Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, known as Z-40, led what was undoubtedly the most feared and most violent drug cartel operating in Mexico, but on Monday a unit of the Mexican Marines arrested him without incident and put one of the most ruthless cartel leaders behind bars.
"He was a crazy, nasty, violent guy," said Sylvia Longmire, a consultant who recently wrote "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars." "If there was a choice, he always killed in the ugliest way possible."
She was referring to Morales's passion for boiling down the bodies of his enemies into a kind of stew after bodies were dumped in vats of acid from which only sets of stained teeth remained.
But he also engaged in dismemberment, beheadings and even public executions. Morales had an appetite for brutality, and in his mind, the bloodier the death of his foes, the better.
Yet for Morales, it wasn't all blood and gore. It was also business. Big business. Helped by his brother, he created an effective money-laundering scheme involving the buying and selling of quarter horses in Texas and Oklahoma, using millions of dollars earned in the drug trade.
The arrest of Morales was a huge feather in the cap of Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto. He had campaigned partly on a pledge to adopt a new strategy to cripple the drug trade, an effort that had been started by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Reportedly, the arrest resulted from at least eight months of detailed intelligence work and, according to reports, help from at least one informer close enough to Morales to know the details of his travel schedule.
For years, Americans have been appalled by the reports of brutal violence so often attributed to Mexico's warring drug cartels. The competing gangs are merciless in their pursuit of market domination. And that brings us to the all-important question: Exactly what is the market for their products?
We all know the answer. The main market is the United States. If the American appetite for illegal drugs wasn't so huge, the profits from drug trafficking would plummet. The cartels and their supporters might turn to other crime, but it's doubtful they'd find anything as lucrative as peddling drugs to their customers north of the border.
Just the other day, the coroner in Vancouver, B.C., disclosed that popular television actor Cory Monteith's death, at age 31, was due to an overdose of heroin and alcohol. Directly or indirectly, Monteith would appear to have been a customer of the drug dealers, such as Morales, who so often indulge in brutal behavior to gain market superiority.
How many other customers are there in North America? And do they ever suffer any pangs of conscience over the horrible killings that are associated with the illegal commerce that fuels their appetite for these drugs?
According to Friday's New York Times, 21 people died from heroin use in Maine last year, three times as many as in 2011. Similarly, New Hampshire recorded 40 deaths from heroin overdoses, while in Vermont, the Health Department reported 914 people were treated for heroin abuse last year, an increase of almost 40 percent in one year. The heroin came through Mexico.
Americans can have honest disagreements about the effectiveness and even the wisdom of the long-standing war on drugs, but while so much attention is being paid to the likes of Morales and other ruthless thugs, we need to also look to the consumers.
Without them, these cartels would be out of business.