The Mexican government said on Monday it had captured the brutal leader of the Zetas drug cartel in an early-morning raid, marking the biggest victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto in his fight against gang violence.
Marines arrested Miguel Angel Trevino, also known as Z-40, after intercepting his pick-up truck with a helicopter a few kilometres from his hometown of Nuevo Laredo on the US border, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said in Mexico City.
"Not a single shot was fired," Sanchez said. The Zetas are blamed for many of the worst atrocities by drug gangs, acts that have sullied the country's name and put fear into tourists and investors.
Following gang-related beheadings, massacres and gunfights that have claimed more than 70,000 lives since the start of 2007, Pena Nieto said his first priority was to restore stability when he took office in December.
Murders have fallen slightly, according to official statistics, but violent crime is still rampant in parts of Mexico and, until now, the new government had few outstanding successes in its campaign to pacify the country.
Trevino, 40, was caught with two associates following a months-long operation to track him down, Sanchez said. Authorities also seized more than US$2 million dollars and a cache of arms in the operation, he said.
Trevino's capture follows a string of blows last year against the Zetas, whose previous leader was killed by marines in October.
Among the most shocking incidents pinned on the Zetas have been massacres of migrant workers, an arson attack on a Monterrey casino in 2011 that killed 52 and the dumping of 49 decapitated bodies last year.
The government said Trevino was wanted for a litany of crimes including murder, torture, money laundering and ordering the kidnapping and execution of 265 migrants near the northern town of San Fernando. The bodies of dozens of murdered migrant workers were recovered there in 2010 and 2011.
By the time Pena Nieto took power, much of Mexico was worn out by the bloodshed under his predecessor Felipe Calderon.
Calderon, a conservative, had staked his reputation on bringing Mexico's powerful drug gangs to heel, sending in the armed forces to regain the upper hand. While his forces captured or killed many of the top capos, bloodletting increased, led by the Zetas.
Founded by army deserters in the late 1990s, the Zetas acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. But cracks began to appear and the rupture was sealed in early 2010, setting off the most violent phase in Mexico's drug war.
The US State Department has offered a reward of up to US$5 million for information leading to Trevino's capture.
Security experts said Trevino took over the Zetas after the marines killed the cartel's longstanding commander, Heriberto Lazcano, in October last year.
Unlike most top Zetas, Trevino had no military background, building up a power base within the gang as a financial fixer and logistics expert, and helping extend its operations running cocaine and crystal meth into the US and Europe. His reputation for extreme violence also helped cement his rise.
"He's the most sadistic of them," US political scientist and Zetas expert George Grayson said. "He really gets off on inflicting diabolical pain on people."
In the months leading up to Lazcano's death, rumours of a split in the cartel were rife following a massacre of Zetas reportedly carried out by members of the gang in San Luis Potosi.
Not long before Lazcano was killed in Coahuila state, banners accusing Trevino of being a "Judas" to the Zetas leader began to appear, fuelling talk the gang was splintering. Then, in the space of a few weeks, Zetas staged a mass jailbreak on the US-Mexican border, assassinated the son of a top politician, and Lazcano was killed. Trevino was in control.
Previous captures or killings of Mexican drug lords
July 2013: Authorities in northern Mexico capture Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, alias Z-40, leader of the brutal Zetas cartel.
October 7, 2012: Mexican marines kill Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, alias El Lazca, a founder and top leader of the Zetas. His body is later stolen from a funeral home.
October 6: Marines arrest alleged Zetas regional leader Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, suspected of involvement in massacres and the killing of US citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the US-Mexico border.
September 12: Marines capture purported top Gulf cartel leader Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias El Coss. US authorities had offered a US$5 million reward for his arrest.
December 9, 2010: Mexican federal police kill Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, leader of the La Familia Michoacana cartel, during a gunfight in the village of El Alcalde. His body was never recovered, and rumours have persisted that Moreno, known as "the Craziest One", is still alive.
July 29: Mexican army raids a house in the town of Zapopan and shoots dead Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, one of the top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel.
December 16, 2009: Mexican marines kill Arturo Beltran Leyva, leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel, in a shoot-out in Cuernavaca.