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Mexico City (AFP) Sept 27, 2012
The Mexican navy brought a suspected leader of the brutal Zetas drug cartel before news cameras Thursday, after catching the capo amid a violent rift within the powerful criminal gang.
The 42-year-old Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as "Z-50" and "El Taliban," stood stone-faced as marines presented him to the press, wearing a checkered long-sleeve shirt and a bullet-proof vest with two other captured suspects.
Marines detained Velazquez Caballero on Wednesday in a house in the central city of San Luis Potosi, from where he directed operations in four central and northern Mexican states, the navy said.
He was on the list of the 37 most wanted drug lords -- with a $2.3 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
The arrest shed light on a feud within the Zetas, with the navy saying Velazquez Caballero had defied one of the cartel's bosses.
But while the Zetas are divided, the arrest will likely not disrupt the cartel's operations because it is set up like a franchise with cells spread out in various states, analysts said.
"It's important, because El Taliban was a violent and cruel figure, but it does not weaken the Zetas," said Ricardo Ravelo, author of the book "Five Stories of the Zetas."
Velazquez Caballero had allegedly been the Zetas' regional capo in Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato and Coahuila states since 2007, said navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara, a vice admiral.
"Some sources say he challenged Miguel Trevino Morales, alias 'Z-40,' starting a struggle for control of San Luis Potosi," Vergara said.
The power struggle is believed to have led to the execution of 14 of Velazquez Caballero's followers in San Luis Potosi in August, he added.
Mexico has been in the grip of a brutal drug war that has left some 60,000 people dead since the launch of a military crackdown against the cartels in 2006.
Authorities have attributed a series of murders near the US border in recent months to disputes among the Zetas.
Two weeks ago, 16 bodies were found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Nine of the bodies were hanging from a bridge, with messages from Zetas-linked gangs accusing each other of treason.
A navy source, who requested anonymity, told AFP that Velazquez Caballero had approached Gulf Cartel leaders to seek an alliance against Trevino Morales.
The weekly magazine Proceso has reported that Velazquez Caballero had posted street signs in the north and online videos accusing Trevino Morales of betraying some of his lieutenants and ratting them out to the authorities.
US authorities say the Zetas, who are led by Trevino Morales and Heriberto Lazcano, are one of Mexico's most powerful gangs alongside the Pacific region's Sinaloa federation, led by fugitive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Much of the northeast is in the clutches of the Zetas cartel, which was founded by former Mexican special forces soldiers who went rogue and are known for decapitating and dismembering their enemies.
The Zetas were originally hired as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, but turned on their employers and have fought them for control of lucrative drug routes to the United States.
The navy struck a major blow against the Gulf Cartel this month, arresting its suspected kingpin, Jorge Eduardo Costilla, alias "El Coss," and another senior leader, Mario Cardenas Guillen, known as "El Gordo."
The weakening of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas infighting could clear a path for Guzman to grab the northeast coast, analysts said.
"This is great news for El Chapo. I'm sure he's sitting back and laughing right now," said Sylvia Longmire, a former US Air Force special agent and author of "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars."
"I'm sure El Chapo can work this to his advantage," she told AFP. "And I'm sure he's going to try."
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