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Mexico: Will Los Zetas Unravel Without Their Leader?

July 15, 2013 | 2035 Print Text Size

Summary

The arrest of Los Zetas leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales marks the most significant capture involving a Mexican organized crime leader since 2008. On July 15, Stratfor sources confirmed Mexican and U.S. media reports saying that Trevino was arrested in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, and that he was being transferred to Mexico City. Reports indicate that he was arrested late July 14, though that has not been confirmed. At least one source claims Trevino's nephew was also arrested. 

Trevino became the leader of Los Zetas, one of Mexico's most prolific and most territorial organized crime groups, sometime in 2012 shortly before then-leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano was killed by the Mexican navy. Trevino's arrest could change Mexico's criminal landscape substantially if Los Zetas begin to unravel in his absence. 

Analysis

One reason behind Los Zetas' success is the group's ability to replace its leadership, even its senior-most leaders, relatively easily. In fact, Trevino succeeded Lazcano without any noticeable internal strife — a rare occurrence among Mexican criminal groups.

This ability stems from the founding members, several of whom deserted from the highly trained Special Forces Airmobile Group unit of the Mexican army. Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections. This contrasts starkly with the culture of other cartels, including the Sinaloa Federation. However, Trevino did not originate from the Mexican military like his predecessor, so it is possible that the group's culture may have changed somewhat. 

It is unclear who will now try to keep the group together. Trevino's brother, Omar "Z-42" Trevino, will likely continue to maintain his role in criminal operations but it remains to be seen whether he has the capability or respect within the organization to replace his brother.

The places where cartel-related violence could rise as a result of Trevino's capture will depend on the ability of Los Zetas to replace their top leader as well as the strategies of Los Zetas' rivals. Should Trevino's arrest spark an internal struggle for succession, violence could rise in the states in which Los Zetas hold a substantial presence, including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Coahuila, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Tabasco states.

Los Zetas' rivals, such as the Sinaloa Federation, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, the Knights Templar and factions of the Gulf cartel, probably see this transition as a moment of weakness. They could attack Los Zetas in their strongholds or otherwise try to expel Los Zetas from their own home territories.   

The intelligence from Trevino's arrest could be a boon to U.S. and Mexican officials. Unlike Lazcano, who was killed during his attempted apprehension, Trevino survived his arrest and thus could provide valuable intelligence either through interrogation or through the seizure of his personal belongings, including mobile phones, computers and paper records. These in turn could lead to the arrests of other high-ranking organized crime leaders.

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