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Why Arrest of Zetas Leader Does Not Mean End to Mexico's Drug War

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In the violence that has claimed more than 60,000 lives in Mexico since 2006, the criminal organization know as Los Zetas have been the perpetrators of some sickening crimes.

Originally made up of largely of deserters from a special forces unit of the Mexican army and since buffeted by rogue elements of the Guatemalan military and common thugs, Los Zetas (named after a Mexican radio code for high-ranking officers) were originally recruited in the 1990s by the Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

With its roots stretching all the way back to Prohibition, the Gulf Cartel at the time was battling the Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico's Pacific Coast for control of its slice of the country's border with the United States. The battle ended with a Gulf Cartel victory, but shortly thereafter the alliance splintered when Gulf gunmen killed a deputy of one of the leaders of Los Zetas, a smuggler born in Mexico but raised largely in Texas named Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, aka Z-40.

What followed was a war between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas for control of the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León that, in its savagery, surpassed nearly anything the country had seen before.

In these states Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) -- which ruled the country for 71 years until 2000 and to which Mexico's current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, belongs -- was often viewed as little more than a Gulf Cartel vassal, and a series of governors were later indicted for links to organized crime. Los Zetas, for their part, expanded their influence to the nearby states of Coahuila, Hidalgo and Veracruz. The two cartels appeared to try and outdo one another, with gruesome public displays and videotaped executions becoming commonplace. Ironically, the Gulf Cartel was forced to form an alliance of convenience with its former enemies in the Sinaloa Cartel to fend off their one-time employees.

Los Zetas' actions often seemed demonic in their ferocity. The organization committed a series of massacres in the San Fernando Valley region of Tamaulipas between August 2010 and April 2010 that left over 260 people dead, many of them immigrants en route to the United States from Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas, or otherwise-uninvolved civilians. In August 2011, Zetas hitmen set fire to a casino in the city of Monterrey in a dispute of extortion money, killing 53 people.

Through it all, cartel bosses and henchmen were falling like flies. The Gulf Cartel's former boss of bosses, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was extradited to the United States in 2007. His brother Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, better known by his nickname Tony Tormenta (Tony the Storm) was killed by the Mexican military in Matamoros in November 2010. Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez aka El Coss, a former Matamoros municipal police officer with whom Tony Tormenta had shared co-governing duties, was arrested in Tamaulipas in September 2012, as was anther Cárdenas brother, Mario Alberto. The Gulf Cartel had fallen into a vicious bout of infighting.

As for Los Zetas, their original founder, Arturo Guzmán Decena, was long dead, slain in 2002, and his subsequent replacement, Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Verdugo (The Executioner), was killed by the Mexican Navy in October 2012. Displaying the esprit de corps for which they were known, Los Zetas stole both corpses rather than allow them to remain in government hands. Leadership of the group fell to Miguel Treviño -- Z-40 -- a man who seemed determined to compensate for his lack of military background by being the most brutal leader of all. When Treviño was arrested in Tamaulipas on Monday, many there and beyond breathed a sigh of relief.

But there is little reason to think that Treviño's arrest will mean an immediate decrease in violence in Mexico, violence that is inextricably linked to U.S. policy both on narcotics and firearms.

The violence that has torn Mexico apart for the last several years is often misunderstood, even down to the fact that it was President Vicente Fox, in office from 2000 to 2006, and not his successor Felipe Calderón, who began the war against Mexico's narcos, declaring upon taking office that he was "going to give the mother of all battles against organized crime in Mexico." But Calderón, in office until last year and like Fox a member of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), expanded and deepened the policy with the enthusiastic support of both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The amount of money the cartels make from the ravenous appetite for drugs in the United States -- and the perfect market conditions created for criminals by their very illegality -- beggars belief. The Mexican newspaper La Reforma recently reported that Los Zetas were making $350 million a year from importing cocaine to the U.S. alone, but that they were having to spend all of that money trying to fight off the Gulf Cartel. The very lowest figures given for the revenues derived by the Mexican cartels exporting drugs to the United States are in the neighborhood of $6.6 billion a year, with some estimates suggesting five times that.

Easy access to firearms in U.S. states that border Mexico has also helped fuel the violence there.

In 2009, a 26 year-old Houston man, was sentenced to eight years for purchasing or helping to purchase more than 100 military-style firearms which ended up in the hands of Mexico's cartels, including one that was used during a February 2007 assault on the attorney general's office in Acapulco, an attack that left seven people dead. His case was not unique. A pair of poorly thought-out policies under both Bush and Obama -- Operation Wide Receiver and Operation Fast and Furious, respectively -- allowed weapons to flow into cartel hands under the (often erroneous) supposition that the U.S. government could then track them. One such weapon was used when U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was shot to death in a December 2010 gunbattle in Arizona.

Some of the largest banks operating in the U.S. -- including Bank of America and HSBC -- have shown little appetite for monitoring hundreds of billions of dollars of drug profits laundered through their channels.

And finally, like Treviño, a number of the grandees of the Mexican drug world responsible for so much violence have roots in the United States. Martín Omar Estrada Luna, alias El Kilo, who had been in command of the Los Zetas cell in San Fernando during the massacres there, grew up largely in central Washington State in the farm town of Tieton. More famously, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a former high-school football star from Laredo, Texas know as La Barbie, went on to became one of the chief lieutenants of the the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. Both men have since been arrested

Thus, the violence afflicting Mexico is not only Mexico's violence. It is our violence, as well. Try as it might, the United States cannot, and by proxy cannot ask Mexico, to shoot and jail its way out of this problem.

Waiting in the wings in Mexico, Miguel Treviño's brother, Omar Treviño Morales, is believed to be poised to step into the leadership of Los Zetas. A former Gulf Cartel lieutenant, Mario Ramírez Treviño aka El Pelón, is believed to have assumed command of what is left of that organization. The Gulf Cartel's connections among the state police in Tamaulipas remain strong.

And so the battle for Mexico goes on.