Mexican soldiers have captured a suspected drug cartel boss in the most significant arrest since President Felipe Calderon sent thousands of troops to restore order in a western state terrorized by drug gangs, the military said Sunday.
Elias Valencia, a suspected head of the Valencia cartel, was arrested along with four other people Friday at a mountain ranch near the town of Aguililla in Michoacan state, said Gen. Cornelio Casio, one of the officials in charge of the offensive.
Last week, Calderon ordered more than 6,000 soldiers, marines and federal police to his native state of Michoacan, which has seen a wave of drug-related killings and beheadings.
Officials blame the violence on a turf war between the Valencia and Gulf cartels over lucrative marijuana plantations and smuggling routes for cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States.
Mexican investigators say Elias Valencia is one of several figures who have run the cartel since his father, Armando Valencia, was arrested in 2003. He and the others were arrested with several hundred pounds of marijuana and an arsenal of firearms, Casio said.
Authorities say Aguililla, located 120 miles southwest of the state capital of Morelia, has been a key stronghold of the Valencia cartel. Assailants recently killed 10 police in attacks on winding highways nearby that are a common site for ambushes, authorities said.
Calderon, who was narrowly elected in July on a law-and-order platform and took office Dec. 1, has vowed a nationwide battle against drug violence that has claimed more than 2,000 lives this year.
Under the new offensive, soldiers supported by armored vehicles and helicopters have combed Michoacan state for drug traffickers and drug plantations.
On Wednesday, troops clashed with suspected traffickers protecting a marijuana plantation, killing one man and arresting another. On Saturday, soldiers arrested a man accused of being a key Sinaloa cartel lieutenant in the western city of Guadalajara.
But many security experts say it will take more than force to stop the cartels, who earn billions of dollars supplying U.S. markets. Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, sent thousands of troops to battle drug gangs, make drug seizures and arrest high-profile traffickers without significantly reducing the quantity of narcotics crossing into the United States.
Critics of Fox’s crackdown say it created a power vacuum in the cartels, leading to increased violence as rivals fought to replace the arrested leaders.