Until he raised his pistol for the last time, Ignacio Coronel Villarreal was known for keeping his head low and footprints light.
In a world populated by many larger-than-life drug bosses, the slightly built Coronel ruled with a quiet ruthlessness. He was seldom photographed and moved so carefully in the suburb of mansions where he lived in western Mexico that just one bodyguard was with him when the dragnet closed.
Even his age and birthplace are a source of mystery.
This much is known: By the time Mexican troops killed Coronel on Thursday outside the city of Guadalajara, he had reached the top rungs of drug trafficking, lording over a broad stretch of the Pacific coast as part of a years-long alliance with the country’s most-wanted crime boss, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman.
Coronel’s share of the Mexican methamphetamine market was considered significant enough that analysts speculated his death might actually disrupt supplies of the synthetic drug, if only briefly.
Mexican and U.S. officials Friday hailed the killing as a major strike against Guzman’s Sinaloa-based cartel, the most powerful in Mexico, and a success in their governments’ shared battle against drug traffickers. President Felipe Calderon launched his war against drug cartels nearly four years ago.
In Washington, the Drug Enforcement Administration called Coronel’s death “a crippling blow” to the Sinaloa group’s operations.
“Coronel was a major poly-drug trafficker involved in transporting multi-ton quantities of cocaine and producing tons of methamphetamine,” the agency said in a statement.
Others, though, said the Sinaloa-based group is probably well positioned to survive such a blow because its segmented leadership structure is based on control of geographical zones rather than hierarchy.
Coronel, known as “Nacho,” controlled a broad coastal swath that includes the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima and part of Michoacan, officials said. He was said to have established direct access to cocaine suppliers in Colombia and a ready supply from Asia of chemical ingredients for making methamphetamine.
“This is a harsh blow … but it doesn’t spell a death knell,” said George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexico’s drug trade at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Mexican officials did not explain the timing of the decision to dispatch more than 100 soldiers, backed by helicopters and armored vehicles, to the tree-lined Zapopan suburb where Coronel kept two houses.
One Mexican media report said the operation had been in the works since May. At that time, there were widespread rumors that he had been captured.
U.S. authorities described the operation as part of “continued cooperation” with Mexican law enforcement, but did not elaborate.
A senior U.S. official said Coronel’s organization was first weakened last October when Mexican troops in Guadalajara captured one of his closest associates, Oscar Nava Valencia, known as “the Wolf.”
In recent months, Coronel’s group in the state of Jalisco has fought bitterly against the gang once run by Arturo Beltran Leyva, a former ally killed by Mexican soldiers in December during a raid in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. Beltran Leyva’s death unleashed a bloody succession battle.
Coronel’s death could produce more bloodshed if the wing of the Beltran Leyva gang run by Arturo’s brother, Hector, seeks to take over the turf, officials said.
Nevertheless, Raymundo Riva Palacio, a respected columnist and commentator based in Mexico City, called the death “the most important blow” in Calderon’s effort to defeat the cartels. “The fall of Coronel is a strike at the heart of the Sinaloa cartel,” he wrote.
Coronel is believed to have been born in 1954 in the northern state of Durango or coastal Veracruz, depending on the source. He worked under Amado Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the so-called Juarez cartel who was known as the “Lord of the Skies.”
Coronel left that group after Carrillo’s death in 1997 and joined the Sinaloa alliance, alongside Guzman and Ismael Zambada. The Beltran Leyvas were the part of the same alliance, but split off in 2008, leading to violent clashes.
Coronel’s ties with Guzman were cemented further three years ago when his teen niece, Emma Coronel Aispuro, married the flashy Sinaloa kingpin, then 50.
Once known for his showy, jewel-studded pistols, Coronel was said to have sought a quieter posture in recent years. While Guzman sought to cultivate a splashy image of invincibility, Coronel lowered his profile to evade police and a growing list of enemies, Grayson said.
To blend into the suburbs outside Guadalajara, Coronel moved about with a lone aide, according to army officials. His FBI wanted poster, picturing the suspect in a trim beard, swept-back black hair and sport coat, lists his occupation as “businessman.”
Coronel managed to attract attention, nonetheless. Balladeers wrote a song in his honor, as they have for other Mexican drug lords. (In it, the character called “Nacho Coronel” offers this nugget of wisdom: “There’s nothing in life that lasts forever.”)
And two weeks ago, the weekly magazine Proceso featured Coronel in a cover story. His bearded face, the same one in the wanted poster, stares out above the headline that says, “The capo on the rise.”