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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Reputed drug cartel appointee detained

Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra and 12 other people with him were seized by soldiers when he stepped from a plane in Monterrey, where he allegedly was assigned to take over cartel operations.

May 20, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — Leaving a baptism party in Acapulco, the reputed lieutenant of a major drug cartel flew to Mexico's wealthiest city, Monterrey. He landed shortly after midnight and stepped casually from his private plane.

But before his alleged luggage of guns, marijuana and cash could be unloaded, any plans Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra might have had to take over local smuggling operations were squashed.

Lopez Ibarra was one of 13 people arrested at the scene by the Mexican army, the government said Tuesday, calling him the latest of several heirs and second-tier traffickers appointed to take charge of significant segments of the narcotics business.

Like Lopez Ibarra, 33, many of the suspected comers seemed confident they were not in danger of being caught.

The army said it was responding to a tip "from a citizen" who noticed men with guns hanging around the airport.

Shortly after midnight Monday, when the Cessna from Acapulco touched down, soldiers moved in to take Lopez Ibarra into custody, along with his fellow passengers and a group of gunmen in armored SUVs waiting for him at the airport.

Seven men and five women were detained with Lopez Ibarra. Among the women was a 16-year-old who was on the flight and did not appear to be a relative.

Authorities quoted Lopez Ibarra as saying he was appointed by Arturo Beltran Leyva, a cartel leader on Mexico's "most wanted" list, to assume command of operations in the Monterrey area, a major launching pad for drugs into the U.S.

Lopez Ibarra said he had been in the Pacific resort of Acapulco to attend a baptism organized by Beltran Leyva. His marching orders followed the arrest March 24 of Hector Huerta Rios, known as "La Burra" (Female Donkey), who had headed the cartel's Monterrey operation.

Despite President Felipe Calderon's stated determination to rein in drug violence, it is not unusual for reports to surface of top drug lords living it up. Two scions of the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, young men tapped to take over parts of their fathers' businesses, were captured in late March and early April in wealthy neighborhoods of Mexico City; one was jogging when apprehended.

The traffickers' resilience is one of many issues confronting Mexican society as it struggles with a drug war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in 2 1/2 years.

In the last couple of days, Mexicans have watched a public display of what is called here la narcopolitica: A powerful senator from Zacatecas (a former presidential candidate) and the state's governor are trading accusations over who's the bigger drug trafficker.

The governor, Amalia Garcia, has had to deal with the aftermath of a brazen escape by 53 drug traffickers, hit men and other inmates from the high-security division of the main prison in her city of Zacatecas over the weekend. She has ordered about 40 guards, several police officers and the warden to be taken in for questioning. She has also asked her director of prisons to step down, after the wives and mothers of the guards went to a human rights commission to complain that their men were being made scapegoats.

But the senator, Ricardo Monreal, immediately charged that the escape showed that Garcia's state government is complicit with the drug gangs. Monreal until recently was governor of Zacatecas himself. He and Garcia represent offshoots of the same leftist party.

A day later, a major newspaper revived a story about Monreal's two brothers, one of whom owns a farm where 14 tons of marijuana were found this year.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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