MEXICO CITY — In a major blow to the vicious crime group known as Los Zetas, the Mexican army said Thursday that it had captured the group's No. 3 leader, who the army said gave the order to firebomb a crowded casino this summer in Monterrey, Mexico. Fifty-two people died in the resulting blaze.
The arrest of Carlos Oliva Castillo in Saltillo, the capital of the northern state of Coahuila, set off hours of running gun battles as underlings tried to free the man they call La Rana, or “The Frog,” army spokesman Ricardo Trevilla said.
Escorted by two army commandos in ski masks, Oliva Castillo was paraded at a news conference. He wore a checked red-and-white shirt, jeans and a fluorescent orange vest.
Trevilla described him as the Zetas' commander for Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, the northeastern states through which illegal drugs destined for the United States pass.
Never miss a local story.
The army said it was Oliva Castillo who'd ordered a midlevel mobster to send assailants to the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city, and set it on fire. Surveillance video from the Aug. 25 blaze showed a group of seven or eight men, some carrying gasoline canisters, entering the casino, then leaving as billowing smoke obscures the camera's view.
The only Zeta leaders above Oliva Castillo, Trevilla said, are two former members of an elite army special forces unit trained to combat drug cartels, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales. Each carries a $5 million U.S. government bounty and a roughly $2 million Mexican reward.
An army statement said intelligence work had led to a safe house in Saltillo, 250 miles from the Texas border. Soldiers stormed the house Wednesday and arrested Oliva Castillo without firing a shot, it said. But Zeta gunmen later attacked army troops in an effort to rescue Oliva Castillo, Trevilla said.
Oliva Castillo joined the Zetas in 2005 in Tamaulipas, the army said, then moved to Nuevo Leon in 2009 and rose last year to regional boss.
Along with Oliva Castillo, soldiers arrested Juan Carlos Garza, his chief bodyguard, and a woman identified as Irasema Lopez Garza.
Los Zetas, the former enforcer wing of the Gulf Cartel, broke from the parent group early last year amid bitter infighting. Given to beheading and disemboweling their foes, the Zetas now are considered one of the two largest crime groups in Mexico. The other is the Sinaloa Cartel of the Pacific coast state of the same name.
Rival crime gangs despise Los Zetas and have joined forces in some regions to combat them. A new vengeance group, “Zeta killers,” also has risen up in Veracruz state, on the Gulf Coast.
Unlike rival crime groups, which stick largely to drug trafficking, Los Zetas have branched into numerous criminal enterprises — including extortion, human trafficking, pirating of goods, gunrunning and kidnapping — and occupy territory, buying off or killing local authorities.
The group has tentacles in the United States, Central America and the Andean region, and its ruthless reputation brought it into a global plot this week.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder accused Iran of plotting to hire a Mexican drug cartel, presumably Los Zetas, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a Washington restaurant.
A Drug Enforcement Administration informant posed as a gangster.
Los Zetas had no known link to the sting operation, and they've made no comment about the use of their image to carry off the deception.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tim Johnson on Twitter