BY TIM JOHNSON
In a significant blow to the vicious crime group known as Los Zetas, the Mexican army Friday said it had captured the No. 3 leader of the cartel, Carlos Oliva Castillo.
The arrest came in Saltillo, capital of the northern Mexican state of Coahuila that abuts Texas, and set off hours of running gun battles as underlings tried to divert soldiers and spring the man they call La Rana, or “The Frog,” army spokesman Ricardo Trevilla said.
Escorted by two army commandos in ski masks, Oliva Castillo was paraded before journalists at a news conference. He wore a checked red-and-white shirt, jeans and a fluorescent orange vest.
Trevilla described him as the commander for Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, northeastern corridor states for drug trafficking to the United States.
The only two Zeta leaders above the captured suspect, Trevilla said, are two former members of an elite army special forces unit trained to combat drug cartels, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales. Both carry a $5 million U.S. government bounty and a roughly $2 million Mexican reward.
An army statement said intelligence work led them to a safe house in Saltillo, 250 miles from the Texas border. Soldiers took the house and arrested Oliva Castillo without firing a shot, it said.
Oliva Castillo joined the Zetas in 2005 in Tamaulipas state, the army said, then moved to Nuevo Leon in 2009 and rose last year to regional boss.
The army said Oliva Castillo gave a direct order to a mid-level mobster in late August to send assailants into the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city, and set it afire. The blaze trapped gamblers inside and left 52 people dead.
Along with Oliva Castillo, soldiers also arrested Juan Carlos Garza, his chief bodyguard, and a woman identified as Irasema Lopez Garza.
Los Zetas, the former enforcer wing of the Gulf Cartel, broke from the parent group in early 2010 amid bitter infighting. Given to beheading and disemboweling their foes, the transnational group is now considered one of the two largest crime groups in Mexico, along with the Sinaloa Cartel of the Pacific coast state of the same name.
Rival crime gangs despise Los Zetas and have joined forces, in some regions, to combat them. A new vengeance group, “Zeta killers,” has risen up in Veracruz state on the Gulf Coast.
Unlike rival crime groups, which stick largely to drug trafficking, Los Zetas have branched into numerous criminal enterprises — including extortion, human trafficking, pirating of goods, gunrunning and kidnapping — and occupy territory, buying off or killing local authorities.
The group has tentacles in the United States, Central America and into the Andean region, and its ruthless reputation brought it into a global plot this week.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said Iran allegedly plotted to hire a Mexican drug cartel, presumably Los Zetas, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. A Drug Enforcement Administration informant posed as a gangster.
Los Zetas had no known link to the sting operation, and have made no comment about use of their image to carry off the deception.