Soldiers captured one of Mexico's most-wanted smugglers, a man accused of controlling the flow of drugs through the northern city of Monterrey for the powerful Beltran-Leyva cartel, the Mexican army said Wednesday.
The announcement came just hours before to discuss security issues and U.S. support for Mexico's battle against the drug cartels.
Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver said Hector Huerta was detained Tuesday in a Monterrey suburb, along with four men identified as his bodyguards. Soldiers also seized assault rifles and four grenades.
Huerta was arrested on an outstanding homicide warrant; the other four suspects were being held pending charges.
Huerta is the first most-wanted trafficker to be captured since the government on Monday published a list of top suspects. The list identified him as a top Beltran-Leyva cartel lieutenant, with a $1 million reward offered for information leading to his capture. It was not clear if a reward was paid in this case.
Two men on the list had already been captured by the time it was published.
The mustached, chubby-cheeked Huerta is nicknamed "La Burra," or female donkey. "Burro," or male donkey, is a common slang word for the people, usually poor and desperate, paid by the cartels to transport drugs across borders.
But Huerto is no peon — Mexican authorities say he oversaw the cartel's operations in Monterrey, an industrial hub and Mexico's third-largest city. They say he met with the rival Gulf cartel to divide territory between the gangs, two of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations.
"We have information that as the representative of the Beltran Leyva cartel he held meetings with members of the Gulf cartel with the aim of agreeing on drug distribution zones, in order to avoid clashes between the rival gangs," said Marisela Morales, the federal deputy attorney general for organized crime.
Timing a coincidence?
Mexican cartels have been known to engage in such temporary alliances or truces when violent turf battles sap their ranks and draw too much attention from law enforcement, and this may be one of those moments. A federal police report last week said executions due to cartel power struggles and arrests of traffickers have diminished their labor force and capabilities.
Others questioned the timing of Huerta's arrest and the detention of another Monterrey trafficker, Gulf cartel hit man Sigifrido Najera Talamantes, in the days leading up to Clinton's visit to Monterrey.
"It is quite something, that as soon as Mrs. Clinton confirms her visit, by coincidence the government starts making big arrests of drug traffickers," the newspaper Reforma wrote in an editorial. "Maybe the authorities think, naively, that this woman doesn't have information of her own about the reality of Mexico's situation, and that by sweeping the garbage under the rug they can convince her that nothing is happening here."
Mexico intensified its fight in Monterrey after traffickers grew so bold that they paid demonstrators to block streets in protests demanding that the army withdraw troops from the city.
Soldiers have made the biggest arrests, including detention on Friday of Najera Talamantes, who is suspected in an Oct. 12 attack on the U.S. consulate in Monterrey. One man opened fire and another threw a grenade that failed to explode, but nobody was hurt.
Talamontes also is suspected in a similar gunfire and grenade attack Jan. 7 the Televisa network's station in Monterrey.
While Mexico is eager to show results to the United States, it also remains wary of criticism from the north, and comments made during U.S. Senate hearings Wednesday could threaten the goodwill generated by Clinton's visit.
Sen. John McCain described Calderon's struggle with the cartels as "an existential threat to the very fabric of the government of Mexico," a statement Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she agreed with.
The Mexican government heatedly denies that cartels are threatening to take control of the country, and Clinton supported that position on the eve of her visit. In interviews with Mexican media, she disagreed that Mexico is becoming a failed state, and said the U.S. is responsible for consuming the drugs and selling the weapons that fuel the cartel violence.