A drug cartel leader who directed cocaine trafficking through Mexico City's international airport was arrested after a shootout in the capital, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Jesus "The King" Zambada was among 16 Sinaloa cartel members arrested Monday after a gunbattle with police in which an apparent grenade explosion destroyed a car, Attorney General Eduardo Medina said. Zambada's son, his nephew, two federal police officers and one state police officer were also among those arrested.
Zambada was identified as the brother of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who allegedly heads the cartel along with one of Mexico's most wanted men, Joaquin Guzman.
Medina described Jesus Zambada as one of the top four leaders of the cartel. He was allegedly in charge of operations in central Mexico, including cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking through the capital city's international airport. He is suspected in the death of several people found decapitated around the airport in 2007, Medina said.
"He is one of most important importers of cocaine and methamphetamine to this country from South America," said Marisela Morales, head of the organized crime division at the Attorney General's Office.
The Sinaloa cartel has suffered several blows since President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of federal troops and police across the country two years ago to seize back territory from drug gangs.
In January, police arrested Alfredo Beltran Leyva, one of five brothers believed to have been top lieutenants of the Sinaloa cartel, based in the northwestern Mexican state of the same name. Federal officials say Beltran Leyva brothers have broken away from the Sinaloa cartel.
"The arrest of Jesus Reynaldo Zambada Garcia stands out, without a doubt, as one of the most significant of the government of President Calderon," Medina said.
Despite high-profile drug arrests, homicides and shootouts linked to the drug trade have surged across Mexico, particularly along the northern border with the United States. Fighting between drug gangs have become increasingly brutal, with piles of bodies — sometimes decapitated — turning up in public. Cartels have stepped up attacks on police, gunning them down in their homes or headquarters.
Prosecutors said Zambada was suspected of having a role in a failed bomb attack against a Mexico city police commander in February and in the May 8 assassination of acting Mexican federal police chief Edgar Millan.
Millan was shot inside his Mexico City home five months after announcing the arrests of 11 alleged hit men linked to the Beltran Leyva brothers.
El Universal newspaper reported Wednesday that, by its count, at least 4,000 people have been killed across Mexico this year, a record number. Federal authorities have acknowledged that homicides have surged, though they do not regularly release homicide figures.
Zambada gave a false name upon his arrest, and it took several days for investigators to confirm his identity, said Morales. The 16 suspects were lined up in front of reporters Wednesday, standing behind a table cluttered with weapons seized after the shootout.
None of the 16 suspects have been charged. Morales said prosecutors would ask a court to order them jailed while investigations continue.