Mexico’s capture of accused drug lord may yield inside cartel information

This time, Mexican authorities took their prey alive.

Monday’s bloodless capture of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a fair-haired Texan accused of helping run a murderous drug-trafficking gang in Mexico, could yield more breakthroughs by giving Mexican and U.S. authorities a deeper look into the workings of Mexico’s drug underworld, analysts said Tuesday.

In addition, Valdez’s status as an American citizen may ease his possible handover to the United States, where he is wanted on cocaine-smuggling charges, by allowing authorities to skip or shorten the often-lengthy extradition process.

That would give U.S. prosecutors a chance to glean information from Valdez about smuggling operations, money-laundering and the whereabouts of other drug bosses in exchange for the promise of a lighter sentence, if he is convicted.

“He’s a businessman and a brilliant businessman, in many ways. He’s going to want to cut a deal,” said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based global intelligence firm.

Valdez, 37, a Laredo, Texas-bred figure dubbed “La Barbie” for his light complexion, grinned, smirked and rolled his eyes when he and six other suspects were paraded before reporters here Tuesday after a police manhunt that saw several near misses.

The beefy Valdez, whose reputation in Mexico is of a bloodthirsty hit man whose methods include beheadings, wore jeans and a forest-green polo shirt with the number 2 on the back.

Valdez’s list of supposed enemies was a murderer’s row of Mexican drug heavies: the country’s most-wanted drug suspect, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman; the violent gang known as the Zetas; members of the Gulf cartel and, most recently, Valdez’s former allies in the Beltran Leyva organization.

At the time of his arrest by federal police, Valdez was embroiled in a vicious fight for leadership of the gang after the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva, killed by Mexican commandos last December. The ensuing battle has left a trail of mutilated bodies, especially in the states of Morelos, south of Mexico City, and Guerrero, on the Pacific coast.

Monday’s arrests came without gunshots at a safe house in the state of Mexico, outside Mexico City.

The live capture of Valdez contrasted with two other high-profile raids ending in death: the Dec. 16 bust in Cuernavaca in which Beltran Leyva was killed and a military operation in July that resulted in the death of Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, a top ally of Guzman, in the western state of Jalisco.

Mexican officials hailed the arrest of Valdez, a former enforcer for Guzman and, later, the Beltran Leyvas, as a key victory in the government’s nearly 4-year-old war against cartels.

“With this capture, we close an important chapter in the history of drug trafficking,” said Facundo Rosas, the No. 2 official in Mexico’s federal police.

Valdez was indicted this year by a federal grand jury in Atlanta on charges of smuggling “thousands of kilograms” of cocaine into the United States from 2004 until 2006. Mexican officials said Valdez’s possible extradition remained to be decided by Mexican prosecutors, but Rosas said federal police would like to see Valdez tried first in Mexico.

The range of Valdez’s foes raised the possibility that rivals had tipped off authorities to his whereabouts. There was even speculation that Valdez, dogged by government pursuers and ruthless rivals, decided to turn himself in.

Rosas said intelligence operations targeting Valdez date back to early 2009, when authorities began a months-long string of arrests of the suspect’s associates.

Valdez and Arturo Beltran Leyva narrowly escaped capture last December when Mexican forces raided a party south of Mexico City. Days later, Beltran Leyva was dead and in recent weeks, the dragnet tightened around Valdez.

On Aug. 9, federal police raided a home in the upscale Bosque de las Lomas section of Mexico City that produced leads on other Valdez residences, Rosas said. More leads, some from U.S. law enforcement, led police to the hideout in Mexico state.

The capture is a boost for Calderon at a time when violence, largely due to cartel feuding, has created an air of chaos and terror in some regions. More horrifying news came last week when 72 Central and South American migrants en route to the United States were found dead in northern Mexico, allegedly slain by captors from the Zetas.

Calderon, who delivers his annual state of the union report to Congress on Wednesday, has been trying to persuade Mexicans that his war on organized crime is bearing fruit. Aides describe the cartel fighting as part of a process of fragmentation that is sapping the trafficking groups.

“It’s good for Calderon. He’s got a trifecta now with Arturo, Coronel and La Barbie,” said George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexican cartels at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

He said capturing Valdez alive was a plus. “If the feds can get him to the United States, he might sing like a canary. He knows so much about the cartel network in Mexico,” Grayson said.