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Latin Drug Bosses And Their Growing American Ties

Latin American cartels are fueled by U.S. drug demand, so their illegal retail networks often stretch throughout America. Mexico's arrest of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales was a reminder that the connections between drug traffickers and the U.S. are not just commercial — they're also personal.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn and others noted, Trevino's formative crime years were during his adolescence in the Dallas area, where he joined a local gang. The Dallas Morning News says he still has a mother and sister in Dallas.

The newspaper says that he eventually returned to his native Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and climbed the murderous criminal ranks.

By the time of his arrest by Mexican marines early Monday morning, Trevino was alleged to head the Zetas, the most vicious Mexican gang. Known as "Z-40," "Death" and "Chacal (Jackal)," authorities blame him for beheadings and mass killings in which victims were left dangling from highway overpasses to terrorize residents.

Video of yesterday's perp walk, showing Trevino in a blue golf shirt, can be found on the website of the Mexican magazine Proceso.

Many Narcos With U.S. Links

Trevino is not the only notable narco with U.S. origins or strong ties.

One of the most famous and photogenic was U.S.-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as "La Barbie" for his Anglo good looks.

His casual wear and irrepressible smirk while in custody helped launch a Mexican fashion trend for the "Big Pony" Ralph Lauren golf shirts; he wore one after his 2010 arrest.

Valdez is from Laredo, Texas, just across the skinny Rio Grande from Trevino's Nuevo Laredo. Valdez was a charismatic high school football player from a respected local family. After he moved south, he became a key figure in a regional cartel that did battle with the Zetas, among others.

His arrest came as he was losing out to his enemies. That led to speculation that he had made a life-saving deal in which he promised to inform on colleagues.

In 2011, then-Laredo, Texas, police chief Carlos Maldonado told me that those rumors prompted him to have police visit Valdez's relatives and encourage them to report any threats so they could be protected.

Maldonado's department found the traffickers' U.S. ties helpful. He said they often tracked and arrested cartel players when they got "complacent" while checking in on property and family north of the border. Some were spotted as they confidently came through legal border crossings with visas or passports in hand.

Among those probably celebrating Trevino's arrest is the alleged king of all Mexican kingpins, billionaire Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, reputed head of the dominant Sinaloa cartel.

The fall of a major rival like Trevino probably makes Guzman almost as happy as the day in 2011, when his wife gave birth to their twin daughters in Los Angeles County hospital.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
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