The takedown by Mexican marines of Zetas uber-thug Miguel Angel Treviño offers crime fighters on both sides of the border encouraging signs that Mexico can still hope to bring its vicious and avaricious gangsters to heel.
Treviño's capture suggests that President Enrique Peña Nieto remains willing to work closely with US agencies in waging the anti-gang war. It indicates that the most violent gangsters may be given highest priority. It confirms that, for all the talk about dialing back the military's role in the fight, troops will stay in the front trenches.
Monday's pre-dawn arrest, made as Treviño traveled with just two henchmen on a dirt back road about 20 miles from the South Texas border, underscores the key role still played by Mexican Navy special forces, who have been nurtured and favored by Washington.
But Treviño's sunset brings these hard truths as well: there are plenty more where he came from, and their scramble for power, wealth and fame will unleash bloodletting as surely as night follows day.
SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile
"There's definitely going to be a fallout given that the Zetas organization is very vindictive," says Mike Vigil, onetime DEA chief in Mexico City who now is a private consultant specializing on Mexican organized crime groups. "There will be retribution."
Treviño's supposed successor is his younger brother, Alejandro, called Omar, who leads the gang's operations from Piedras Negras, upstream on the Rio Grande from the gang's stronghold in Nuevo Laredo. Vigil notes that Omar, also known as "Z-42," has publicly boasted that while Miguel Treviño may have killed 2,000 people, Omar has slaughtered 1,000 others.
"Omar is as ruthless and violent as his brother," Vigil says. "I don't think he's as intelligent. But he's capable enough to control the Zetas. He learned from Miguel."
Still, the Treviño brothers have faced recent rebellion by Zetas lieutenants who suspect them of betraying rivals within the organization. Among the betrayed are Jesus Enrique Rejon, "El Mamito," captured two years ago and now a US government witness; Ivan Velasquez, called "El Taliban," arrested in September 2012; and former Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano, "Z-3," killed by Mexican marines in northern Mexico last October.
Loyalists to all three men may have it in for Omar, who is also likely on the radar of US and Mexican security forces. Should Omar fall, lesser Zetas -- whose names are known only to those towns and villages they're tormenting -- will surely go at one another in hopes of replacing him.
That's what happened in Acapulco and other areas once in the grip of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), which largely unraveled after US-supported Mexican marines killed family kingpin Arturo in December 2009 and police quickly scooped up his principal lieutenants. Smaller gangs have emerged from the Beltran Leyva remnants, dedicated to kidnapping and extortion and even more brutal than the gang that spawned them.
Internal Zetas feuding, as well as offensives by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the Gulf Cartel, and other rivals could spark bloody battles throughout the gang's territory, particularly the northeastern border states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon.
Guzman, now allied with former enemies in the once dominant Gulf Cartel, is already making a renewed play for Nuevo Laredo, a key smuggling point he tried and failed to capture from the Zetas between 2004 and 2005. The Gulf Cartel, which lost its leaders last fall, have regained lost ground from the Zetas in metropolitan Monterrey and moved into western Zacatecas state, a Zetas stronghold.
"We're giving all the support to the [Gulf Cartel] to clear Zetas from Mexico," vow banners that appeared Monday in Tamaulipas purportedly signed by Guzman, who portrays himself as a less bloodthirsty mobster who leaves innocents in peace.
SEE ALSO: Coverage on the Zetas
InSight Crime Analysis
Peña Nieto has long promised to dial back the military-heavy strategy of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who emphasized going after kingpins and displacing gangs from their territory. Instead, Peña Nieto has pledged to emphasize attacking the social roots of Mexico's gangster culture and focusing on those crimes, such as extortion and kidnapping, that most affect average Mexicans. Meanwhile, critics on both sides of the border have expressed fear that Peña Nieto might try to reach some kind of agreement with the gangs in exchange for less bloodshed, echoing the approach once adopted by his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
But the Zetas' brutality and territorial reach -- they operate in 20 of Mexico's 32 states, as well Central America -- have made them impossible to ignore. Their preference for violently preying on communities, rather than simply trafficking drugs to the US, makes it essential for Mexico to vigorously pursue them.
Treviño's capture has now undeniably boosted Peña Nieto's anti-crime credentials. It's also reaffirmed the value of the Mexican Navy's special forces, who led the fight under Calderon but whose operations had been curtailed, at least publicly, under Peña Nieto.
The well-coordinated operation, which Mexican officials say came off without a shot being fired, also suggests close cooperation with US intelligence services, likely involving the surveillance drones that patrol the borderlands.
Because of the surveillance, gang bosses have largely abandoned their practice of traveling with well armed but easily identified SUV convoys. Last October, Mexican marines killed Lazcano, Treviño's predecessor as Zetas boss, as he attended a village baseball game in Coahuila accompanied by only two bodyguards.
Even as Treviño's capture is a coup for Peña Nieto, past removals of kingpins have often sparked even more violence. Few of the Zetas' current recruits have the levels of military training and discipline as those who founded the criminal group in the late 1990s. Now unleashed, these unhinged killers remain deeply embedded in many Mexican towns and villages.
"This can well finish off the Zetas as an organization, but not as a culture, as a method of operating, as a cursed means of obtaining money at the cost of indescribable suffering of others," crime analyst Alejandro Hope writes in his blog, Plata or Plomo. "This will still accompany us for a good while."
Faced with that truth, Peña Nieto and his security team now must hold firm, and push to finish off the Zetas once and for all.