- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s low-key approach to fighting the country’s bloody drug wars wasn’t supposed to be focused on capturing drug kingpins, and yet somehow they keep landing in jail.

Mexican police and soldiers arrested powerful Zetas cartel capo Omar Trevino Morales, known as “Z-42,” in a pre-dawn raid Wednesday in San Pedro Garza Garcia, less than a week after arresting Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, who heads the quasi-religious Knights Templar drug cartel.

The arrests come as more notches in the belt of Mr. Pena, whose administration has overseen the capture of more than two dozen top cartel leaders. Removing drug kingpins was the oft-stated goal of his predecessor, former President Felipe Calderon, who actively pursued drug kingpins in his effort to combat crime and violence in Mexico.

The arrests also come as a much-needed public relations boost for the Pena administration, which has been criticized for paying too much attention to economic reforms, for a string of ethical scandals targeting the president and his wife and for mishandling the probe following the massacre of 43 teacher trainees in September, which has been blamed on drug gangs.

Even with the kingpins gone, however, authorities expect the drug trafficking and violence to continue as new capos take over and the cartels adjust to the changes in leadership.

“We have to acknowledge that he has been very successful in taking some of them down, but we don’t necessarily believe that that’s going to seriously affect the operations of those organizations or even diminish the levels of violence,” said Octavio Rodriguez, program coordinator for Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego.

Mexico’s homicide rate has declined after peaking in 2011, although other crimes, including kidnappings, extortion and muggings, have increased, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

When he assumed office in December 2012, Mr. Pena said he would focus instead on reducing overall levels of violence. While his success on that front has been mixed, there’s no question that the police during his tenure have crossed off numerous names on the most-wanted lists.

“I think this is a consistent pattern [of] the Pena Nieto administration, but at the same time, I see it as a continuation from what President Calderon did in his administration,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “That was Calderon’s main strategy, and he was very, very vocal about it. He wanted to target the criminal leadership in order to dismantle the organization to create much smaller groups that would be more manageable and easy to dismantle,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “One cost, though, was that, yes, it created a lot of much smaller groups, but they were less predictable and more violent.”

It’s possible that the slew of arrests of top cartel leaders are the result of intelligence and operations put into place during the Calderon administration, but it’s also possible that Mr. Pena, who is currently on a visit to Britain, is also targeting the kingpins, just not as vocally.

“We’ve seen a change in the narrative around the strategy,” said Mr. Rodriguez. “We don’t see as much media attention on law enforcement operations. We see here and there stories about, for example, the capture of big kingpins, but the attention to the problem has amounted to a change from what we saw with Calderon.”

On the other hand, “that doesn’t mean the strategy itself has changed,” he said.

One hallmark of the recent arrests of cartel kingpins is the lack of bloodshed during the captures. Local media reported that the early-morning arrest of Trevino Morales at a luxury home in the Monterrey suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia took place without a shot being fired.

Trevino Morales took over for his brother, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who was arrested in July 2013 by the Mexican Marines in Nuevo Leon, again with no shots fired. The Los Zetas cartel, known for its intimidation of local officials and ruthlessness in dealing with its enemies, is believed to have been behind two notorious massacres in 2010 and 2011 that left a total of more than 250 people dead.

The Mexican government had offered a $2 million reward for his capture, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was offering another $5 million.

“We certainly are excited and congratulate Mexico for another great arrest,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told The Associated Press.

The administration made perhaps its biggest capture a year ago with the arrest of Sinaloa cartel capo Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo Guzman.” With an estimated net worth of $1 billion, he was arrested in February 2014 at his beachfront condominium in Sinaloa, Mazatlan, again without a shot being fired.

On Friday police arrested Gomez of the Knights Templar outside a house in Morelia without violence. Arrested along with Gomez were eight bodyguards and associates and a cache of weapons, including a grenade launcher, three grenades an Uzi machine pistol and assault rifles, a government official said.

According to Fox News Latino, Federal Police Commissioner Enrique Galindo said that Gomez would invite himself into private homes within his turf in the countrywide, sprinkled with farms and ranches within the previously cartel-controlled state of Michoacan — sometimes throwing out the occupants.

“He felt comfortable here; he felt safe,” Mr. Galindo said. “Practically all this territory, he dominated with his men.”

Police were alerted to the most-wanted fugitive’s location after noticing a flurry of activity on his birthday, Feb. 6, when his associates and girlfriends gathered for a party, bringing cake, drinks and food.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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