Mexico's Most Violent Cartel Is Now Without a Leader, But That May Not Be a Good Thing

Just before dawn yesterday morning, Mexican Marines captured and detained the monster known as Miguel Angel Trevino Morales -- the leader of Los Zetas, arguably the largest drug cartel in Mexico today. Trevino Morales has been accused of ordering the executions of hundreds of immigrant workers from Central America, and as head of Los Zetas, is responsible for hundreds of pounds of drugs moving north into the U.S. every single week. In recent years, Los Zetas have even expanded their operations further than this, to include human trafficking, distribution of pirated DVDs and CDs and kidnapping and extortion. To say Los Zetas and their infamous leader are a detriment to society is like saying Osama Bin Laden was a criminal -- it is a significant understatement. However, is this arrest worthy of the celebrating that is undoubtedly taking place throughout Mexico and many of the border towns on the U.S. side in Texas? What has really been accomplished? For anyone who knows the history of the drug cartels in Mexico, the answer is not much.

Estimates on the annual income of cartels in Mexico and Colombia varies, depending on who you ask: the Department of Justice puts the number anywhere between $18 and $39 billion, while the RAND Corporation has a more conservative estimate of $6.6 billion. Regardless of which is closer to the truth, the fact is that cartels are bringing in the same annual incomes as many Fortune 500 companies here in America -- FaceBook, Yahoo and Foot Locker all reporting less than $6.6 billion last year. The question this raises is how significant is the downfall of one -- albeit powerful -- individual to the overall operation?

There are two main reasons why Trevino Morales being in power was a key stabilizer in the never-ending cartel wars and why his arrest could result in an increase in violence throughout Mexico. First, Trevino Morales was feared by virtually everyone. His penchant for torturing and beheading people who did not cooperate with him was enough to keep his inferiors loyal and for the first time in years, keep the Los Zetas a stable, cohesive organization. Prior to his ascension last year following the death of Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, the organization was fractured. It had evolved out of the Gulf Cartel, which is considered to be the oldest drug cartel in the country and had dealt with myriad internal rivalries as well as the constant struggle to break away from the Gulf Cartel and establish independent territory. Since Trevino Morales claimed the leadership position last year, the cartel has appeared substantially more stable. However, without Trevino Morales at the helm, Los Zetas is susceptible to a return of fractures and rifts that would do little more than create rivaling factions to do battle on the streets of towns all over Mexico.

The second reason why the arrest of Trevino Morales could backfire on Mexico is that Los Zetas' main rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, is undoubtedly going to expand their campaign against Los Zetas and attempt to take over more of their territory. Nuevo Laredo, situated on the border between Northeast Mexico and Texas, has long been the epicenter of Los Zetas operations. It has been coveted by the Sinaloa Cartel for years, and has been the subject of unprecedented violence between the two. And while things have been simmering lately, that violence is certain to resume now that Sinaloa and their leader, the equally infamous Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, see a power vacuum emerging within Los Zetas. After all, there is a multi-billion dollar industry that will continue with or without Trevino Morales, and without him, other drug lords from all over Mexico will seek to fill that void.

Still, the arrest must be seen as a victory for the nascent government of Pena Nieto, who has struggled in his first months as President of Mexico to keep his promise of ameliorating the pervasive violence the country experiences thanks in large part to the cartels. Trevino Morales is widely known for his trademark method of murdering his enemies, known as "the stew" -- putting bound enemies in 55-gallon oil drums and burning them alive. There is no sound argument against his arrest and (presumably) life-long detainment. However, that is not to say there is no possibility of unpleasant repercussions. The drug war will continue, as will the violence and executions. However, for now the arrest must be taken as a step towards ending all of that for good -- with an eye towards taking every last cartel member off the streets in the future.