MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican drug lord Edgar Valdez, who was captured on Monday, was dubbed “The Barbie” because of his blond hair and blue eyes, and used brutal tactics to wipe out rivals as he fought to control a major drug cartel in central Mexico.
Valdez, a Mexican-American born in Laredo, Texas, has been a powerful contender to lead the Beltran Leyva cartel since soldiers killed former boss Arturo Beltran Leyva last December, triggering a power struggle within his organization.
The cartel split between an armed wing united under Valdez and Beltran Leyva family loyalists grouped under Arturo’s brother, Hector, security experts say.
Unlike most traffickers, who are born into poverty, Valdez hails from a middle-class family on the Texas border. He played American football at school, became bilingual and developed a taste for luxury cars, nightclubs and Versace clothes.
After years selling marijuana in the United States, Valdez, 37, grew close to Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, but later split with him to join the Beltran Leyva brothers, who also fell out with Guzman.
Passing himself off as a U.S. businessman, Valdez worked as a lieutenant for the Beltran Leyvas. He moved from northern Mexico to the southern beach resort Acapulco, where the gang brings in Colombian cocaine to smuggle to the U.S. border.
He won respect from fellow traffickers by taking on the brutal “Zetas” gang from northeastern Mexico, who also want control of routes up from the Pacific. Valdez appeared in a 2005 video on the You Tube website interrogating four Zeta hitmen.
Indicted in Texas and Louisiana and carrying a $2 million bounty on his head in the United States, Valdez once tried to justify his killings of Zetas in a letter to a Mexican newspaper. “I don’t pretend to be as pure as a dove, nor clean up my image, but I am sure of what I have done,” Valdez wrote.
When elite troops sprayed bullets into Arturo Beltran Leyva in a luxury apartment in a colonial city near the Mexican capital, President Felipe Calderon’s biggest drug war strike yet, Valdez saw his chance to massively increase his power.
Calderon has made weakening drug cartels his top priority, rolling out tens of thousands of troops to flashpoints across Mexico with U.S. support.
But escalating violence has killed more than 28,000 people in 3-1/2 years, alarming Mexicans and putting some tourists off visiting the country. It has also prompted some businesses to freeze factory investments and worried the United States.
Although he was described by the U.S. State Department as having been Arturo Beltran Leyva’s “most trusted lieutenant and hitman,” Valdez was unable to take over leadership of the eponymous cartel, sparking a bitter war.
“Though Valdez was Arturo’s closest confidant and the top cartel enforcer, it was decided to keep the top spot within the family,” U.S. security consultant Stratfor said in a report. “Power was handed over to Hector, the last remaining living, non-incarcerated Beltran Leyva brother.”
The rift muddied the success of Calderon’s strike on the cartel as the violence between the rival factions spilled over into Acapulco. Hitmen have shot at rivals on the hotel strip in a battle for control of the port city, once a luxury getaway for Hollywood film stars and still a popular resort.
Just last week police found 14 bodies in Acapulco, several bound and blindfolded bearing messages to rival cartels.
Cuernavaca, a leafy weekend retreat for Mexico City residents and part of the Beltran Leyvas’ extensive turf, has also seen a surge in killings. Hitmen have strung bodies from road bridges or dumped them by the highway from the capital.
Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Chris Wilson