Mexican marines capture top drug lieutenant

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican marines captured a top lieutenant of a leading drug cartel on Sunday, officials said, as authorities intensified their campaign against drug kingpins.

Sergio Villarreal, dubbed “El Grande,” was a leading member of the Beltran Leyva cartel and did not resist capture when dozens of marines using armored vehicles cornered him at a safe house in the central Mexican city of Puebla, a marine official told Reuters.

“The capture of Sergio Villarreal ... is another of the federal government’s continuing strikes against a highly dangerous criminal organization which is today badly weakened,” national security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, said during a news conference on Sunday night.

The Beltran Leyva cartel has suffered several recent setbacks since marines in December killed the leader of the gang, Arturo Beltran Leyva, and Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez was captured late last month.

The cartel leadership is believed to be in disarray with the killing and capture of many leading figures in the last ten months.

More than 28,000 people have died since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on drug cartels in 2006.

While the security forces can boast of recent successes against the Beltran Leyva gang, several other drug cartels are firmly rooted around the country and use violence to control their smuggling routes.

Suspected drug hitmen killed 25 people late last week in the U.S.-Mexico border city of Ciudad Juarez in what was the bloodiest day in almost three years for a major manufacturing hub gripped by an escalating drug war.

A separate operation by the federal police in the northern state of Tamaulipas on Saturday led to the discovery of a weapons cache that included dozens of guns and 90 grenades, authorities said on Sunday evening.

Reporting by Adriana Barrera; written by Patrick Rucker