MEXICO CITY — The leader of the Gulf cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest drug-running organizations, was captured by the Mexican army Saturday, officials said, dealing a new blow to a decades-old enterprise whose power has waned in recent years with the rise of other criminal groups.
Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño, 51, who is wanted in the United States, was arrested Saturday morning, according to a government statement. Mexican news organizations reported that he was detained in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, near the Texas border.
Ramirez, known as El Pelon, or the Bald One, was indicted in a U.S. federal court in 2008 on drug distribution charges. The U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to $5 million for his arrest. He is presumably also wanted on similar charges in Mexico.
His arrest is the latest bad news for the Gulf cartel, whose roots as a smuggling outfit date to the 1930s, and which was once a formidable force in the Mexican drug business. Though the group is still involved in moving marijuana and cocaine to the U.S. through the border city of Matamoros, near the southernmost tip of Texas, its power has diminished in recent years with the rise of the ruthless Zetas cartel. The Zetas began as a paramilitary wing of the Gulf cartel, but eventually split off.
In recent years, the Gulf cartel joined forces with the powerful Sinaloa cartel to push back against the Zetas. The result was a gruesome turf war that engulfed numerous Mexican states.
The Gulf cartel’s leadership has also been targeted. In September, the Mexican military captured top Gulf cartel leaders Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez and Mario Cardenas Guillen.
Cardenas’ brother, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, a longtime boss of the cartel, had been arrested in 2003 and extradited to the United States in 2007. He got a 25-year sentence in a 2010 plea agreement and is suspected to be cooperating with U.S. authorities, which could be a factor in the arrests of subsequent leaders.
Saturday’s arrest was no doubt welcome news for President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December after promising to rethink Mexico’s security strategy and reduce the violence.
The naked brutality of the drug war — and the challenge for the new president — were on display Saturday, when government officials in the troubled southwestern states of Guerrero and Michoacan announced the discovery of 25 bodies, the apparent victims of at least three different massacres.
Ramirez’s arrest is the second apprehension of a major drug capo since Peña Nieto’s inauguration. The arrest of Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as Z-40, was the more significant, given the level of the Zetas’ bloodthirstiness, and their growing footprint both inside and beyond Mexico’s borders.
Both arrests will probably help assuage U.S. concern that the new Mexican government may prove less aggressive in its pursuit of drug lords than that of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
The new government is said to be reassessing security and information-sharing relationships between the two countries. And Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party has a history of coziness with drug kingpins. Not helping matters was a Mexican appeals tribunal’s decision this month to free Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug lord imprisoned in the 1980s for masterminding the slaying of a U.S. narcotics agent. (The Peña Nieto government has said it will try to reverse the decision.)
The idea of targeting top drug capos, known as the kingpin strategy, was a major focus of Calderon’s U.S.-backed, military-led assault on the drug cartels. At the end of his six-year term, Calderon boasted that his team had taken out two-thirds of Mexico’s 37 most-wanted criminals.
More than 70,000 Mexicans died in the violence during the former president’s term. But there was little measurable effect on the amount of drugs flowing to the United States.
Upon taking office, Peña Nieto and his team criticized the kingpin strategy, claiming that it caused cartels to form smaller groups, which branched out into extortion, robbery and kidnapping.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope of the Mexican Competitiveness Institute said Saturday that Ramirez’s arrest showed that the kingpin strategy is “alive and kicking” under Peña Nieto, and that “there are more signs of continuing with the Calderon policy than people initially believed.”
In the unrelated violence reported in southwest Mexico on Saturday, a group of eight bodies was found in the community of Los Cajones in the northern part of Guerrero state. According to a statement released by the state attorney general’s office, the bodies of five men in military-style clothing were discovered with gunshot wounds in the bed of a Ford pickup truck. Three more male bodies were also found, prosecutors said, presumably nearby. None of the men were identified. Authorities said they appeared to be between 20 and 35 years old.
Another group of eight bodies was found in the Guerrero municipality of Taxco de Alarcon, about a three-hour drive west of Los Cajones, according to the news service Milenio.
In Michoacan, nine people were found Saturday morning in the municipality of Tepalcatepec, according to news reports. The Mexico City newspaper El Universal reported that the bodies bore signs of torture.