They call him "The Eraser," and testimony in a U.S. federal court indicates that Jose Adolfo de la Garza was in charge of hit squads that for years eliminated the enemies and competitors of alleged Gulf cartel leader Juan Garcia Abrego.
On Monday, De la Garza was in prison in Mexico City, charged with serving as Garcia Abrego's fifth-ranking lieutenant and one of his key links to Colombia's drug cartels, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says supply four-fifths of the cocaine sold in the United States through Mexican smuggling cartels.
De la Garza, 36, was arrested by Mexican drug enforcement agents in a pre-dawn raid Sunday in Monterrey after an "intensive investigation in several northern states," according to the Mexican attorney general's office. Prosecutors declared the arrest a clear signal that they are closing in on Garcia Abrego, who was put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list seven months ago.
Arresting Garcia Abrego and dismantling the Gulf cartel, which U.S. prosecutors say has used its smuggling routes into southern Texas to flood much of the United States with cocaine for nearly a decade, have become key issues in U.S.-Mexican relations. He is charged in a Houston federal court, along with De la Garza and more than a dozen other lieutenants, in a widespread criminal conspiracy that includes murder and money laundering.
Senior U.S. drug enforcement officials have said that Garcia Abrego's ties with Mexican federal authorities--among them prosecutors and police commanders who allegedly have been on his payroll--have ensured his continuing freedom, despite Washington's offer of a $1-million reward for his capture and its continuing pressure on Mexico City.
The Texas-born Garcia Abrego's empire is estimated to be worth $10 billion, and former cartel members now imprisoned in the United States have testified that he used strategic payoffs to guarantee protection on both sides of the border.
U.S. drug enforcement agents said De la Garza's arrest is an encouraging sign that Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo's government is sincere in its pledge to capture the leaders of his country's five major smuggling cartels. Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano's investigators said De la Garza is the third Gulf cartel lieutenant to be arrested this year. Garcia Abrego's brother, Humberto, and his chief aide, Jose Luis Medrano Jr., are also in custody.
Those arrests appear to have hurt the cartel's smuggling operation. But, citing recent intelligence reports, the U.S. agents added that a former rival cartel, headed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, has inherited many of Garcia Abrego's smuggling routes along the Texas border.
"When it comes to the Mexican cartels, Amado Carrillo is probably the premier godfather right now," said one senior U.S. drug enforcement agent. "He appears to have taken over a lot of Garcia Abrego's business. Amado Carrillo is succeeding where others have failed, largely because, when it comes to dealing with his rivals, he prefers negotiation to assassination."
Garcia Abrego, who is said to have pioneered the links between Mexican smuggling gangs and the Colombian cocaine cartels, has been better known for the latter. Members of his organization were involved in a bloody war for control of the smuggling corridor between the Mexican border town of Matamoros and Brownsville, Tex., which left several dozen dead on both sides of the border in 1991. Witnesses testified that De la Garza arranged many of those killings.