LAREDO — The shadowy figure who directed a Texas hit squad from 2005 to 2006 had a much bigger job on his hands — breaking a rival drug cartel's murderous three-year siege of his territory in and around Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
He did it with ruthless efficiency. Residents of the Mexican border city have heard about Miguel Treviño Morales, nicknamed "El Cuarenta," or "40" — but they don't talk about him.
He was well known to Mexican law enforcement officials, too. Yet he never appeared on the "most wanted" lists of Mexico's federal or Tamaulipas state's attorney general's offices.
"No one mentions the name because they are afraid," said a former federal Mexican police officer from Nuevo Laredo.
Treviño is a high-ranking Gulf Cartel leader who ran its operations in Nuevo Laredo during a period of bloody conflict with its rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, authorities on the U.S. side say.
He operated as a "gatekeeper," keeping tabs on all drug shipments heading through the Nuevo Laredo area to Texas, said an analyst from Stratfor, an Austin-based intelligence analysis firm with business clients in the border area.
A cartel gatekeeper exacts a fee on all contraband flowing through a given area, nicknamed a "plaza." He bribes officials to help maintain control, and puts down challenges, the analyst said.
"If your job is to run the plaza, it is your job that nothing interferes with your shipments," the analyst said.
U.S. authorities, both federal and local, believe Treviño formed a hit squad to work in Laredo, which killed five people before it was stopped in 2006. But they also think he is responsible for dozens, perhaps scores, of killings in Mexico as he fought off a takeover attempt by the Sinaloa Cartel in Nuevo Laredo.
Laredo police have nine arrest warrants out for Treviño, five for murder and four for engaging in organized crime. The department is the only agency — on either side of the border — formally seeking his arrest.
Treviño, believed in his mid-30s, began his criminal career as a lackey for Los Tejas, one of two competing smuggling rings that operated in Nuevo Laredo before Gulf Cartel and its enforcement arm, Los Zetas, took over.
He was imprisoned in Nuevo Laredo at one point before the Zetas got him out to work for them, said the former Mexican officer, who for his own security requested anonymity.
"From there, he began to gain power within the organization," the former officer said. "He started as a hit man and rose to have as many as 80 men working for him. He became so powerful that he was put in charge of Nuevo Laredo."
Webb County Assistant District Attorney Jesse Guillen, who prosecuted the murder cases stemming from the hit squad, compared Treviño to Lord Voldemort, an evil wizard in the Harry Potter series known as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," saying he invokes the same kind of fear.
Local and state police in Nuevo Laredo declined to talk about Treviño or any drug cartel activity because fighting organized crime falls to the federal attorney general's office, or PGR by its Spanish acronym.
The PGR's Nuevo Laredo office said no one there was authorized to talk about its investigations.
Officials compare Treviño to Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal, one of the Sinaloa Cartel's top lieutenants. Both are gatekeepers, but unlike Treviño, news media frequently cover Valdez and he has taken out full-page newspaper ads to defend himself.
Maybe Treviño has more discipline, observers said.
"The Zetas saw he was a person of strong character, whose heart wouldn't stop him from doing what needed to get done," the former Mexican officer said.
Investigators say Treviño is a dedicated businessman who doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. The former Mexican officer disputed the last assertion.
But all agree he's feared.
"If I were talking about al-Qaida, this wouldn't be an issue," the Stratfor analyst said, explaining why he wanted anonymity. "But these guys are a little too close for comfort."
Any wonder the jihadists are establishing close ties with the drug gangs and also solidifying business partnerships to get extra cash for terrorist purposes. Birds of a feather?