MEXICO CITY — The Mexican military killed one of the country’s most powerful drug traffickers late Wednesday, handing the government a badly needed victory in its three-year war against drug traffickers.
President Felipe Calderón lost no time in underlining the significance of the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva – known as “the boss of bosses” – calling it “a resounding blow” in the nation’s bloody battle against organized crime.
Beltrán Leyva, whose henchmen were known to dismember and decapitate police and rival gang members and had successfully infiltrated Mexicans security forces in recent years, was killed along with six bodyguards in a shoot out that lasted 90 minutes at a luxury condo in Cuernavaca, an hour south of Mexico City.
Local television footage showed helicopters and military vehicles circling the site while hundreds of gunshots rang out. One of Beltrán Leyva’s bodyguards reportedly took his own life rather than surrender to the Mexican Navy, which carried out the operation. One soldier was killed and two were injured.
Beltrán Leyva, who Calderón said is “one of the three most wanted” Mexican drug traffickers, had a $2.1 million bounty on his head by Mexican authorities and was wanted in the US on narcotics trafficking charges.
Carlos Humberto Toledo, a lawyer specializing in security who currently teaches at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute (ITAM), agrees that the operation was “a great achievement for this government” and “great news for the US government, because an enemy has been removed.”
“Yesterday’s death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva … was a breakthrough for the government,” he says. “For the first time in more than three years, a leader of organized crime has been defeated … by the armed forces.”
Since taking office in 2006, Calderon has deployed 45,000 soldiers in troubled areas such as the cities of Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Beltrán Leyva’s home state of Sinaloa, located in Mexico’s Pacific Northwest. Deaths attributed to the fight against organized crime have steadily risen, totaling more than 14,000 since 2006.
Critics of Calderón’s strategy say the military deployment has led to greater violence and rising incidents of rights abuses by soldiers, who have set up roadside checkpoints to search vehicles in areas where drug traffickers have a strong presence.
Calderon approach strengthened
Mr. Toledo, however, says that Beltrán Leyva’s death will strengthen Calderón and his strategy of using the military.
“This supports the idea that the armed forces are the only true instrument that the government has to fight an enemy of the dimension of organized crime,” he says.
Jose Reveles, an analyst who specializes in security and organized crime, says that the operation could mark a change in strategy, noting the Navy used intelligence from other sources in the raid and it came several days after the US government gave Mexico five helicopters to aid its fight against organized crime.
In addition to closer cooperation with US authorities in fighting drug traffickers, Mr. Reveles cited closer links in recent years with Colombia and France as well.
“This would seem to be an announcement of a strategy shift in fighting narco- traffickers,” Reveles says, adding: “There’s a globalization of drug trafficking and also a globalization of the fight against it.”
Will the cartel splinter?
However, violence could increase in the short term as lower level members of the so-called Beltrán Leyva cartel fight among each other to take control of the lucrative business.
“As a tactical blow, this could be seen as a success for the military,” says Jose Antonio Crespo, a historian and political analyst who works for the Center for Investigation and Economic Training, a Mexican think tank. “The problem is the global vision of the strategy: What is this going to produce?” he says.
He cites the arrest of Benjamin Arellano Félix and the death of his brother Ramón Arellano Felix in 2002, which led to the splintering of the once powerful Tijuana cartel and greater violence as rivals within the cartel fought for control.
“One of two things is going to happen, either [Beltrán Leyva’s] going to be replaced by a lieutenant or the cartel will become divided under different leaders who face off and the violence increases,” Mr. Crespo says.
Beltran Leyva split with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, seen as Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpin and the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, in early 2008. The Beltrán Leyva organization is said to be allied with the Zetas, a criminal ring founded by Mexican army turncoats who are especially strong on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Beltrán Leyva’s organization also maintains a strong presence in Sinaloa and Morelos, the state south of the Mexican capital, where Cuernavaca is located.