The capture of Los Zetas top kingpin was a major coup for Mexico’s new President Enrique Pena Nieto.
At least that’s what initial press accounts lead one to believe.
The bruised face of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales was paraded, and officials gloated that he’d been taken in by Mexican military along a dirt road near the border. Not a single shot was fired. Abrazos for all.
Treviño, aka Z-40, earned his reputation as a ruthless killer. His name is tied to some of the most brutal and sensational murders in Mexico’s war with its drug cartels: mass killings of migrants who refused to act as drug mules or otherwise cower, beheadings of military officials who got in the way, disembowelments, bodies reduced to teeth in barrels of acid.
But step back from the macabre details and consider a broader view. Drug leaders like Treviño are not in the business of brutality for its own sake. The cruelty and gore are merely tactics of their business, ones that Treviño didn’t invent, either.
He just took them to new heights for drug traffickers.
Los Zetas’ focus never wavered, not before Treviño’s capture and not now. It’s a criminal organization with many lines of enterprise: drugs, smuggled humans, stolen and counterfeited items, cargo theft and import/export fraud.
And you’re living in the primary market for Los Zetas’ products. The cartel launders its proceeds from the U.S. markets and send them to protected places offshore just as any multinational corporation would: using our banking system.
One of the things Treviño is credited for is expanding Los Zetas’ control over the source for cocaine, by reaching through Guatemala to South America. They are believed to control 11 of Mexico’s 31 states.
While many in the press speculate about who will emerge as Treviño’s successor, we need to recognize that taking out cartel leaders is a little like playing whack-a-mole. Treviño moved into power in October 2012 when Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano was killed by Mexican authorities.
Eliminating the personnel is unlikely to solve the problem; eliminating the processes they use to make and launder their money is more promising.
That perspective doesn’t get enough attention. Not from media, much less the Mexican and the U.S. governments. In Congress, it’s a bipartisan effort of denial.
“We seem to be completely blind to the danger of economic injury caused by the transnational criminal organizations,” said Cameron Holmes, director of the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. “We’re just not even paying attention to it.”
Voices like Holmes’ stress that Treviño was one player, a principal in a transnational criminal organization. And like any enterprise, the motivation is money. Holmes knows something about that, too.
He authored the money-laundering statutes and led the prosecution in Arizona that allowed the state to eventually settle for $94 million with Western Union.
The charge was that the company was being used by drug lords for complicated money transfers to shuffle money across the border.
But that was several cartel business models ago. Holmes stresses the nimble nature of drug traffickers, who are savvy to emerging technology and adept at using new mechanisms like front-loaded bankcards. Taking out leaders while leaving these operations in place accomplishes little.
Still, Holmes would like to see more more Mexican narco-traffickers extradited to the United States, where better money-laundering laws are in place and the courts and law enforcement are much less corrupt.
Left to be seen is how closely Mexico’s new president is willing to work with the U.S. government on such measures. Treviño had a $5 million reward on his head from the northern side of the border too, where he had been indicted for money-laundering and drug trafficking.
But it’s safe to say that, in effect, both nations have been bilaterally complicit in their unwillingness to devote the necessary forces against drug enterprises like Los Zetas, or any of their rivals.
Taking drug lords out is all well and good. (And it would be nice to see Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, be the next one bagged.) But we will not have won until the cartels are put out of business.