MEXICO CITY — The capture of the top leader of Mexico’s most bloodthirsty and bloodcurdling drug cartel will have surprisingly little effect on trafficking of cocaine and other illicit substances to the U.S., and on the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives here in recent years.
If anything, the violence, at least in the short term, may surge as rivals and potential successors of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, alias Z-40, head of the Zetas paramilitary gang, battle to take his place or his turf.
But for President Enrique Pena Nieto, the capture is a small coup. The 7-month-old government, marking its first major strike against organized crime, probably hopes the early-Monday arrest near the border town of Nuevo Laredo will score points in the theater of public opinion and especially among skeptics who doubt the new leader’s vague and sporadic security policy.
The elimination of Trevino “will seriously complicate ... the ability of these groups ... to exercise their criminal activities,” the government’s security affairs spokesman, Eduardo Sanchez, said Tuesday in a television interview. His remarks reflected Pena Nieto’s insistence on downplaying the drug war.
In marked contrast to his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, whose military-led, U.S.-backed war on powerful cartels claimed more than 70,000 lives in six years, decapitated many organizations, but ultimately did not make a significant dent in trafficking, Pena Nieto has told American advisors to stand down and, to his public, has instead emphasized a more mundane fight against killings, kidnapping and extortion.
Pena Nieto, speaking at an event in San Luis Potosi, took the unusual step of thanking state authorities along with the navy. In most states, certainly in Tamaulipas, where Trevino was captured, local authorities are so corrupt that federal drug interdictions take place without their knowledge.
“Yesterday, thanks to the good coordination that exists between the government of the republic and state government agencies charged with security,” he said, “the apprehension of one of the most wanted criminals in our country was made possible.”
Analysts said the important capture would be used by the government as proof of its commitment to the drug war and possibly to distract from much vaunted reform programs that are not going so well.
“It does not sit badly at all that the capture comes when around the world doubts are surfacing about (Pena Nieto’s) reform agenda,” the hallmark of his administration, Carlos Puig, a journalist and political analyst, wrote in a column Tuesday in Mileno newspaper.
“No capture of an individual will have great impact on drug trafficking nor perhaps, sadly, the violence. But the value of Z-40 is something else and enormous: It gives breathing room” to a government that has yet to articulate its strategy, Puig said.