Image: Slain police officer's coffin
Guillermo Arias  /  AP
Police officers stand next to the coffin of slain assistant municipal police chief Abel Salazar during his funeral in Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday, a day after he was fatally shot driving to work.
updated 5/19/2009 2:46:00 PM ET 2009-05-19T18:46:00

The arrest of a drug cartel lieutenant as he stepped off a private plane — fresh from a baptism party held by his boss, one of Mexico's most wanted drug lords — has sparked a debate about whether Mexico is winning the drug war or facing an enemy that has become completely fearless.

Soldiers acting on an anonymous tip arrested Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra on Tuesday at an airport in the northern city of Monterrey, as a convoy of armed men waited to ferry him to a luxury house and a set of offices in an upscale suburb.

The surprising thing wasn't Lopez Ibarra's private plane or his female pilot; it was what Lopez allegedly told soldiers after he was arrested: he said he received orders to take over cartel operations in Monterrey directly from cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva, at a baptism party the drug lord — one of Mexico's most wanted — held at the seaside resort of Acapulco.

Rather than hiding in remote mountain reducts, Mexico's most wanted traffickers — some with prices of 30 million pesos ($2.1 million) on their heads — are partying openly. In April, police arrested the alleged top recruiter of another cartel, La Familia, at a different baptism party held by capos at a resort in the western state of Michoacan.

No fear from authorities
"This indicates, along with another famous wedding that happened, that they don't have any fear at all of the authorities, none at all," said Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor. "They are sending a message that they aren't afraid."

Gonzalez was referring to the 2007 wedding of Mexico's most-wanted drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Police say they raided the town but got there just a few hours too late.

Mexican authorities call Tuesday's arrest a sign the government is winning the war; they say Lopez Ibarra was dispatched to Monterrey to reassert Beltran-Leyca cartel influence after soldiers arrested the former head of operations there, Hector Huerta — known as "La Burra," or Donkey — on March 24.

The Mexican army has set up toll-free numbers to receive anonymous tips on criminal activity, and the strategy appears to be working.

"The army is getting a lot more calls than the police now," said Gonzalez.

But traffickers still ride roughshod over corrupt and weak civilian law enforcement agencies.

In the northern state of Zacatecas over the weekend, armed men wearing police-style uniforms raided a heavily guarded prison and freed 53 suspects, dozens of them linked to the Gulf cartel, without firing a shot.

State officials suspect guards helped them; on Tuesday prosecutors announced that 45 prison guards and the prison warden were under house arrest on suspicion of aiding in the escape. A half-dozen other officers — including local and federal police — also were ordered held.

Kingpin, suspects headed to luxury suites
The soldiers who arrested Lopez Ibarra, his pilot and 12 other suspects also seized 14 guns, a grenade, ammunition, drugs, cash, and a banner warning President Felipe Calderon to "show respect or face the consequences of our people." They were headed to luxury suites in the suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia, one of Mexico's wealthiest communities, authorities said.

Corruption scandals have blossomed across Mexico recently — in states far from the U.S. border region, where the drug battles have long been concentrated. This weekend in Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, authorities arrested a gang of at least six Gulf cartel assassins, including two women, who were allegedly commanded by top local police officers.

The city's police chief, two commanders and former public safety director also were detained on suspicion of leading the hit gang linked to the Zetas, the alleged enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel. Police and soldiers also seized dozens of grenades and assault rifles during the weekend raid, state prosecutors said.

More on: Mexico drug violence

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