MEXICO CITY (USA Today) -- The alleged kingpin of the notorious Los Zetas drug cartel, accused in a murderous reign of terror, was captured on a quiet dirt road with no shots fired.
Miguel Angel "Z-40" Treviño Morales was being held in a Mexico City prison Tuesday after being swept up by Mexican authorities in the border city of Nuevo Laredo.
Treviño Morales is accused of ordering a rampage of violence and murder that included the kidnapping and execution of numerous rivals and hundreds of migrants. Many of the bodies were found hanging from bridges or buried in shallow, mass graves.
In the USA, Treviño Morales was named in U.S. indictments filed in 2009 and 2010 that accuse him of drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping and ordering murders in both the USA and Mexico. The U.S. Justice Department had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
"He is the most sadistic drug capo in Mexico," said George Grayson, a professor of Latin American politics at the College of William and Mary who has written a book on the Zetas cartel. "He delights in inflicting torture and pain. He deserves to be in the lowest rungs of hell."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a statement congratulating "the brave men and women of the government of Mexico" for the arrest of Treviño Morales. "His ruthless leadership has now come to an end," it said.
Grayson said the murderous reign of the Zetas could be coming to an end.
"Most of Zetas' top lieutenants are either dead or behind bars, so I suspect that power will fall to his brother - known as El 42 - Omar Treviño Morales. You will see them move from a command-and-control structure to franchises. And that should translate to less violence," Grayson said.
The capture could strengthen the hand of Mexico's most-wanted man: Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, alleged boss of the Sinaloa cartel, whom Grayson said has long wanted control of the lucrative drug-running corridor through Nuevo Laredo.
The arrest Monday represents a major victory for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected in 2012 on promises to curb the wanton drug violence that has plagued his nation for several years.
Peña Nieto's nationalist PRI party also promised to curb its close intelligence ties to the United States. Interior Ministry spokesman Eduardo Sánchez said the takedown was done with intelligence gathered after Peña Nieto became president, but Sánchez evaded questions on the role of U.S. information in capture.
"It proves that in spite of some concerns that the new government might back away from the (previous) administration's strategy, it's continuing along the same lines of hitting the cartels hard," said Malcolm Beith, author of two books on the Mexican drug wars.
Grayson said that, without question, U.S. officials were involved at some level.
"The Mexican navy and its ground forces still have close ties to the U.S.," Grayson said. "PRI is not going to say 'We want to thank the U.S. government.' And the U.S. government is willing to keep a low profile."
The DEA statement said only that "Treviño Morales is one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years, and DEA will continue to support the government of Mexico as it forges ahead in disrupting and dismantling drug-trafficking organizations."
The pre-dawn arrest came after the Mexican navy learned Treviño Morales, 40, would be traveling along the road, Sánchez said.
Treviño Morales was with at least two other men - including a bodyguard and an accountant - when a helicopter from the Mexican navy forced the vehicle to pull over and marine ground troops closed in, Sánchez said.
At the time of the arrest, Mexican authorities seized $2 million, eight rifles and 500 rounds of ammunition, Sánchez said.
Treviño Morales allegedly ascended to the top position after Los Zetas founder Heriberto Lazcano was killed by the Mexican military last year. The body was taken from a funeral home.
Sánchez said authorities had been watching rural roads between the Texas border states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas for signs of Treviño Morales, who is charged in Mexico with murder, torture, kidnapping and other crimes.
Zetas began as the violent enforcement wing of another cartel before breaking off into its own organization in 2010, expanding from drug dealing into extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking.