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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The capture of Los Zetas’ top kingpin was a major coup for Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

At least that’s what initial press accounts lead one to believe.

The bruised face of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales was paraded, and officials gloated that he’d been taken in by Mexican military along a dirt road near the border. Not a single shot was fired. Abrazos for all.

Treviño, aka Z-40, earned his reputation as a ruthless killer. His name is tied to some of the most brutal and sensationalistic murders in Mexico’s war with its drug cartels: mass killings of migrants who refused to act as drug mules or otherwise cower, beheadings of military officials who got in the way, disembowelments, bodies reduced to teeth in barrels of acid.

But step back from the macabre details and consider a broader view. Drug leaders like Treviño are not in the business of brutality for its own sake. The cruelty and gore are merely tactics of their business, ones that Treviño didn’t invent either. He just took them to new heights for drug traffickers.

Los Zetas’ focus never wavered, not before Treviño’s capture and not now. It’s a criminal organization with many lines of enterprise: drugs, smuggled humans, stolen and counterfeited items, cargo theft and import/export fraud.

And you’re living in the primary market for Los Zetas’ products. The cartel launders its proceeds from the U.S. markets and send them to protected places offshore just as any multinational corporation would: using our banking system.

One of the things Treviño is credited for is expanding Los Zetas’ control over the source for cocaine, by reaching through Guatemala to South America. They are believed to control 11 of Mexico’s 31 states.

While many in the press speculate about who will emerge as Treviño’s successor, we need to recognize that taking out cartel leaders is a little like playing whack-a-mole. Treviño moved into power in October 2012 when Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano was killed by Mexican authorities.

Eliminating the personnel is unlikely to solve the problem; eliminating the processes they use to make and launder their money is more promising.

That perspective doesn’t get enough attention. Not from media, much less the Mexican and the U.S. governments. In Congress, it’s a bipartisan effort of denial.