Arrests, Slaying Underscore Mexico's Drug Crisis

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Jan. 22 -- Soldiers arrested 11 suspected hit men Tuesday at drug safe houses in the Mexican capital. Authorities said the safe houses were linked to the violent Sinaloa cartel, a group whose caches had not previously been discovered in the city.

Separately, officials said a judge who oversaw drug cases was assassinated in the northern city of Monterrey, and soldiers briefly disarmed dozens of police officers in three border cities on suspicions that the officers had been protecting drug cartels.

The cascade of developments underlined the severity of Mexico's drug crisis, which has invaded nearly every corner of the country and claimed more than 4,800 lives in the past two years.

The alleged hit men were found in two Mexico City mansions along with a startling arsenal of weapons. Photographs broadcast on television and splashed across news Web sites showed the suspects posed in front of hundreds of hand grenades, grenade launchers and assault rifles.

The arsenal also included more than three dozen bulletproof vests emblazoned with the initials "FEDA," which police said stood for "Arturo's Special Forces" in Spanish. Many here speculated that the name was a reference to Arturo Beltrán Leyva, believed to be one of the top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel.

"It was only a matter of time. Mexico is a very centralized country, and we shouldn't be surprised that narco-traffickers have operating branches in the capital," Juan Pardinas, a Mexico City-based analyst, said in an interview. "This has given us a message that, yes, they're here, and they're armed to their teeth."

Federal police spokesman Edgar Millán said the hit men may have been preparing to exact their revenge on security forces following a series of high-profile arrests. On Monday, the Mexican army announced the arrest of Beltrán's brother, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, who is also believed to be a top leader in the cartel.

The suspected hit men were part of three "commando" units that worked for the Pacific cartel, one of several powerful drug-trafficking organizations vying for control of smuggling routes, Millán said. It is believed that the Pacific cartel has business ties with the Sinaloa cartel. Last year, Mexican authorities arrested Sandra Ávila Beltrán, the Sinaloa cartel's suspected leader, who is known as "the Queen of the Pacific" because of her flamboyant lifestyle and penchant for designer clothes.

More than 570 miles north of the capital, funeral arrangements were being made Tuesday for Ernesto Palacios López, a judge in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey. Palacios López was shot late Monday in a hail of assault rifle bullets while driving his Jeep, police there said.

Palacios López had approved the arrests of 19 suspected members of the Sinaloa cartel in 2005. The local police official who led the arrest squad was assassinated last May.

The governor of Nuevo Leon state, José Natividad González Parás, immediately blamed the killing on organized crime.

Palacios López "worked responsibly, and he was involved in a series of judicial processes connected to organized crime," the governor told reporters Tuesday. "We know the fundamental reason for his assassination is related to this."

North of Monterrey, Mexican army units took control of the police headquarters in Reynosa, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, three cities plagued by drug violence. Officers' weapons were seized and checked for connection to drug crimes, but no one was arrested and the officers were allowed to return to duty.

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