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Mexico nabs alleged drug lord 'La Barbie'

Mexico captured major drug trafficker Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez in a new victory for President Felipe Calderon's high-stakes war on murderous cartels.
Image: Major drug trafficker Edgar \"La Barbie\" Valdez is escorted by Mexican federal police during a news conference at the federal police center in Mexico City
Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez is escorted by Mexican federal police during a news conference at the federal police center in Mexico City on Tuesday.Henry Romero / Reuters
/ Source: news services

A Texas-born drug fugitive known as "the Barbie" grinned as he was paraded in handcuffs before reporters on Tuesday — the third suspected drug lord to fall in Mexico in the past 10 months in a coup for President Felipe Calderon.

Federal police caught Edgar Valdez, a leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel based in central Mexico and considered one of the most bloodthirsty drug kingpins, in a residential area near Mexico City on Monday.

Valdez moved about a ton of cocaine a month, officials estimated.

Born in Laredo, Texas, the 37-year-old put up little resistance, a police spokesman said. Dubbed "The Barbie" because of his blond hair and blue eyes, he allegedly used brutal tactics to wipe out rivals as he fought to control the drug cartel in central Mexico.

Security forces had been closing in on Valdez for over a year, the biggest breakthrough being the death of his boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, in a December shootout with soldiers, Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said.

"Valdez has connections with organized crime groups operating in Central and South America to smuggle drugs to the United States, where he is also wanted," national security spokesman Alejandro Poire told a news conference.

U.S. authorities had put a $2 million bounty on his head, but Poire did not say if Valdez would be sent to the United States.

Rosas said Valdez was a U.S. citizen but that authorities were not quite sure if he also held Mexican nationality.

He added that security forces nabbed Valdez on their own, and there would be no reward.

As he was displayed to reporters on Tuesday, Valdez still wore the green polo shirt in which he was captured the day before. He grinned often as police described a high-flying and violent life.

The arrest of several of Valdez's allies, U.S. intelligence tips and other sources provided evidence that Valdez had left his home of 10 years in the resort of Acapulco — where he owned at least one posh bar that was raided in 2009 — to lead a lower-profile life in wealthy neighborhoods of Mexico City, Rosas said.

Federal police nearly nabbed Valdez during a raid in an upscale neighborhood of the Mexican capital on Aug. 8. He got away, Rosas said, but police found him hiding out in a woody weekend getaway just outside the Mexican capital.

He was captured by an elite squad of federal police who have been trained abroad, Rosas said. Four other people described by police as Valdez's inner security circle were arrested with him. Another of his associates was killed during a shootout with police outside a shopping mall in the city.

Deadlier turf war coming up?
The capture follows the killing last month of another major drug boss, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel.

"This is clearly an important capture and will take some pressure off Calderon in the short term but the impact will only be partial unless the government moves to arrest La Barbie's hitmen and dismantles his gang," Pedro de la Cruz, a security analyst at Mexico's National Autonomous University, told Reuters.

"Unfortunately for Calderon, his capture could provoke even more violence if the Sinaloa cartel, the Zetas and La Familia try to move into his territory, which is very likely," he said.

Calderon is struggling to contain growing alarm in Mexico and abroad over his drug war. More than 28,000 people, mainly traffickers and police, have been killed amid vicious turf battles sparked by the army-led crackdown in the 3-1/2 years that the austere former lawyer has been in power.

Valdez has been a powerful contender to lead the Beltran Leyva cartel since soldiers killed former boss, triggering a power struggle within his organization.

The cartel split between an armed wing united under Valdez and Beltran Leyva family loyalists grouped under Arturo's brother, Hector, security experts say.

Unlike most traffickers, who are born into poverty, Valdez hails from a middle-class family on the Texas border. He played American football at school, became bilingual and developed a taste for luxury cars, nightclubs and Versace clothes.

After years selling marijuana in the United States, Valdez grew close to Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, but later split with him to join the Beltran Leyva brothers, who also fell out with Guzman.

Passing himself off as a U.S. businessman, Valdez worked as a lieutenant for the Beltran Leyvas. He moved from northern Mexico to the southern beach resort Acapulco, where the gang brings in Colombian cocaine to smuggle to the U.S. border.

He won respect from fellow traffickers by taking on the brutal "Zetas" gang from northeastern Mexico, who also want control of routes up from the Pacific. Valdez appeared in a 2005 video on YouTube interrogating four Zeta hitmen.

Indicted in Texas and Louisiana, Valdez once tried to justify his killings of Zetas members in a letter to a Mexican newspaper.

"I don't pretend to be as pure as a dove, nor clean up my image, but I am sure of what I have done," Valdez wrote.

10 percent of cops fired
Valdez's influence grew in the past few years at the same time that the Calderon made it the central goal of his presidency to crush the powerful cartels that earn an estimated $40 billion a year. But the bloodshed, including the torture and butchering of captives by rival gangs, has overshadowed most of Calderon's successes.

Officials announced this week they had fired nearly 10 percent of the federal police force as Calderon seeks to rein in the cartels and curb widespread police corruption.

But in a sign violence has not abated, a shootout on Monday between the army and drug hitman lasted for more than 12 hours and killed eight people, terrorizing the town of Panuco in the Gulf state of Veracruz.

Recent drug-related violence has included the killing of 72 people, thought to be migrant workers, near the U.S. border, the murder of a candidate for governor in the same region and slayings of groups of people at rehabilitation centers and parties.

Drug hitmen have also used small car bombs for the first time in recent weeks as they also target mayors and step up their intimidation of newspapers and television stations.