December 20, 2009 / 7:28 PM / 10 years ago

Mourners heap flowers by Mexican drug lord's coffin

CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mourners trickled into a palatial chapel in the heart of Mexican drug trafficking territory on Sunday to pay their respects to late drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, shot dead by security forces this week.

Eight men struggled to get a 20-foot-long (6-meter) floral arrangement made of hundreds of red roses through the glass doors of the chapel in the northwestern city of Culiacan, where Beltran Leyva’s body was delivered on Saturday evening.

Known as “The Boss of Bosses” or “The Beard”, Beltran Leyva died in a hail of bullets on Wednesday when elite navy troops swooped on a luxury condominium near Mexico City in the biggest victory of President Felipe Calderon’s three-year drug war.

One of Mexico’s most-wanted drug bosses, Beltran Leyva smuggled tons of cocaine to the United States each year, laundered huge sums of money and is alleged to have ordered the murders of senior security officials after his brother, who worked with him, was arrested in early 2008.

Brutal turf wars that have escalated since Calderon deployed the army against drug cartels in late 2006 have left more than 16,000 people dead across the country since then.

Family members identified Beltran Leyva’s bullet-pocked body after the shootout, which disfigured part of his face.

An entire airliner was rented to fly his body from Mexico City to Culiacan, capital of the mountainous state of Sinaloa, where he grew up with other smugglers like No. 1 fugitive Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, a former ally turned bitter rival.

Mexico’s drug cartel leaders live large, moving between dozens of secret luxury mansions where they hold lavish parties livened up with teenage beauty queens and live bands who praise their exploits in “narco corrido” ballads.

After they die, their families pay homage to them with huge gaudy tombs, often domed mausoleums two or three stories high topped with neon crosses and filled with photos, plastic flowers, balloons, replica guns and model cars.

Dozens of soldiers guarded the chapel in central Culiacan on Sunday as female relatives and family friends trickled in. Male friends and family members, who risk being pounced on by police as drug suspects, stayed away.

The body is likely to be taken away in the days ahead to Beltran Leyva’s birthplace in the poppy and marijuana-growing hills that spawned Mexico’s first drug traffickers for an ostentatious private funeral.

Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Doina Chiacu

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