Mexico decapitates Knights Templar, but the narco-networks remain

Two recent arrests of drug kingpins were welcomed by embattled President Enrique Peña Nieto. But Mexico's history is of allowing drug empires to survive the deaths of their leaders.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Omar Trevino Morales (2nd r.), known as the Z42 leader of the Zetas drug cartel, is escorted by soldiers during a media conference on his arrest in Mexico City March 4, 2015. Omar Trevino, brother of captured ex-Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino, was caught by Mexican soldiers and the federal police in the northern city of Monterrey at around 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, a senior government official said.

Mexican authorities Wednesday captured the second cartel kingpin in the span of a week, good news for President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is struggling with voter anger over his handling of drug-related violence in parts of the country.

But the back-to-back, high-profile arrests are mostly a coincidence, analysts say, and will do little to curb violence in the long term.

“Until there’s a real change in government strategy [to combat criminal organizations], this growing list of captures means little … for security,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

On Feb. 27, Mexico caught its most wanted drug lord, former primary school teacher Servando “La Tuta” Gomez. He was the head of the Knights Templar, a criminal organization that controls large parts of the western state of Michoacan and has been in conflict with local vigilante groups.

Just five days later, Mexican police and soldiers arrested Omar Treviño Morales. Also known as Z42, Mr. Treviño Morales led the Zetas, considered Mexico’s most brutal criminal organization and known for vicious tactics like beheadings and the mass killing of migrants.

These “gets” top off a list of other high-profile arrests since President Peña Nieto took office, including the 2014 capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel.

“This arrest strengthens the rule of law in the country as we continue to advance to a Mexico at peace,” Peña Nieto tweeted of Treviño Morales’ capture.

Tirado says there’s merit to putting high profile criminals behind bars. But unless the official corruption that abets Mexico's web of criminal syndicates is tackled, the gains will prove fleeting.

“The news of a kingpin capture is good, but it’s better if his accomplices are then targeted as well,” he says, referring to corrupt police and soldiers, or businessmen who launder cartel money. “You’ll notice, when the government makes these announcements they aren’t followed up by other related arrests or other lines of investigations.”

Peña Nieto’s strategy has that weakness in common with his predecessors Felipe Calderon and Vicente Fox, from the National Action Party (PAN). All three appear to believe that chopping off the head of an organization would lead it to crumble.

But the Zetas are a good example of how capturing a kingpin only goes so far. Treviño Gomez took over the organization from his brother, and now another sibling is expected to step into the top role.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings dropped to 39 percent in December, according to a poll by Mexican newspaper Reforma. It’s the lowest level for any Mexican president since the mid-1990s. Public support took a big hit in September, due in large part to how his government responded to the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Guerrero state. His credibility was further hit by a home-purchase corruption scandal.

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