This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew

Mexican drug kingpin nabbed after years of bloody mayhem

This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew
Miguel Trevino, center, with associates. Mexican navy photo This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew Mexican drug kingpin nabbed after years of bloody mayhem ... This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew
Miguel Trevino, center, with associates. Mexican navy photo

This Cartel Boss Boiled People into Stew

Mexican drug kingpin nabbed after years of bloody mayhem 

Early Monday morning, before dawn, a pickup truck carrying one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords was heading down a dirt road near the Texas border. The kingpin, Miguel Trevino, was accompanied by his accountant and a bodyguard. Also inside the truck — typical for a narco boss — were eight guns and $2 million in cash.

Precisely what happened next is unclear. Mexican marines in a helicopter reportedly spotted the truck and halted it. Without a shot being fired, Trevino — the head of Mexico’s Zetas who went by the nom de guerre Z-40 — was taken into custody. It had been only nine months since he had been at the reigns of the cartel, a job that fell to him after his predecessor was killed by the marines near a baseball field. Trevino could be extradited to face charges in the United States.

In a drug war known for its merciless kingpins, Trevino stood out as one of the most merciless. Accounts from former hitmen paint the drug lord as a sociopath who murdered people (and animals) for fun, and trained recruits with bloodsport-style executions. He also had unusual origins for a Zetas leader. The cartel, which began as a group of assassins made up of former Mexican army commandos, brought Trevino in as a low-level hitman owing to his beginning as a street thug. And it was a confluence of events that allowed him to rise to the leadership position.

The situation in nearby Nuevo Laredo is, not surprisingly, tense. The border city is home territory for the Zetas, and has heated up in recent months as the cartel’s rivals, the Sinaloa Federation, have moved in. Reprisal attacks from the Zetas, fighting between rivals inside the cartel and from the Zetas’ enemies are a potential threat. What happens next is also impossible to predict.

Department of Defense photo

‘He’s got to kill something’

The Mexican drug war began in the mid-2000s, as Pres. Felipe Calderon ordered thousands of soldiers into the streets to fight drug traffickers. But several years prior, a one-party system that ruled Mexico for decades had broken down with the election of Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox. The traditional ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party was thrown out of power, and the traditional corrupt patronage networks between government officials and criminals — which allowed criminal organizations a degree of leeway — were disrupted.

Two of Mexico’s largest cartels, the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf Cartel, went at each other’s throats.

For a gangster, Trevino was in the right place the right time. As the cartels began fighting over the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Trevino was working as a small-time crook for a local gang known as Los Tejas, allied with Sinaloa. Their enemies, the Gulf Cartel, began moving their own enforcers known as Los Zetas into the city. The enforcers were based around a core group of rogue Mexican army commandos, formerly with the army’s Special Forces Airmobile Group. Trevino split with the local crooks and joined up. In 2010 the Zetas split with the Gulf Cartel and became independent — and quickly turned into Mexico’s largest cartel by territory.

The details surrounding Trevino’s rise in the Zetas’ ranks is fuzzy, but former cartel members who have testified in court cases and interviewed in prison have said Trevino’s perfectionism, sociopathic cruelty and ability to inspire loyalty were key factors.

He can’t sleep, he’s got to kill something,” former hitman Rosalio Reta told the San Antonio Express-News. The interview was conducted in prison in 2011, and released this week on condition of Trevino’s death or capture. “He has to like what he sees in order to kill. He’d rather kill a horse or a cow than a bullshit deer.”

Trevino, according to these accounts, would personally execute people by beheading, and organized training camps that forced Zetas recruits to kill prisoners with sledgehammers. One preferred execution method involved placing victims inside 55-gallon barrels and lighting them on fire — known as making “guiso,” or stew.

But Trevino is also a teetotaler, never touching his own supply of drugs. He pulled heroin addicts off the streets and forced them to get clean, and then ordered them to work for the cartel. At the same time, he built an illicit business worth hundreds of millions of dollars — if not billions — with investments in land, real estate and quarter horses. By the time of former kingpin Heriberto Lazcano’s death in 2012, Trevino was poised to take the leadership.

Zetas. Mexican navy photo

What’s next: ‘a hot mess’

But Trevino’s leadership of the Zetas’ was short-lived. His arrest was also low-profile.

In recent years, under ex-president Felipe Calderon, captured drug bosses were rolled out to the media in extravagant ceremonies while surrounded by masked soldiers and piles of cocaine, marijuana and weapons, including grenades and automatic rifles. Not so this time. It probably has something to do with the new president.

Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has taken something of a different approach. After Trevino’s capture, he was merely seen in a short video, and wasn’t wearing handcuffs or body armor — a signal de-emphasizing kingpins as the most important metric of success.

The logic goes like this: capture one kingpin, another one might just take his place. Plus, as rivals or heirs-to-be fight it out for control, violence in the short-term might go up, not down. Pena, instead, has publicly emphasized bringing down the body count. The government is still going to take down the biggest kingpins, but isn’t going to parade them around like a pinata. But there’s also a question how much of this is a distinction without a difference.

“I know some folks have been saying he’s getting away from his promise not to go the kingpin route,” Sylvia Longmire, a drug war analyst and former Air Force intelligence officer, tells War is Boring. “But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing. What’s he going to do, ignore the opportunity to investigate, catch and extradite one of these guys? His priority is to reduce violence, and the best way to do that is to get rid of Los Zetas.”

Trevino’s brother, Alejandro (also known as Z-42), is his likely successor. The 39-year-old currently has a $5-million bounty on his head from the U.S. State Department, and is wanted for murders and smuggling “multi-kilogram loads of cocaine” into the United States.

Alejandro is also believed to be the Zetas’ primary negotiator with Colombian cocaine suppliers. But Alejandro is also reportedly a weak leader, without the fanatical loyalty of the Zetas rank-and-file. That could leave the cartel open to attacks from the Sinaloa Cartel — which has reportedly hung threatening banners in Nuevo Laredo since Trevino’s capture. But it’s impossible to predict the consequences so soon.

“We won’t know the ultimate impact of Z-40's arrest for probably a week or two, but if Los Zetas don’t get the transition just right, they’ll be a hot mess,” Longmire says.

“Maybe the rank and file like Alejandro and his style better than Z-40,” she adds. “[Miguel Trevino] was a real bear to work for, and maybe some in the organization were tiring of his excessive tactics that were always bringing too much police and army attention to their operations. If plaza bosses are happy with whomever fills his shoes, then Los Zetas will go about their business.”