CUERNAVACA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican security forces have shot dead top drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva in the biggest strike yet for President Felipe Calderon’s drug war, but one which could trigger fresh bloodshed.
Beltran Leyva, a cartel chief dubbed “The Boss of Bosses,” was felled in a spray of bullets on Wednesday night by elite navy troops at a luxury apartment complex in Cuernavaca, a fashionable weekend getaway city for Mexico City residents.
One of the country’s most-wanted traffickers, his death, along with five of his bodyguards, is a major coup for the government at the end of a year when drug violence has exploded to unprecedented levels and cartel arrests have flagged.
Yet analysts cautioned it could fan new violence as the Beltran Leyva cartel regroups and strikes back at security forces and whoever it believes tipped them off. Other gangs may clash as they try to muscle in on Beltran Leyva territory.
“Any time you take out one of these apex leaders it is a big victory, but it is also in some ways a double-sided victory because it leads to more violence,” said Scott Stewart of the Stratfor security consultancy.
Calderon, in Copenhagen for climate change talks, called the strike a big win for Mexico and praised the investigative work behind it. “Intelligence is an effective and powerful weapon in the fight against organized crime,” he said.
Mexico’s elite naval troops tend to be used when the government has strong intelligence on high-value targets. The police and army are seen as more prone to leaking operational information than the small naval force.
One navy special forces soldier died of wounds from a grenade thrown at troops in Wednesday’s raid.
The Beltran Leyva cartel is one of half a dozen whose turf wars have slain more than 16,000 people since Calderon came to power in late 2006 and set the army on drug traffickers.
Despite the deployment of 49,000 troops across Mexico, drug killings have soared this year to an unprecedented 7,000 and atrocities including torture and decapitations are common, alarming the U.S. government and threatening Mexico’s image as a stable destination for foreign investors and tourists.
Hundreds of troops remained stationed around the apartment complex on Thursday and security in Cuernavaca was heavy.
Video footage showed Beltran Leyva’s bloodstained body lying in the hallway of the bullet-riddled apartment surrounded by glass shards from shot-out windows. He looked bloated and was wearing a T-shirt, casual pants and white trainers.
Troops in ski masks shot him dead as they burst into the residence, whose rooms were cluttered with assault rifles, newly purchased clothing and items like a family photo album, a Bible, a child’s television in pink plastic, a pair of crocodile-skin boots and plates of fruit, ham and eggs.
Residents of the posh white apartment towers, including a high-school graduation party full of teenagers, were evacuated to a gymnasium as troops arrived by helicopter and truck and laid spikes on the road to prevent anyone driving away. Soon after, the area echoed with gunshots and grenade blasts.
Beltran Leyva ran a cartel based in northwestern Mexico and is the highest-level drug capo killed by Mexican forces since the Tijuana cartel’s Ramon Arellano Felix was shot in 2002, under President Vicente Fox.
Fox scored an even bigger victory in 2003 with the arrest of Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, one of the most powerful capos. In 2007, Calderon extradited him to the United States.
Beltran Leyva was an ally turned foe of Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001. Guzman, who has narrowly evaded capture on several occasions, could benefit from his enemy’s death.
Attorney General Arturo Chavez warned of violence as rivals try to take back territory in central Mexico lost in recent years to the Beltran Leyva. “The weakening of one cartel can be seen as an opportunity by another. They may step up actions to advance their position and this could mean clashes,” he said.
Sometimes dubbed “White Boots” for his footwear, Beltran Leyva was shielded by corrupt police as he moved between hide-outs like a luxury mansion in the resort of Acapulco.
The navy killed other Beltran Leyva members last Friday in a raid on a party near Cuernavaca that aimed for the boss.
“It seems that that day he got away, but the proof of what we had is what we have delivered to the Mexican people today,” Rear Admiral Jose Luis Vergara told Mexican television.
Beltran Leyva has several lieutenants who could fill his shoes, such as Sergio Villa Real, whose nicknames include “King Kong” and “Child Eater.” “His position will be filled very quickly,” said security analyst Alberto Islas.
Mexican anti-drug officials say Beltran Leyva laundered profits through a professional indoor Sinaloan soccer team, luxury hotels in Acapulco and real estate outside Mexico City.
Police have found stashes of weapons and even caged lions, tigers and black panthers at mansions linked to him.
Beltran Leyva had a $2.4 million tag on his head in Mexico for organized crime and kidnapping, and was under indictment in the United States for cocaine smuggling.
Reporting by Robert Campbell, Anahi Rama and Robin Emmott; Writing by Catherine Bremer