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Drug wars: Where is Mexico headed?

Nicolas Martin / dbMarch 6, 2015

Mexican authorities have captured yet another big fish among drug cartel leaders: Omar Trevino, alias "Z-42." His arrest could trigger new gang rivalries.

Police cars, Police, on road, road sign
Image: Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/GettyImages

Without firing a single shot, the Mexican military, navy and police this week captured Omar Trevino. The capo known as Z-42 was the latest head of the Zetas cartel, a group notorious for its brutal murders. "Capos" - that's what the leaders of Mexico's drug cartels are called.

Not too long ago, Trevino boasted that he was personally responsible for 1,000 murders. The government offered the equivalent of 1.8 million euros for information leading to his arrest.

Trevino is the Mexican authorities' second big catch in just a few days. His arrest came just five days after the last known leader of the Knights Templar gang, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, was detained by police in the central state of Michoacan.

However, the arrests are by no means a reason to heave a sigh of relief, warns Edgardo Buscaglia. "The cartels work like businesses: when someone leaves the board, he's replaced," says the senior research scholar in law and economics at New York's Colombia University, who has been researching cartel structures for years. After the arrest of the capos, Buscaglia expects the cartels will first fall apart into splinter groups, only to "be absorbed bit by bit by other, surviving cartels."

Based in Mexico City, Günther Maihold is looking into organized crime in the framework of a professorship sponsored by Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. More fragmented cartels are the current trend in organized crime, he says. "Ten years ago, there were seven major cartels, while today, we assume there are about 14 smaller and mid-sized organizations."

Police accompany Omar Trevino
High-profile arrest: Zetas drug cartel leader TrevinoImage: Reuters/E. Garrido

Unintentional peace?

"The country is in a crisis of credibility and trust," Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto said while on a state visit to Britain this week.

But there is not much political interest in tackling this crisis at its roots, says Buscaglia, adding that politics, local elites and the cartels "are all entangled."

Maihold doesn't agree with this assessment, saying that organized crime is damaging to society, it harms the country's reputation abroad, and in addition there is immense international pressure on the Mexican government, in particular from the US. So the arrest of the two capos is in fact a success, he concludes. "The leader of the Knights Templar gang had increasingly been taking control in the state of Michoacan, more or less replacing it, challenging it - so for the population, the arrest has great symbolic value," the German political scientist says.

Various options

Drugs are just one of several lucrative lines of business for the cartels. Buscaglia lists 21 illegal activities, including human and weapons trafficking, kidnappings and brand piracy. Dirty money is laundered in legal businesses - that's how cartel empires grow. A year ago, Mexican authorities caught the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Guzmans fortune was estimated at one billion dollars. "Where is the money?" Mexican media recently wondered.

So far, the authorities have seized a few luxury automobiles and almost 50 of Guzman's houses - but for the most part, the drug lord's 280 enterprises in a total of 11 countries remain intact, Buscaglia says. "Guzman's relatives even pay taxes on some of these firms' earnings," he adds. "If the state wanted to be rigorous, it must focus on these structures rather than stop after the arrests." But that's where the political commitment ends, he says.

Günther Maihold is convinced that Mexico will suffer organized crime for a long time to come. "The cartels can't disappear as long as there's demand for their criminal services."

Mexico murder rate infographic

Maihold urges developing a model where the cartels would relinquish violence and political influence, citing Columbia as a good example.

Colombia smashed the large cartels, and today, a few smaller gangs organize the business. "Unlike the major cartels, these baby cartels refrain from violence and from influencing politics."

Mexico, where more than 60,000 people have died since the beginning of the drug wars, is still far from a Colombian scenario, but at least, "the violence has declined somewhat after peaking in 2011, " Maihold says.