In other parts of the country, such as the seaside resort of Acapulco, the cartel system has collapsed completely, with historic levels of violence being driven by dozens of warring street gangs.
Authorities say Guizar, known by his Zetas code name "Z 43," was born in Tulare, Calif. He first appeared on the radar of Mexican law enforcement officials in 1998, when he allegedly began trafficking drugs in the state of Michoacan.
The Zetas cartel he went on to lead evolved from a group of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces. The ex-soldiers were hired to serve as a security force for the Gulf cartel, but in 2010 broke with their former employer to start their own drug trafficking network.
Via street battles and gruesome tactics that included beheadings, videotaped assassinations and the hanging of mutilated bodies from bridges, the Zetas became the most powerful force in several states, including Tamaulipas, on the Texas border. Officials say the group's reach extends down to Guatemala.
Perhaps the group's most shocking exploit was the 2010 killing of 72 migrants in the Tamaulipas town of San Fernando. Investigators said the migrants were shot to death after they refused to work for the cartel.
Experts sat the group has weakened in recent years, and has begun to splinter into different factions.
"They are very diminished compared to what they were at their height," said security expert Alejandro Hope. Still, he said, "it's an important arrest."
Guizar's capture in the country's capital shocked many who have long viewed Mexico City as a haven from the drug war violence engulfing other parts of nation. But there have been signs that violence may be encroaching, including a large banner hung from one of the city's main highways this week announcing the arrival of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Law enforcement officials said they were investigating the banner to see if it is authentic.
Roma, the neighborhood where Guizar was arrested, is known as one of the nation's trendiest, home to world-famous restaurants, expensive clothing stores and luxurious hotels.
Juan Carlos Silva, chief of the anti-drug division of the federal police, said in a radio interview that Guizar was about to walk into one such hotel Thursday. He was traveling without armed guards, likely in an effort to blend in, Silva said. Because of that, authorities were able to capture Guizar, he said.
(Times researcher Scott Wilson and Cecilia Sanchez in the Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)
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