Mexican drug lord Teodoro Garcia Simental

A forensic investigator inserts a probe into one of three barrels found outside a Tijuana restaurant. The barrels contained human remains dissolved in acid. A handwritten message presumably from "El Teo" warns that all those who walk with a rival drug gang headed by "The Engineer" will be turned into pozole, a stew. More photos >>> (Miguel Cervantes / El Norte)

He is said to love the ladies, fast horses and dissolving enemies in lye.

Teodoro Garcia Simental is among the best known but least identifiable villains in Mexico's drug war, blamed for a trail of terror across Baja California.

His heavily armed hit men, authorities say, have been leaving the gruesome displays of charred and decapitated bodies across the city, signed with the moniker "Tres Letras," for the three letters in "Teo." And authorities believe he runs a network of hide-outs where kidnap victims are held in cages.

Yet thousands of police officers, soldiers, state and federal agents can't seem to find him.

Billboards showing Tijuana's most wanted kidnappers don't include Garcia's image, even though he is believed to be behind most of the gang war that has claimed more than 400 lives here since late September.

"That tells you that you don't want to be the one responsible for putting Teo's picture in public," said one U.S. law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's no future in it."

The alleged crime boss appears chubby-cheeked and sporting an ill-fitting tie and coat in his only published photograph, labeled as No. 27 on the FBI's website. His photo bears no name, and he is listed as one of several dozen people sought for allegedly using false Mexican police identification in connection with slayings, kidnappings and other crimes.

Many police officers, prosecutors and ordinary citizens go silent when Teo's name is mentioned. What is known about him comes from the secret testimony of captured gunmen, narco-messages left with victims and anonymously written narcocorrido ballads sold at swap meets. "Pay attention, President [Felipe Calderon]. . . . In Tijuana, I rule," one song boasts. "We'll show you what a real war is like."

Mexican court documents and interviews with U.S. and Mexican authorities paint a portrait of Garcia as a vengeful crime boss who vows not to go down without a fight.

Garcia is said to be in his mid-30s -- even his date of birth is not known. He reportedly bets big on clandestine horse races at isolated ranches outside Ensenada. He hires people at $400 per week to guard kidnapping victims and to weld together the barrels of caustic chemicals used to dispose of some of his victims, according to documents and interviews. One Mexican law enforcement official said Garcia has killed people at parties, laughing at their stunned reactions.

"Criminals earn respect and credibility with creative killing methods," said the official, who requested anonymity for reasons of security. "Your status is based on your capacity to commit the most sadistic acts. Burning corpses, using acid, beheading victims. . . . This generation is setting a new standard for savagery."

Garcia's alleged criminal empire is built largely on kidnappings and extortion, a model for a post-drug-war crime boss who, starved of narcotics profits, resorts to bloodier, homegrown pursuits.

Garcia's bid for power began shortly after Calderon launched his offensive against organized crime groups in December 2006, aiming to destroy the country's drug cartels by shattering their leadership ranks.

"The government's strategy was to break the cartels into smaller, more manageable pieces," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "But smaller doesn't mean more manageable. . . . It's begetting more violence . . . and more dangerous organizations, and people like this guy."

Garcia, whose family is said to be from Sinaloa state, grew up in Tijuana and started out in the Arellano Felix organization as a trusted enforcer, probably in the 1990s, and grew powerful as a lieutenant who helped transform kidnapping into a multimillion-dollar industry.

This year, the head of the cartel, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a nephew of the founding brothers, tried unsuccessfully to halt the abductions of doctors, businessmen and politically influential figures. Sanchez Arellano apparently was worried that the crime wave, attributed to Garcia, was hampering the cartel's drug-trafficking business, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.

In April, the renegade lieutenant and the cartel leader split in spectacular fashion; their gangs shot it out on an expressway in eastern Tijuana, leaving 14 dead. Garcia fled to Sinaloa but returned in September to launch all-out war. He is believed to be allied with the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Since then, Tijuana has seen an average of five killings per day, many of them carrying messages boasting that they were the work of Garcia. One victim was found with his face sliced off. Three headless bodies were dumped near a baseball diamond. Two corpses were hung from an overpass. Others have been doused with gasoline and set aflame.

Mexican authorities say Garcia's gunmen shot up a billiard hall, nightclubs, a motorcycle shop and seafood restaurants.