Miguel Angel Treviño
Mexican media reported enthusiastically on the arrest of Miguel Angel Treviño. Reuters

When Miguel Angel Treviño, alias Z-40, leader of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartel, Los Zetas, was captured by Mexican police on Monday, public celebrations ensued everywhere except in Nuevo Laredo, the town in the state of Tamaulipas where Treviño was born 40 years ago. Indeed, newspapers in Nuevo Laredo, which sits on the border with Texas, did not publish a single line about the arrest of Mexico's most dangerous man.

With good reason. Who in Nuevo Laredo would be so foolish as to cross or even call attention to Los Zetas? So say the locals. After all, Los Zetas has controlled and terrorized the city's 350,000 inhabitants for two decades, with Treviño's reign bringing the all-too-frequent specters of beheaded corpses and bodies hanging from overpasses.

Treviño’s career in crime ended in the early hours of July 22 on a rural road some 15 miles south of his hometown when a helicopter from the Mexican Navy intercepted his silver jeep. Treviño was travelling with a bodyguard, his accountant, $2 million in cash, eight shotguns and 500 bullets. The drug lord tried to escape, but the authorities prevailed in an operation that lasted just seven minutes, according to police records. And not a single shot was fired.

A DNA test was performed but only as a formality, because Mexican authorities were sure they had the right guy: His tattoos -- a cobra on his right arm and the phrase "Hecho en Mexico" (“Made in Mexico”) across his back -- gave him away. The arrest was the result of a long operation in which the Mexican press believes the U.S. was involved, though the possible collaboration has not been confirmed by authorities. It was a relatively quiet end to a very fruitful crime career that has elevated Treviño to legendary status in the history of organized crime in Mexico.

The Making of a Drug Lord

Treviño’s life of crime started when he was just a teenager living with his parents and 13 siblings outside Dallas. He joined the Tejas gang, whose primary activity was stealing cars and selling drugs, and was later recruited to join the Gulf cartel, then the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico, by its then-leader, Osiel Cárdenas. Treviño went from washing cars to messenger to one of the main mercenaries of Cárdenas' brother Ezequiel.

Cárdenas started Los Zetas in 1996 as the armed section of the Gulf cartel with a group of deserters from the special forces of the Mexican army, all well-trained mercenaries who had a bone to pick with Mexican authorities. Treviño became the right-hand man of the leader Heriberto Lazcano, having risen quickly through the ranks due to his notorious cruelty in eliminating enemies. He was a pioneer in “roasting" enemies, scalding them alive in hot oil or acid. U.S. journalist Alfredo Corchado, whose life is threatened by Los Zetas, explains in his book “Midnight in Mexico” that Treviño was known to bite the heart of certain enemies while it was still beating, thinking it would make him invincible.

Corchado also describes how Treviño once recruited new acolytes: “He put a gun in their hand and made them kill a random person, while putting a hand to their heart to check how quick their pulse got.”

When Cárdenas was arrested in 2003, Los Zetas splintered from the Gulf cartel and started a war against the rest of Mexico’s cartel that continues to this day, squeezing the Mexican population and government in the middle.

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón made the fight against Los Zetas a priority in the last years of his term in office, following the discovery of 72 bodies from Central American immigrants who had been tortured and killed by Los Zetas in 2010. The biggest success of Calderón’s crusade was the capture and death of Lazcano in late 2012, which started an internal fight within the cartel that resulted with Treviño claiming the leadership.

Los Zetas: The Franchise of Drug Cartels

With Treviño behind bars, the question is: What will happen with Los Zetas? Cárdenas’ arrest meant the end of the Gulf cartel; will Los Zetas follow the same path?

Sylvia Longmire, analyst of the war on drugs and author of “Cartel: The Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars,” argues that the bust of Treviño is not as significant to Los Zetas as a leader's capture would have been to any other cartel in Mexico, because of the special nature of the organization.

“Cartels in Mexico operate like companies: There is a leader, then middle-level associates, then the lower-end employees,” she explained. “But Los Zetas, they work differently, they are more like a franchise. They have several cells around the country, each of them with their respective leader. Treviño was the CEO of Los Zetas, the glue that kept them together.”

Los Zetas had its base in Nuevo Laredo but had control over 11 of the 31 states that form Mexico, and it still has an active presence in Texas and Guatemala. Drug trafficking makes up 50 percent of its revenues, and the other half comes from other activities such as kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets, directed at rival drug cartels, civilians and officials. According to Longmire, they also introduced the brutal tactics that now have become signature in most cartels' practices, most notoriously the beheading of enemies and hanging of bodies.

Under Treviño’s leadership, Los Zetas reportedly became more violent. He and former leader Lazcano had opposite personalities -- Lazcano was more of a bureaucrat and liked to keep the organization steady and out of the way of the government, while Treviño wanted to “fight the fight,” as Corchado put it -- despite being one of the few Zetas with no military background.

Brutal drug lord Miguel Angel Treviño, 40, known as Z-40, was captured early Monday by Mexican Marines near the northern city of Nuevo Laredo on the U.S. border, a government spokesman told reporters. REUTERS/SEMAR

Looking Forward: Is This the End of the Zetas?

As the arrest unfolded, world media heralded a “blow to Mexico’s most dangerous cartel,” as a headline in the Spanish newspaper El País read. “Mexico’s most brutal cartel leader captured,” wrote the Washington Post. “Massive bust to Zetas,” cheered Mexico’s El Universal.

But analysts say the world is cheering too soon. “Treviño’s arrest means nothing in the large scheme of the war on drugs,” Longmire said. “If anything, things will get worse; Zetas will splinter and start infighting.”

David Shirk, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego, agreed. “There is no way this means the remaining Zetas will pack up their guns and go home,” he said. “They will either choose a new leader, or, most likely, break up and start a war among themselves.”

Some suggest this might not be the last we hear of Treviño. “He was carrying two million dollars in cash,” pointed out Rod Camp, professor on Latin American concepts of democracy at Claremont McKenna College. “He probably thought he could buy his way out of an arrest rather than fight it.”

Another likely scenario is rival gangs such as the aforementioned Gulf cartel or the Sinaloa, which operates in the west coast of the country, taking advantage of the relative weakness of the cartel and trying to advance in the territories traditionally controlled by the Zetas. “Joaquín Guzmán -- leader of the Sinaloas -- is a much more powerful man than Treviño ever was,” Shirk claimed. “This could be his opportunity to take control of the organized crime business in Mexico.”

If the arrest doesn't mean the end of the Zetas, why all the hype?

“The Mexican government wants to make it clear that they are doing something,” Shirk suggested. “[President Enrique] Peña Nieto wants to show that he is as committed to the war on drugs as [former President] Calderón was, even though it has become clear that it is not as high up on his priority list.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, explained that Peña Nieto’s administration has been more focused on economic reforms and social issues. “The Mexican public is exhausted, they have been over this matter for years on end. The government decided to shift the attention to them,” she argued.

But Treviño's arrest was not in vain. A very dangerous man has been taken off the streets of Mexico, and that is reason enough to continue the war on drugs, Longmire said. And the collaboration of the U.S. might be key.

“Unless the U.S. reduces demand on drugs, and Mexico reduces corruption, we are not going to witness a significant change in the short run,” Camp said.