The leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas organization has been captured in northern Mexico, authorities announced. According to the Associated Press:
Trevino Morales, 40, was captured by Mexican Marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The truck was halted by a Marine helicopter and Trevino Morales was taken into custody along with a bodyguard and an accountant and eight guns, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.
The report is mainly about the facts of the capture, and of Morales and the Zetas. There's one expert quote, about Morales:
"He is the most sadistic drug capo in Mexico," said George Grayson, a professor of Latin American politics at the College of William and Mary and an expert on the Zetas cartel. "He delights in inflicting torture and pain. He deserves to be in the lowest rungs of hell."
Grayson's take on Morales is easy to accept, if one has read any articles about the Mexican drug wars of the past several years. In fact there are reports I wish I'd never read. That said, I wish the reporter had sought some expert quotes about whether capturing a kingpin like Morales is likely to reduce drug trafficking or availability or abuse; and whether it could reduce the violence.
The answer to the first question is decidedly "no." The Zetas will continue doing business and/or will splinter into rival factions doing business and/or other drug trafficking organizations will get the business. This is what has always happened previously.
Looking at the second question, the backdrop is that illegal drug trafficking exists because of prohibition. Absent drug prohibition laws, the trade and the vast revenues it currently generates would mostly reside in the licit economy, not encouraging violence in the trade. All that would be left in the underground is a sliver from "gray market" activity, smuggling to evade taxation and so forth.
Mexico's drug wars have reached the height of violence they have in recent years, in part because of the escalation of anti-cartel activity -- such as the capture of cartel leaders like Morales. It's had the effect of producing many localized drug trafficking groups, fighting many more wars than was the case before. The current weakness of the government in terms of keeping a lid of crime is also a factor. The aggressive escalation of anti-cartel activity undertook by the administration of former Pres. Enrique Calderon came at a time when the government was least able to minimize the unintended consequences of such a program, which made it even worse.
Does that mean that Morales's capture will necessarily provoke yet more violence? It might, but that depends on which way Mexico goes. One of the truisms of prohibition is that tolerating the prohibited activity can sometimes reduce the violence associated with the prohibited activity. One cartel can be replaced by a less violent one, if the government quietly allows that to happen.
So Mexico has some choices to make. But it would be better to expand the set of choices by considering international legalization systems, as Latin American leadership is currently pressing for a discussion of.