Mexico announced the capture Monday of one of its most wanted alleged drug lords, a Texas-born figure accused of unleashing a wave of brutal slayings near Mexico City as part of a ruthless battle with rivals.
Edgar Valdez Villarreal, also known by the improbable nickname “La Barbie,” was seized by federal police in the state of Mexico, the region surrounding Mexico City, the Public Security Ministry said in a statement.
Valdez allegedly served as the top enforcer for Arturo Beltran Leyva, a major kingpin killed by Mexican marines in December. Since Beltran Leyva’s death, police say, Valdez had been locked in a vicious war with Beltran Leyva’s brother Hector for control of the cartel’s business.
The fighting brought gangland-style executions and the hanging of beheaded corpses to Cuernavaca, a once-tranquil playground for the elite outside Mexico City that turned out to be headquarters for part of the Beltran Leyva gang.
The U.S. government had offered a $2-million reward for Valdez’s capture after indicting him for allegedly smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States. It is possible Valdez will be extradited to the U.S.
The capture of Valdez is an important victory for beleaguered President Felipe Calderon, whose offensive against drug cartels has suffered a string of setbacks in recent weeks, including the slaying of two mayors, a rash of car bombings and the massacre of 72 immigrants, apparently because they refused to work for the traffickers who kidnapped them.
But arresting Valdez will not necessarily quell the violence since others may rise to fight for control of the Beltran Leyva operations.
Authorities released a photograph of Valdez, plumper than he appeared in earlier pictures and surrounded by police officers, some with their guns drawn. He was wearing a green shirt emblazoned with a large logo of a polo player, a coat of arms and the word “London.” He appeared to be kneeling, a police agent’s hand planted on his shoulder.
Valdez has been linked to numerous heinous crimes, including the mutilation of enemies in Cuernavaca and the slaughter of the family of a Mexican marine who was slain in the operation that killed Beltran Leyva.
His alleged battle with Hector Beltran Leyva pushed the bloodletting from Morelos state, where Cuernavaca is located, westward through Guerrero state to Acapulco. Bodies and body parts now turn up regularly in the popular resort city, often with messages scrawled in warning to one faction or another.
The Public Security Ministry announcement said Valdez was pursued in an intelligence operation that began in June 2009. In major operations, such as the killing of Beltran Leyva, Mexican authorities have been buoyed by intelligence from U.S. law enforcement authorities. It was not clear what role the U.S. might have played in Monday’s capture.
Security forces are believed to have been close to trapping him in the affluent Bosques de las Lomas neighborhood of Mexico City a couple of months ago, but came up empty.
Valdez, who turned 37 this month, was known as “La Barbie” because of his blondish hair and what some considered good looks, plus his reputation as a party boy who frequented the bars, discos and nightclubs of Mexico City and Acapulco.
“Edgar Valdez Villarreal is a highly dangerous criminal,” the government’s security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, told reporters late Monday. He took no questions.
Valdez headed the division of gunmen within the cartel, Poire said, and helped expand its drug-running operations into Central and South America.
Poire said authorities mounted operations in six Mexican states to search for Valdez.
“This is positive for Calderon and a blow to the trafficking organization,” security expert Raul Benitez said. However, “there well could be a backlash of violence.”
Calderon confirmed the arrest in a Twitter message, announcing that Mexico had “trapped La Barbie, one of the most wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad.”
Valdez’s capture also has value for Mexican and U.S. authorities because of the tactical knowledge of trafficking operations they believe he has. He is the third major figure taken down in the last nine months. But the other two, Beltran Leyva and Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, a major leader of the Sinaloa cartel, were killed.