The Mexican government announced Wednesday the capture of one of the country's most wanted fugitives, Alcides Ramon Magana, a major step in President Vicente Fox's crackdown on drug trafficking and corruption.
Hours after Magana's arrest, an indictment against him was unsealed in U.S. federal court in the Southern District of New York, the same venue where U.S. charges against former Gov. Mario Villanueva of Quintana Roo state in southern Mexico were made public last month.
The U.S. indictment unsealed Wednesday accuses Magana and the former governor of conspiring to distribute 200 tons of cocaine in Quintana Roo from 1994 to 1998. Villanueva vanished as authorities were about to charge him with trafficking. He was arrested May 24 in the resort city of Cancun.
Magana was arrested Tuesday night at a telephone booth in the southern Mexican city of Villahermosa in an operation that included Mexican police and army units. He pointed a pistol at officers but surrendered once it was evident he was surrounded, Mexican officials said.
Magana's arrest is the latest blow to Mexican drug cartels and highlights the growing cross-border cooperation between the United States and Mexico in apprehending traffickers, analysts said. Although extradition of Magana and Villanueva has not been requested by U.S. authorities, it is expected.
Magana was nicknamed "El Metro" (The Subway) because he oversaw the transshipment of enormous amounts of Colombian cocaine from the Yucatan Peninsula to the U.S.-Mexico border for the Juarez drug cartel, one of the country's three largest drug organizations.
Mexico last month extradited a top boss of Tijuana's Arellano Felix cartel, Everardo Arturo Paez Martinez, to the U.S. to face trafficking charges. About two months ago, authorities arrested Gilberto Garcia Mena, alias "El June," a top leader in the Gulf cartel.
"Added to the higher rate of confiscations and drug eradication, these important arrests mean Fox is taking the war against [drug traffickers] seriously, more so than his predecessors did at the beginning of their terms," said Guadalupe Gonzalez, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.
Peter H. Smith, director of UC San Diego's Latin American Studies program, said the arrest demonstrates Fox's "determination to clean house, to root out corruption and to prosecute drug traffickers."
But Smith said the arrest is unlikely to "deter the flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States. That is a function of supply and demand. . . . As shown in Colombia, decapitation or even destruction of major drug cartels does not eliminate the traffic itself."
While recent Mexican government actions against drug traffickers are a political plus for the Fox administration, they "should not lead people to think that we are winning the drug war--or even that it is a winnable war," Smith said.
Villanueva is accused of protecting the Juarez cartel's fast-growing drug transshipment operation based on the Yucatan Peninsula. He received $500,000 per shipment, the indictment states. One shipment reportedly was loaded onto a plane owned by Quintana Roo state.
Villanueva disappeared in March 1999, just before his term as governor was about to end and authorities were planning to arrest him.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday is the result of a joint investigation by offices of the U.S. and Mexican attorneys general and by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in New York, Arizona and Mexico, said Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Magana had been listed by the White House in 1999 as one of a dozen most wanted international drug kingpins. He had proved elusive partly because he had undergone plastic surgery and lost 40 pounds, Mexican law enforcement officials said.
His late boss, Juarez cartel chief Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997. Since then, leadership of the gang has been split among several people, including Magana and Carrillo Fuentes' brother Vicente.
While disclaiming any direct participation in Tuesday's arrest by his agency, DEA special agent Felix Jimenez said in a telephone interview from New York that Mexican authorities received U.S. information on Magana. "We were passing information about Mr. Magana to the Mexican government. We were working together," said Jimenez, chief of the DEA's New York office.
"El Metro" allegedly oversaw a vast delivery network of Colombia cocaine from the Yucatan to upper New York state. He is a former federal police commander who reportedly befriended the late chief of the Juarez cartel in the early 1990s, later becoming his bodyguard.
Magana allegedly saved Carrillo Fuentes' life during an attack by the rival Arellano Felix gang in 1993 and was rewarded with control over the Juarez gang's cocaine traffic in southeastern Mexico.
In a news conference Wednesday morning, Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha said Magana's arrest did not result from information given by Villanueva and declined to comment on any link between Magana and Villanueva.
Meanwhile, Mexico City prosecutors were looking into the disappearance of evidence--allegedly stolen by five now-absent workers--connected to the execution-style slaying of the capital's former police chief, Jesus Carrola Gutierrez, and his two brothers on May 29.