MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The arrest this past weekend of a Mexican drug lord may intensify a power struggle within the nation’s leading cartels, but it is unlikely to reduce a wave of violence tied to a thriving drugs trade.
Mexican marines on Sunday captured Sergio Villarreal, a tall, muscled, former policeman nicknamed “El Grande” (The Big One), who became the second leading figure from the powerful Beltran Leyva cartel to be captured in recent weeks.
The arrest marked a fresh victory for President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs after the arrest last month of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a fellow capo vying for leadership of the same cartel. Authorities killed its former leader in December.
“The cartel is greatly weakened ... There will be a reshuffling (of leaders), but the weakening will be substantial,” navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said in a news conference on Monday.
An unshaven Villarreal, wearing a black T-shirt, towered over masked soldiers as officials presented him to the public.
Blamed for fueling a gruesome turf war within the Beltran Leyva cartel, Villarreal’s face was stony as he faced reporters just days before his 41st birthday.
National security spokesman Alejandro Poire identified Villarreal as the “highest-ranking operator of what was left” of the Beltran Leyva cartel.
Alberto Islas, a security analyst with Risk Evaluation, said Villarreal was believed to traffic up to 10 metric tons of cocaine a month into the United States, a large part of a booming drug trade believed to earn Mexican cartels up to $40 billion a year.
Yet his capture could intensify the power struggles that have gripped the Beltran Leyva cartel following former boss Arturo Beltran Leyva’s death late last year, and possibly boost feuds between cartels seeking control of smuggling routes.
Arturo’s brother Hector, nicknamed “El H,” who is wanted by Mexican and U.S. authorities, is believed to be at the helm of the organization. Authorities also are looking for a third Beltran Leyva brother, Mario Alberto, nicknamed “El General.”
Less clear is what the impact of recent arrests will be on overall violence in Mexico, where more than 28,000 people have died since Calderon launched his crackdown on cartels in 2006.
Journalist and drug expert Raymundo Riva Palacio told local radio that Villarreal was believed to be behind dozens of recent gruesome murders in the central state of Morelos as he challenged Valdez for leadership of the cartel.
Editing by Missy Ryan and Paul Simao