The Zetas: Is There Life After 40?

miguel-angel-trevino-morales-photos-1A Special Day for Z-40

Today is reportedly the birthday of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales. Mr. Treviño, known by his alias “Z-40,” who was believed to be one of the most dangerous criminals in Mexico until his capture, has seen better days. Once one of Mexico’s most feared drug lords, today he grows another year older in Mexico’s maximum security prisons.

Since his arrest back on July 15, 2013, security experts have been trying to evaluate whether his organization will survive and whether his capture will help bring and end to the country’s on-going drug violence. Wanted on charges for drug trafficking, money laundering, and murder, Mr. Treviño was tracked and arrested by the Mexican Navy while carrying $2 million and a sizable stash of high-powered weapons. The organization that he headed —Los Zetas— is one of four trans-national organized crime groups in the world (along with the Brothers’ Circle, the Yakuza, and the Camorra) that was targeted for special sanctions under President Obama’s Executive Order 13581 in 2011.

Now that Treviño Morales is safely behind bars, many have wondered what will become of the Zetas, one of the most fearsome organized crime groups in the world and whether its possible demise will calm Mexico’s security situation. While he enjoys his cake and ice cream behind bars, the Zetas may well be asking themselves: is there is life after 40?

The Kingpin Question

Reflecting on Z-40’s capture leads to an eternal question in the war on drugs: does arresting drug kingpins work? The answer depends on the objective. Kingpin arrests constitute important successes for law enforcement, insofar as they disrupt criminal operations and put dangerous individuals behind bars. Organized crime figures like Treviño Morales represent a genuine menace to Mexican society, and authorities are right to try to take them out of commission.

“Z-40” is believed to be responsible for dozens, if not hundreds of murders, as well as threats against journalists and even the Mexican president. Such a tendency toward violence no society or government can tolerate. For Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mr. Treviño’s capture therefore helped to counter suspicions that he would be softer on crime than his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who waged what appeared to be a no-holds-barred assault on drug trafficking organizations.

On the other hand, over the last several years, kingpin arrests in Mexico have also contributed to significant bouts of violence, because the resulting power vacuum within an organized crime group leads to internal rivalries and encroachment by competing organizations. Indeed, working with my colleague Joel Wallman at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, I just completed a thorough review of the available literature on the kingpin strategy, and it appears that there is very strong support for the idea that disrupting criminal organizations contributes to more violence (see for example the recent dissertation of Javier Osorio and the work of Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez).

Moreover, when the dust finally settles, someone always ultimately steps up to take over the business of supplying the seemingly unquenchable demand for illicit drugs. There are some problems that can be solved and there are other problems that, at best, can be managed. The consumption of drugs fits into the latter category, so even arresting a drug kingpin like Mr. Treviño has only limited effects.

Implications for the Drug War in Mexico

As for the Zetas, the key question is whether a new leader will emerge to take control and rebuild the organization, whether another competing group will seize the opportunity to put them out of business, or whether the Zetas will morph into something new, different, and perhaps even harder to fight. There are surely understudies waiting in the wings eager to take over for Mr. Treviño, who himself stepped up to wrest control from one of the original founders of the Zetas, Heriberto Lazcano.

For now, Treviño’s kid brother, Óscar Omar Treviño Morales, “Z-42” is believed to have taken charge of the Zeta’s operations, but it is unclear whether Z-42 or other pretenders will have the necessary experience to sustain the organization. My guess is that the leadership pool within the Zetas has dwindled significantly, along with the number of corrupt government officials willing to back the organization.

Another possibility is that the decline and dismantling of the Zetas will give way to the re-emergence of the Gulf Cartel, its former parent organization and current competitor for territorial control in the north eastern state of Tamaulipas and surrounding areas. In the late 1990s, Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas recruited the Zetas as enforcers for their organizations, but the relationship soured in the mid-2000s when Cárdenas was extradited to the United States and very likely sold out his former mercenaries in exchange for a surprisingly light 20-year sentence.

Prior to its recruitment of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel generally operated below the radar and attracted less attention than other major trafficking organizations. Pragmatic Mexican authorities would probably be willing to tolerate a return of the Gulf Cartel if it would restore calm in northeastern Mexico. Indeed, the August arrest of a major Gulf Cartel leader —Mario Armando “El Pelón” Ramirez Trevino—may actually serve to reduce current internal divisions within the Gulf and help the organization get back on its feet.

Alternatively, if the Gulf Cartel is too weak to make a comeback, Mexico’s last remaining major cartel organization —the Sinaloa Cartel— could expand its operations to assert control over areas formerly dominated by the Zetas. In either case, perhaps the fastest way to restore stability after one kingpin falls is to have another take his place.

Neither of the above scenarios excludes the possibility that the Zetas will morph into something different and more dangerous than they are now. This is arguably what happened when the Mexican government dismantled the La Familia Michoacana organization, which splintered and led to the creation of a spin-off organization —the Knights Templar organization— that is creating new headaches for the Peña Nieto administration in the southern-Pacific state of Michoacán. The Zetas have a valuable brand name that has been forged by the blood of thousands. It seems likely that elements of the organization —and even imitators— will seek to capitalize on the organization’s reputation for violence and perpetuate its techniques.

The decentralization and/or splintering of the Zeta organization would mean that there could be multiple or even dozens of offshoots of the Zetas over the next few years, possibly becoming more like the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs of Central America. Alternatively, if the mutation of the Zetas leads to a societal reaction similar to the self-defense groups found in Michoacán, things could get even more complicated in Mexico’s Gulf states.

A recent report authored by Nathan Jones for the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center lends much needed insights on the problem of gangs in Mexico in these troubling and uncertain times. In the long run, counter-drug efforts may reduce the ability of these organizations to engage in large scale drug trafficking operations, but they will be more likely to engage in crimes that have direct negative implications for ordinary citizens: kidnapping, extortion, robbery, rape, and other “common” crimes.

Life After 40

In short, the arrest of Mr. Treviño dealt a serious blow to the Zetas. Ultimately, though, resolving Mexico’s problems of violence and organized crime lie in longer-term policy solutions. There is increasing support for the idea that policy reforms permitting the legal and regulated production, sale, and consumption of drugs will ultimately be the most effective way to reduce the profitability of trafficking and starve criminal organizations like the Zetas.

However, even if we legalized all drugs immediately, the weakening of organized crime groups in Mexico would not happen quickly. Moreover, it would only lead criminal organizations to diversify into other areas that are arguably more violent (e.g., kidnapping, extortion, etc.), albeit less lucrative.

For this reason, Mexico will also need to continue to strengthen the capacity and integrity of its law enforcement agencies, particularly at the state and local level. As my colleagues and I have emphasized elsewhere, police reform and judicial sector professionalization are the real keys to strengthening the rule of law in Mexico, and every day these tasks go unattended is one day too many.  Even if 40 is behind bars.