MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican navy says it has captured one of the leaders of the Zetas drug cartel, adding to signs that the notoriously brutal gang is rupturing, possibly because of an internal feud.
The navy said late on Wednesday it had caught the man believed to be Zetas boss Ivan Velazquez, aka "El Taliban" or "Z-50," in central Mexico, boosting outgoing President Felipe Calderon's efforts to crack down on the violent cartels.
Velazquez is on a Mexican government list of the most wanted kingpins and one of the Zetas most senior second-tier leaders. Mexico has offered a reward of up to 30 million pesos ($2.34 million) for information leading to his arrest.
The Zetas have perpetrated some of the most sickening acts of Mexico's drug war and continued to expand even as rival gangs joined forces against them. They are now regarded as one of the two most powerful drug cartels in the country.
However, longstanding rivalry between the Zetas' top leader, Heriberto Lazcano, and his deputy Miguel Trevino alias "Z-40," has exploded into violence in recent weeks, raising fears the hostilities could bring a fresh wave of bloodletting.
"They are splitting," Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said after the capture of Velazquez. More bloodshed would likely follow, he added.
"Every time they capture a major crime boss, his organization fragments, so the violence increases, and this atomization makes the government's fight harder," he said.
The navy paraded Velazquez, 42, before the media on Thursday morning, cuffed and flanked by masked soldiers carrying assault rifles. Wads of cash, weapons and seized drugs were laid out on a table in front of him for a customary photo op.
Wearing a black, cream and red checked shirt, his hair brushed to the side, Velazquez stood stern-faced as the navy accused him of controlling swathes of territory for the Zetas, of money-laundering and acting as the group's financial chief.
He surrendered to the navy in the central city of San Luis Potosi without a shot being fired, an eyewitness told Reuters.
Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said Velazquez was believed to be the Zetas' regional boss in a host of central and northern states, territory which includes the wealthy industrial city of Monterrey. He was thought to be locked in a power struggle with the Zetas' number two, Trevino, he added.
Vergara said it was Velazquez's conflict with Trevino which likely spurred the massacre of 14 suspected Zetas by rival Zetas on the outskirts of San Luis Potosi last month.
Formed by a group of army deserters in the late 1990s, the gang acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before parting ways violently with their former employers in 2010.
Velazquez is the most senior Zetas figure to be captured since that split and the infighting among their ranks appears to be sparking a realignment within the gang.
Earlier this week, Mexican news magazine Proceso reported that Velazquez had switched his allegiance to the Gulf Cartel due to a rupture with Trevino, citing messages posted online.
While Mexico's government and rival gangs may welcome fighting within the Zetas, an explosion of violence could become a major headache for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto.
About 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence during Calderon's six-year term.
Pena Nieto takes office on December 1 and has vowed to quickly reduce the number of beheadings and mass executions seen over the past six years. But if the Zetas cartel were to break up, it could unleash havoc as its 10,000-plus gunmen fight for control of local trafficking networks and smuggling routes.
Security expert Oliva estimated there were now about five times as many criminal groups holding sway around Mexico as there were at the outset of Calderon's administration.
Since 2009, more than 20 drug lords have been caught or killed. The most recent capture came two weeks ago, when the navy arrested Gulf Cartel head Jorge Costilla, alias "El Coss."
On Wednesday, the navy announced the capture of 18 suspected Zetas in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner and Todd Eastham)