down on the cartel, following brutal acts of violence that attracted national and international attention. Last year, there was also an inner feud between the top leaders, which further divided an already fragile organization.
"After all of this, the cartel evolved from having a vertical command and control structure to becoming a series of franchises, like McDonalds," Grayson says.
Wood, the Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says that Z-40's arrest does not deal a killer blow to the Zetas.
"It's likely that there will now be a period of uncertainty that will weaken the cartel's position in the short term, but we may actually experience an upsurge in violence as different groups and individuals in the cartel fight for primacy," Wood says.
For Wood, Treviño's capture shows the government's commitment to the war against cartels, but it does not solve any of the fundamental sociological and financial problems that keep the war alive. In that sense, the fall of Z-40 does not represent a turning point in Mexico's conflict.
Longmire, the author of "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," says that what happens in the coming weeks will define the future of the Zetas and the drug war.
"It can go a couple of ways depending on what happens within the Zetas," Longmire says. "Omar Treviño, Z-40's brother, has been very high up in the organization for some time now. If he or someone else can assert his leadership quickly with an act of force there can be minimum bloodshed. If that doesn't happen, then there could be an internal split."
If there's a conflict, there's a high chance of an increase in violence both between Zetas rival factions and between Zetas and other cartels, Longmire says.
"If El Chapo perceives any organizational weakness in the Zetas, especially in Nuevo Laredo, he will certainly take the opportunity to take advantage of that weakness," Longmire says.