Horror Won't End With Cartel Leader's Arrest

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/18/2013, 3:30 p.m.
Mexican authorities are having an Eliot Ness moment. Imagine what it felt like for the famed U.S. federal agent to ...
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

CNN Contributor

Mexican authorities are having an Eliot Ness moment. Imagine what it felt like for the famed U.S. federal agent to arrest legendary gangster Al Capone in 1929.

It's probably close to how our southern neighbors feel now that they have in custody Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the brutal paramilitary drug cartel known as The Zetas.

The takedown is a major coup for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who came to office just seven months ago and returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power.

I had the chance to meet with Peña Nieto in Mexico City in November a few weeks before he was sworn in, as part of a group of other Americans. It was clear from what we heard that he intended to implement a different strategy against the cartels than the one deployed by former President Felipe Calderon, who hailed from the rival National Action Party. His predecessor took the fight to the cartels, and the result was more than 70,000 deaths with some estimates reaching as high as 120,000.

Even before he was elected, Peña Nieto had signaled to Mexico's voters that surrender wasn't an option, that legalizing drugs wasn't on the table, and that the fight against the cartels would continue -- with different methods and objectives.

The new plan was to continue to confiscate the traffickers' money and drugs while not driving up the body count. Peña Nieto was supposed to focus less on capturing drug lords and more on curtailing violence and protecting the Mexican people.

I wanted to understand this terrain better. And so, before I left Mexico City, I met up with an old friend who also happens to be one of the best reporters in the business and certainly one of the most knowledgable about Mexico.

Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and author of the acclaimed new book, "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey into a Country's Descent into Darkness."

I asked him if Americans should be concerned now that there is a new sheriff in town. What is to stop Peña Nieto from giving up on this war?

"I don't think they can afford to give up on it," Corchado said. "That would be like conceding the country. And yet, I also think the strategy of going after the cartels, confronting them head-on, is only going to generate more and more violence."

This is supposed to be a new kind of drug war, although it bears a striking resemblance to the old war. As critics have pointed out, the number of casualties in first six months of Peña Nieto's administration are almost identical to the number in the last six months of Calderon's tenure in office. Some Mexicans are wondering if, politics aside, the two major political parties in Mexico will turn out to be more or less the same in the war on drug trafficking.