Mexican drug lord killed in gunfight with federal forces

Two hundred Mexican Navy marines stormed an upscale apartment complex and killed a reputed drug cartel chief in a two-hour gunbattle, one of the biggest victories yet in President Felipe Calderon's drug war. (Dec. 17)
Map locates city of Cuernavaca, Mexico where drug lord Beltran Layva was killed.
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Friday, December 18, 2009

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the alleged leader of one of this country's top drug cartels, was killed Wednesday night in a two-hour gun and grenade battle with federal forces, ending the reign of a man who liked to describe himself as the "boss of bosses" in Mexico's criminal underworld.

Beltrán Leyva, born and raised in the lawless mountains of Sinaloa, where fields of poppies and marijuana carpet the hidden valleys, is a household name in Mexico and one of the highest-value targets captured or killed in President Felipe Calderón's bloody three-year-old war on the drug cartels.

At the global climate summit in Copenhagen, Calderón called the raid by marines "an important achievement for the government and people of Mexico." Mexico listed Beltrán Leyva as one of its "most wanted" drug barons and offered a $2 million bounty for his capture.

The U.S. government unsealed an indictment against Beltrán Leyva in August, charging that he and his former partners in a cartel known as the Federation were responsible for smuggling at least 200 tons of cocaine into the United States and shipping $6 billion in cash back to Mexico. The indictment detailed their operation in Chicago, which the cartel used as a hub to distribute drugs throughout the Midwest and as far away as Washington. U.S. officials estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States comes through Mexico.

Four other members of Beltrán Leyva's organization died in the gunfight, at a ritzy apartment enclave in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. One killed himself as he was being arrested.

Mexican authorities had been closing in on Beltrán Leyva in recent months, capturing and killing his junior associates. They raided a lavish party in the colonial town of Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca, last week and killed three alleged Beltrán Leyva cartel members. Performing at the party was Ramón Ayala, a popular Texas-based singer, whose attorney denied that his client had any ties to organized crime. [On Thursday, a judge ordered Ayala jailed for up to 40 days pending investigation, the Associated Press reported.] In another near-miss, Beltrán Leyva associates were arrested after attending a baptism he hosted in Acapulco.

Beltrán Leyva was alleged to have masterminded a corruption racket involving high-level Mexican officials in the attorney general's office and federal police, including a former chief of the unit targeting organized crime, Noé Ramírez Mandujano. Ramírez is suspected to have taken almost $500,000 in bribes from Beltrán Leyva.

Mexican officials also hold Beltrán Leyva responsible for the assassination of federal police chief Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez last year.

Mexican and U.S. drug officials had hinted for two months that authorities would soon capture some "big fish" in Mexico. The death of Beltrán Leyva follows a strategy pushed by officials on both sides of the border to go after his cartel's leadership.

"They are the big thinkers. . . . At the minimum, this will cause quite a bit of dislocation in the organization, and it is possible it could cause a power struggle within the cartel," said Tony Payan, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and an authority on drug trafficking.

Beltrán Leyva and his brothers were once partners with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and the most famous drug lord in Mexico. Their bitter feud and split last year sparked a wave of grisly violence, during which foes were routinely kidnapped and tortured to death. Their decapitated bodies were then dumped in public spaces, accompanied by notes taunting officials and their adversaries and signed "the boss of bosses."

"This is a very strong strike against organized crime in Mexico," Attorney General Arturo Chávez said after the killing of Beltrán Leyva.

But, Chávez added, "in this war, nobody really ever wins."

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