Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Horror won't end with cartel leader's arrest

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
July 18, 2013 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)
Mexico's Interior Ministry released these mug shots of Zetas cartel boss Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
Mexico's Interior Ministry released these mug shots of Zetas cartel boss Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mexico arrested Miguel Trevino Morales, leader of the brutal drug cartel The Zetas
  • Ruben Navarrette: The arrest is a major coup for new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
  • He says Trevino Morales is behind bars, but his brother will take over the cartel
  • Navarrette: High-profile arrests put the cartels on notice that they're in the cross hairs

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Mexican authorities are having an Eliot Ness moment. Imagine what it felt like for the famed U.S. federal agent to arrest legendary gangster Al Capone in 1929.

It's probably close to how our southern neighbors feel now that they have in custody Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the brutal paramilitary drug cartel known as The Zetas.

The takedown is a major coup for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who came to office just seven months ago and returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

I had the chance to meet with Peña Nieto in Mexico City in November a few weeks before he was sworn in, as part of a group of other Americans. It was clear from what we heard that he intended to implement a different strategy against the cartels than the one deployed by former President Felipe Calderon, who hailed from the rival National Action Party. His predecessor took the fight to the cartels, and the result was more than 70,000 deaths with some estimates reaching as high as 120,000.

Even before he was elected, Peña Nieto had signaled to Mexico's voters that surrender wasn't an option, that legalizing drugs wasn't on the table, and that the fight against the cartels would continue -- with different methods and objectives.

The new plan was to continue to confiscate the traffickers' money and drugs while not driving up the body count. Peña Nieto was supposed to focus less on capturing drug lords and more on curtailing violence and protecting the Mexican people.

I wanted to understand this terrain better. And so, before I left Mexico City, I met up with an old friend who also happens to be one of the best reporters in the business and certainly one of the most knowledgable about Mexico.

Top Mexican drug lord arrested
Alleged drug kingpin arrested in Mexico
Mexico nabs suspected drug cartel boss

Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and author of the acclaimed new book, "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness."

I asked him if Americans should be concerned now that there is a new sheriff in town. What is to stop Peña Nieto from giving up on this war?

"I don't think they can afford to give up on it," Corchado said. "That would be like conceding the country. And yet, I also think the strategy of going after the cartels, confronting them head-on, is only going to generate more and more violence."

This is supposed to be a new kind of drug war, although it bears a striking resemblance to the old war. As critics have pointed out, the number of casualties in first six months of Peña Nieto's administration are almost identical to the number in the last six months of Calderon's tenure in office. Some Mexicans are wondering if, politics aside, the two major political parties in Mexico will turn out to be more or less the same in the war on drug trafficking.

For a frame of reference from this side of the border, think about how -- in fighting the war on terror -- President Obama has borrowed liberally from President George W. Bush's strategies for securing the U.S. homeland.

And from the looks of it, Mexico's enemy is just as determined as ours to wreak havoc and create nightmares. In the last 10 years, the drug trade in Mexico has become much more brutal. A big reason for that is the arrival on the scene of The Zetas, and dangerous individuals like Trevino Morales who had a $5 million bounty on his head courtesy of the U.S. government.

The cartel is a relative newcomer in Mexico's bloody drug trade. Its origins date back to 1999, when elite commandos of the Mexican army decided that they would rather work for the drug traffickers than shoot it out with them. So they deserted and became the muscle of the powerful and well-established Gulf Cartel. In 2010, Los Zetas went into business for themselves.

Three things set them apart: They have diversified their illicit activities beyond drug trafficking to include extortion, kidnapping, prostitution and other crimes; they're more sophisticated and tech savvy than their rivals, according to U.S. authorities; and they are much more violent and apt to brutally terrorize the population -- with beheadings, torture, mass killings, grenades tossed into crowds, bodies hanging in the town square like pinatas at the mercado, and more.

Even with Trevino Morales behind bars, the horror is likely to continue. His brother is in line to succeed him. The metaphor you hear from the cynics in Mexico is that when authorities cut off the head of the serpent, another head grows in its place.

Perhaps. But high-profile arrests like these do serve a purpose. They put the cartels on notice that they're in the cross hairs, and make it clear that the Mexican government won't negotiate with narco-terrorists.

That chapter of the story is new, at least when you think about how cozy these parties were a few decades ago.

"For 50 or 60 years, we looked the other way," said Corchado. "It's like you don't want to let the evil spirit out of the bottle. That's what we did in Mexico for too long, and now that it's out, you're going to have to face a monster."

Now that our neighbors are no longer looking the other way and they're confronting their monster, Americans must continue to back them up so they don't have to do it alone.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT