On the Hunt for Trevino Morales, Zetas Leader
For journalist Alfredo Corchado, the scoop of a lifetime came at lunch. He revisits the arrest of one of the brutal Mexican gang leader Treviño Morales.
This time I didn’t answer the phone. I should have. On the line was a U.S. investigator with some of the most intimate information about Mexico’s criminal organizations, particularly the paramilitary group known as the Zetas, the most vicious, bloodthirsty criminal organization in Mexico. The investigator had news—the news—we have been waiting for nearly a decade.
I continued my lunch, picking over grilled octopus, ignoring the phone. But after the fifth consecutive call—the vibration interrupting my conversation with perplexed hosts—I politely stepped away. I stared incredulously at a text message. My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. I stood frozen. It simply read: “Carnal, Z-40 captured. Confirmed. Call asap.”
Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias Z-40, the feared leader of the Zetas, the man who had put a hit on the very same U.S. investigator and later threatened the messenger—me—was in custody. Or was he? And if so, for how long would he be detained before buying his way out, as he had done before?
I understood the message clearly. I understood the urgency. But I needed proof. I dialed him as I rushed to the streets of the rich neighborhood of Polanco and hailed a cab and headed home to La Condesa. As always, our conversations were brief and coded in messages, especially when he knew I was in Mexico. But he could barely contain his glee.
“Carnal, the nightmare is over,” he said. I wasn’t convinced. I insisted on proof.
“How can you prove it?” I asked in English, as I gave the taxi driver instructions in Spanish.
Show me, I insisted.
“I just did,” he answered.
The Zetas emerged in in the late 1990s, as a private army of the gulf cartel made up of elite members of the Mexican military, some of them trained by U.S. special forces. They changed the dynamics of organized crime in Mexico.
They essentially formed Mexico’s first narco-army. Many of the soldiers came from impoverished backgrounds. The army had offered jobs; the cartel offered money and power. The three most trusted men within the Zetas were Guzmán Decena (Z-1), Rogelio González Pizaña (Z-2), and Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3); the Zs were code names denoting their ranking and seniority in the organization. These three men, along with new recruit Treviño Morales (Z-40), embarked on secret missions into cities and towns across Tamaulipas, including Nuevo Laredo. This was Treviño Morales’s hometown, and he knew the targets intimately. He gained the reputation of a traitor. They were there to execute Cárdenas Guillén’s rivals and ensure that the gulf cartel remained the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Tamaulipas and along Mexico’s gulf coast.
On a hot August morning in 2004, the gunmen rolled into Nuevo Laredo sporting powerful military-style weapons, some smuggled by veterans of the Gulf War, like AR-15s and .50-caliber machine guns. People were paralyzed. From that moment, the Zetas controlled Los Dos Laredos.
By 2007, the Zetas were showing signs of increased independence from the gulf cartel. They expanded their operation, leaning on Texas gangs that served as paid mercenaries and operated out of San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas, key trans-shipment points for all kinds of goods, legal and otherwise. Their victims were even appearing on the U. S. side of the border. The Zetas were also now controlling human-smuggling routes, piracy, prostitution, kidnappings, and extortions and sucking Pemex wells dry, with the help of corrupt authorities.
The investigator had been following drug traffickers throughout Mexico for years, and he had studied the fraternal Sicilian model of organization that the cartels modeled themselves after.
The Sinaloans could be monsters, but they were more pragmatic. The Zetas stood out for his savagery, the U.S. investigator had said, particularly Treviño Morales. He had risen through the ranks of the Zetas quickly on a pile of bodies. Unlike the founders of Los Zetas, Treviño Morales had no military experience. He had never been a soldier, or a member of some elite army unit. He was a thug. We had some similarities. He was one of nine children, raised by a single mother who crisscrossed between Texas and Mexico after their father abandoned them.
He was deeply loyal to his family, particularly his mother, who singlehandedly raised him and his siblings after their father abandoned them. He was so incensed over his mother being harassed by U.S. customs in Laredo that in October 2010 he ordered grenades tossed near the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, the investigator said.
He’d held a number of odd jobs as a young man, including cleaning chimneys in Piedras Negras and driving his older brother’s trucks stuffed with pot between Dallas and Laredo. That brother, Francisco, had served as his surrogate father, and was now in jail in Big Spring, Texas. Treviño Morales had washed the cars of a drug capo known as El Caris. He’d eventually won his trust and replaced him. He looked for recruits who mirrored him: uneducated, street-savvy young men and women who believed Mexico rewarded only the powerful.
He was angry. He looked for that in recruits as well. He wanted recruits who lacked opportunity, people who believed they had been screwed by society. He’d put a loaded gun into the hand of a recruit and then order the recruit to point at some random person in front of them. Treviño Morales would put his hand over the recruit’s heart to measure how fast it beat as he yelled, “¡Chíngatelo!”—Fuck him over! If the recruit hesitated, he’d take his gun and either put a bullet to his head or offer him a job as a lookout. It all depended on his mood that day.
“You have to remember that the people the cartels are recruiting are those who are most pissed off at everyone. The people without a job, without an education, without a future,” the U.S. investigator had told me. “Haven’t you seen the messages in banners they put up? They can’t even spell.”
The road to La Condesa seemed to take forever. I suddenly despised Carlos Slim, the telephone magnate and now second-richest man in the world, since the new government took on the powerful monopolies. His service was particularly slow on this day as I tried to download the attachment sent minutes ago by the U.S. investigator. Like the cab drive, it was painfully slow.
Finally, on my cellphone was the image of the man who seemed angry, fuming; his cheeks looked bruised, swollen; his face fuller, a bit overweight. Perhaps the chips and other junk food that had become his daily diet had taken on the effects, I thought, just like it had on most Mexicans, recently declared the most obese people on the planet.
The steely eyes of Z-40 said it all: This was the face of a man who had defined Mexico’s decade of violence—the images forever embedded in our minds: bodies hanging from bridges like piñatas, heads rolling next to mutilated arms, legs—bodies parts strewn on highways, discarded like trash, some etched with the letter Z; videotape tortured sessions—one went on for nearly an hour and showed a man pleading for his life as a knife cuts his head open—uploaded to YouTube. Others were thrown into barrels of acid and dissolved into stew, menudo as some called it. And then there are the mass graves containing he remains of migrants who died with dreams of finding a better life north of the border.
He was a madman. His other nickname, Muerte—Death—said it all. It earned him the much-denied respect. His pep talk consisted of one line: If you don’t kill someone every day, you’re not doing your job. He’d rather be feared than respected.
Treviño Morales in custody? Impossible, I thought.
“You have to break the story,” the U.S. investigator implored. “Otherwise he will get away. He’s been in custody for hours, and there’s no public confirmation.”
“You afraid he’ll get away,” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I won’t take any chances.”
Let me make a couple of calls, I said. I’ll get back to you. I dialed two other authorities, trusted sources in both Mexico and the United States, trying to find corroboration. It came quicker than I had anticipated. Yes, yes, both said. Captured in the wee hours of the morning somewhere between his hometown of Nuevo Laredo and the bordering northern state of Coahuila. Both kept refreshing the pages of Mexico’s leading newspaper, trying to figure out why the news hadn’t broken yet. Would I? Hope so, I said.
I called the Mexican government. No answer. No comment. Nothing. Damn.
I called the U.S. investigator again. We went through the facts, what he knew. Treviño Morales had been caught with two other associates, a bodyguard and his treasurer, plus piles of cash, ammo, and high-powered weapons, the investigator said. Implausible I said. Treviño Morales was distrustful of everyone—except his brother Omar, Z-42—and slept inside his car. He was addicted to marijuana, was antisocial, and liked living in the wilderness—some called him El Chacal, the Jackal—because he was a night owl and difficult to find in the woods.
I thought the man with a $5 million reward on his head placed by the U.S. government, a $2 million one by the Mexican government, had more protection? Wasn’t he protected by some 200 hit men, plus corrupt cops and officials? What happened, I pressed the investigator.
Turned out, I found out later, Z-40 had a weak point: his baby born in some hospital in the United States, likely in Laredo. Treviño Morales couldn’t get enough of his newborn, and he liked visiting, cuddling. Plus, he felt comfortable in his hometown and the dirt roads that led to some of his hiding places.
On that night of July 15, the Mexican marines, who had been trailing him for months, with the help of U.S. intelligence that included news about his newborn and favorite hiding places, were waiting for him. Z-40 was riding in his 2013 silver-colored Ford truck with two companions as a Black Hawk helicopter approached.
The driver apologized for the terrible traffic. I shrugged my shoulders, as I began typing into my BlackBerry. I called my editors at The Dallas Morning News. After an initial hesitation—which happens anytime you’re dealing with anonymous sources—they were eager for what I had and names of sources I talked to. I complied.
More than 25 years of a career flashed through my mind. What if I’m wrong? I thought. My credibility would be crushed. My gut, however, told me otherwise. I called the U.S. investigator one more time.
We’re going with this, I said, which was really more of a question. Any doubt?
“Está cabrón,” he said. “But we need a tequila, brother. This is no time to drink alone.”
The memories rushed through my mind, as did the smell of tequila. One of the last times I saw the U.S. investigator had been somewhere in Mexico, where we had drank an entire bottle of the agave liquid.
He told me then what I had always suspected, but never confirmed. Treviño Morales had put a price on his head. He said he slept with a loaded shotgun at his bedside on the U.S. side of the border. On the Mexican side? Well, he wouldn’t say, since Mexican law prohibited U.S. agents from being armed. He suspected Forty would send hit men to his house and take him out. He wanted to believe that no cartel would risk the wrath of the U.S. government, but he also knew some of these guys could get so high on drugs and power that they’d forget which side of the border they were on and make a stupid move. And he’d be dead.
Then he confirmed what I’d been searching for so long: that Forty had also been behind the death threat against me. If Forty couldn’t get the investigator, he’d get me to send him a message.
“Puta madre,” I said.
Cuarenta had friends and family in Dallas, and some had read stories that colleagues and I had written about the Zetas. The U.S. investigator said Forty loved Dallas, its flashy life. As late as 2005, Forty would cross the Rio Grande illegally near an inland port known as San Ignacio, just south of Nuevo Laredo, and head to Dallas to see friends and family who were now laundering millions of Forty’s illicit dollars through horse racing. He had even been spotted at a strip bar. The U.S. investigator said my stories had something to do with Forty’s decision to stop going to Dallas.
“So this whole time—all the tips you gave me, all the stories—I was really your mouthpiece? Your way of communicating with Forty?” I had asked him then. “Just like the cartels that use Mexican reporters to get their message out? What the fuck?”
He looked into his glass of tequila, then raised his gaze to meet my angry eyes.
“Yeah,” he said. “I used you, just like you used me. I called you with tips, but I did it ’cause I knew you gave a shit. It was more than just a story for you.”
I looked at the words I had just typed, paused and pressed send. I paid the taxi driver, who seemed as exhausted as me. I walked into the building, and I took the elevator to my apartment and waited for response from my editors, Lowery Metts and George Rodrigue. Within minutes the piece was on the wires. Over the following hours, the government finally confirmed the news, which was now more than 16 hours old. Social media exploded.
One came in at 11:33 p.m. and particularly shook me: “You have moved Mexico,” the tweet read.
Outside the rains fell, as did tears.