Death of a Mexican drug lord
Understandably, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is trumpeting the navy’s success in taking down Arturo Beltran Leyva, wanted in the United States and Mexico for his part in the $15-billion to $20-billion-a-year drug trade. He was a criminal known to behead his rivals and believed to be responsible for last year’s killing of the federal police chief in his Mexico City home; he was the most powerful cartel boss to be removed by security forces since Calderon launched his drug war in 2006. The operation reportedly was the result of improved U.S.-Mexican intelligence cooperation, and although the naval troops failed to take Beltran Leyva and six cohorts alive, it should yield a trove of new information. Moreover, the battle between cartel grenades and the navy’s mounted machine guns was carried out without civilian casualties or, apparently, some of the other abuses that have marked army operations.
For all the accomplishments, however, the operation reveals the extent of unfinished business in Calderon’s campaign. Beltran Leyva was discovered at a luxury apartment complex near the governor’s mansion in the city of Cuernavaca, just south of the national capital. Clearly he felt he had bought enough protection from security forces to stray far from his home base in Sinaloa and into the weekend getaway for Mexico City’s rich. But someone either infiltrated his inner circle or turned on him -- possibly for the $2-million bounty on his head.
The cartel’s arsenal allowed the gunmen to fight for hours in Cuernavaca. Although they couldn’t outlast 200 troops this time, the traffickers demonstrated once again that they have no trouble acquiring weapons, many of them on the black market from the United States. Meanwhile, the use of the navy so far from the sea suggests that the government couldn’t trust this operation to army and police forces fighting the drug war day in and day out.
Celebrated as it is, Beltran Leyva’s death does not fundamentally alter the trafficking landscape. There are three Beltran Leyva brothers and an enforcer inside the organization who could step in to fill the void, as well as rival cartels likely to go after the lucrative business. And that’s the bottom line -- it’s big business. To change that, U.S. officials must continue to attack consumption here and stop the flow of money and weapons to Mexico. While hunting traffickers, Calderon must pursue elected officials, prosecutors and members of the security forces who have been bought off by traffickers. Together the two countries must raise the costs and cut into the profits of traffickers. Otherwise, a year or two from now they’ll be going after some other kingpin who took Beltran Leyva’s place.