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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Drug cartel chief is dead, but now what?

Mexico officials herald the killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva of Sinaloa as a coup. Still, the violence could grow.

December 18, 2009|By Ken Ellingwood
  • A wall in the Cuernavaca high-rise shows bullet holes from the naval commando raid that killed Mexican cartel chief Arturo Beltran Leyva.
A wall in the Cuernavaca high-rise shows bullet holes from the naval commando… (Antonio Sierra / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — He was one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers, embroiled in fights to the death with rival gangsters and the Mexican military. His crude signature -- proclaiming him the "boss of bosses" -- showed up regularly next to the headless bodies of his foes.

So when Arturo Beltran Leyva fell dead Wednesday night during a frenzied gunfight with Mexican naval commandos, authorities declared a major blow struck against one of Mexico's meanest smuggling groups.

"This action represents an important achievement for the people and government of Mexico and a heavy blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico," President Felipe Calderon said Thursday from Copenhagen, where he was attending an international climate conference.

"His death has dealt a crippling blow to one of the most violent cartels in the world," said Michele Leonhart, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But amid the messy landscape of narcotics trafficking in Mexico, it is not clear what effect the kingpin's fall will have on his group or the wider drug underworld. The result could be more killing in Mexico if Beltran Leyva's absence sparks a succession war or inspires rivals to move in forcefully on his group's lucrative turf.

"It's an important step but, at the end of the day, you're not going to reduce the market," said Alberto Islas, a Mexico City-based security analyst. "You take out one guy and somebody else will take his place. But this is violent."

Mexico's attorney general, Arturo Chavez, acknowledged the possibility of more bloodshed, saying Beltran Leyva's killing could prompt his enemies in Sinaloa to act.

"The weakening of any cartel can be seen as an opportunity by another that is fighting for territory," Chavez said. "If they see [their rival] as weak, they will probably try to step up their actions to advance."

Chavez also warned of a possible succession fight inside the Beltran Leyva group.

About 15,000 people have died in Mexico since Calderon launched his crackdown on drug traffickers three years ago. Most of the slayings have resulted from fighting between rival gangs or power struggles within the groups. The Beltran Leyva gang has been a key part of that bloody panorama.

The group has been locked in a ferocious war with rivals led by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, a former ally, since early last year. Beltran Leyva held Guzman responsible for tipping off authorities who captured his brother Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January 2008.

That feuding, which has left hundreds dead, could intensify if members of Arturo Beltran Leyva's gang suspect Guzman's group of helping authorities track him down. Or the gang could retaliate directly against federal officials.

"I think we're going to see blowback," said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

The Beltran Leyva gang, which has been allied with another violent group, the Zetas, has battled rivals along the Pacific coast, a key smuggling corridor. Hand-lettered posters signed "the boss of bosses" have increasingly shown up alongside decapitated or dismembered bodies.

"Beltran Leyva was responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence in Mexico's recent history," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said in a statement. "We congratulate the Calderon administration and the brave members of its military forces on this successful and highly significant operation."

The killing does not yet diminish the formidable financial resources or logistical reach of the Beltran Leyva gang, which U.S. authorities say has smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia. But analysts agreed that it could prove a lasting blow.

Beltran Leyva, also known as "The Bearded One," is the first Mexican cartel leader slain by authorities since Tijuana kingpin Ramon Arellano Felix was shot by police in 2002.

That death and the arrest the same year of Arellano Felix's brother Benjamin marked the start of fraying in the Tijuana group, which has been beset by infighting and poaching by rival gangs.

Still, Mexican drug gangs have a long history of weathering the loss of their leaders, and it seemed unlikely that Beltran Leyva's death would disable his far-flung group any time soon. This month, the U.S. Treasury Department froze U.S.-based assets of 22 people and 10 companies with ties to the gang. Possible Beltran Leyva successors include another brother, Hector, who also goes by Mario Alberto and was already playing a leadership role. He was listed with Arturo Beltran Leyva this year among the country's 24 most-wanted drug traffickers.

Analysts said the man allegedly in charge of the gang's gunmen, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also could vie for leadership.

Beltran Leyva, whose age is reported as 51, had been a main target of Mexican authorities since the arrest of his brother Alfredo last year, but he always managed to get away.

The trail had grown hotter in recent days.

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