Captured Zetas Leader Built Reputation on Sadistic Violence

In the macabre world of Mexican gangland violence, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Zetas chief who was captured on Monday, stands out in his taste for violence. Dismemberment, acid baths, and decapitation were standard tactics for the man who helped build the Zetas into Mexico’s most-feared cartel. He built that reputation on enormous personal cruelty. ...

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

In the macabre world of Mexican gangland violence, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Zetas chief who was captured on Monday, stands out in his taste for violence. Dismemberment, acid baths, and decapitation were standard tactics for the man who helped build the Zetas into Mexico's most-feared cartel.

He built that reputation on enormous personal cruelty.

In 2005, for instance, Wenceslao Tovar, a Zetas hitman, went to visit Treviño -- known, among other things, as "40" -- after carrying out his first hit for the group.  "We were taken to a ranch," Tovar testified in a Laredo trial. "When we got there, I saw '40' there and he was executing three people. He was cutting their heads off."

In the macabre world of Mexican gangland violence, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Zetas chief who was captured on Monday, stands out in his taste for violence. Dismemberment, acid baths, and decapitation were standard tactics for the man who helped build the Zetas into Mexico’s most-feared cartel.

He built that reputation on enormous personal cruelty.

In 2005, for instance, Wenceslao Tovar, a Zetas hitman, went to visit Treviño — known, among other things, as "40" — after carrying out his first hit for the group.  "We were taken to a ranch," Tovar testified in a Laredo trial. "When we got there, I saw ’40’ there and he was executing three people. He was cutting their heads off."

That commitment to extreme violence permeated the organization. Tovar also testified that during his time working for the Zetas, he attended training camps that required the organization’s recruits to slaughter bound men with machetes and sledgehammers.

But when he started out, Treviño was little more than an errand boy. Growing up in Dallas, Treviño was a gofer for a group known as Los Tejas, a gang that controlled his hometown of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. That experience eventually brought him into contact in the late 1990s with the Gulf cartel, a group said to have admired his skill in slipping across the U.S.-Mexico border. Shortly thereafter he joined the Zetas.

An upstart in the world of Mexican drug cartels, the Zetas arrived on the scene in the 1990s as mercenaries for the much larger Gulf cartel. But in 2010, the group split from their parent organization to form their own drug trafficking operation. The most appalling violence in Mexico in recent years has been in large part fueled by this split, which has resulted in unhinged violence among proliferating cartels battling for territory. With Treviño as a key leader and enforcer, the Zetas have acquired a reputation as the most violent among these groups by, for example, dumping hundreds of bodies along Mexican roads. In recent years, that conflict is increasingly playing out on the Internet with groups such as the Zetas posting gruesome execution videos in an effort to instill fear in the towns they seek to control along Mexico’s drug shipping corridor.

Though Treviño himself never served in the military, the Zetas were founded during their days working for the Gulf cartel by former members of the Mexican special forces — a fact frequently cited in explaining the group’s appalling tactics. Among these former soldiers, Treviño acquired a reputation for fearlessness. Time and again escaping gun battles unharmed, he became something of a cult figure within the organization.

With Treviño arrested, one of Mexico’s most violent drug lords is now out of the picture, and his capture will undoubtedly be touted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has staked his administration on a new approach to fighting the country’s cartels, as a major breakthrough.

But with his arrest and the power vacuum likely to follow, Mexico may be in for a bloody few days — and whether Treviño’s capture has a lasting impact on lowering crime rates is far from certain.

Either way, a sadistic killer has been brought to justice.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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