Authorities closed in on Zetas boss Omar Trevino Morales in predawn darkness, capturing him in an operation without firing a single shot, said Monte Alejandro Rubido, head of Mexico's national security council.
There are 11 pending criminal cases against him, and the crimes Trevino is accused of committing make him "one of the most dangerous and bloodthirsty criminals in Mexico," said Tomas Zeron, director of criminal investigations for the Attorney General's Office.
Speaking later in the day to reporters at Mexico City's airport, Zeron said the drug kingpin's legal situation would be assessed after he makes a statement to investigators.
U.S. officials have requested his extradition, Zeron said.
Known as "Z-42," Trevino was arrested at about 3 a.m. in San Pedro Garza Garcia, a suburb of the industrial hub of Monterrey.
In a simultaneous operation, five others were arrested, including the cartel's suspected financial operator, Rubido said.
For the Mexican government, Trevino's arrest marks the second high-level capture of a purported drug boss in a week. Servando Gomez, leader of the Knights Templar drug cartel, was captured Friday in the state of Michoacan
The capture of the cartel leaders is a victory for President Enrique Peña Nieto
, though the Zetas and Knights Templar are not as powerful as they once were.
Still, reports of violence, corruption and extortion continue to flow from the areas of northern Mexico where the Zetas operate.
The U.S. State Department was offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Trevino Morales. The Mexican government offered an additional $2 million.
Trevino Morales is believed to have been at the helm of the Zetas since 2013, inheriting the post from his brother, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
Miguel Angel, or "Z-40," was known as a ruthless drug lord with a reputation for burning his enemies alive
and ordering mass killings. His arrest in July 2013 was praised as a turning point.
But while certain cartels have been weakened after their leaders are captured, critics are quick to point out that the criminal organizations survive, and new leaders rise.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration praised Mexico's government for arresting Trevino, saying he facilitated and oversaw "huge drug shipments into the United States and elsewhere."
He faces federal drug trafficking conspiracy and money laundering charges in several jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C. and south Texas.
"The Zetas represent the worst in global organized crime: violence, intimidation, corruption, and brutal killings," DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a statement. "Today's arrest strikes at the heart of the leadership structure of the Zetas and should serve as yet another warning that no criminal is immune from arrest and prosecution."