MEXICO CITY — Clambering to proclaim victory after more than three years of bloody narcotics warfare, Mexican authorities paraded a Texas-born accused kingpin before the media Tuesday and offered abundant details of his climb through the violent drug underworld before his capture in a mountain hideout.
While speculation surged that Mexico would deport Edgar Valdez-Villarreal, a 37-year-old former football star from Laredo, Texas, to stand trial in the United States, where he's still a citizen, there was no immediate sign of action by Mexico or the U.S.
National security spokesman Alejandro Poire described Valdez-Villarreal as "highly dangerous," a reference to his drug cartel's practice of beheading its enemies.
The accused drug lord "has one foot in the airplane bound for the United States," the usually well-informed El Universal newspaper reported.
Security officials paraded the handcuffed Valdez-Villarreal before the media early Tuesday in an airplane hangar. Hooded security agents stood at his side, and a black helicopter provided the backdrop. Valdez-Villarreal smirked, and even chuckled, at the assembled journalists.
Federal Police commissioner Facundo Rosas said the capture of Valdez-Villarreal, who's known by the unlikely nickname of "La Barbie," came after a yearlong hunt that involved as many as 1,200 law enforcement officers.
By Monday afternoon, a ring of security officers encircled the rustic mountain house in Salazar, about 20 miles west of Mexico City, where Valdez-Villarreal had holed up, Rosas said. Mobile phone service in the area was spotty, and the target and six underlings couldn't summon backup to fight their way free, he said. They were detained around 6:30 p.m. without any gunfire.
"Intelligence information indicates that 'La Barbie' trafficked one ton of cocaine each month," Federal Police counternarcotics chief Ramon Pequeno said at the news conference.
His capture gives a boost to President Felipe Calderon, who declared war on drug cartels after taking office in late 2006. The death toll, which recently soared past 28,000 people, has soured many Mexicans on Calderon's tough drug-enforcement policies. Valdez-Villarreal is the third top drug lord to be arrested or killed in nine months.
Government officials seemed to be seeking to regain support by offering abundant details about Valdez-Villarreal's background and capture.
Poire declared that Valdez-Villarreal maintained ties to drug gangs operating in the U.S. and Central and South America, and a series of arrests during the day in Colombia appeared to bear out that claim.
Born in Laredo, Valdez-Villarreal moved to Mexico City, where in 1998 he met Arturo Beltran-Leyva, a drug lord working for the surging Sinaloa Cartel, Pequeno said. As the Texan worked his way up the criminal chain, first in Nuevo Laredo along the border, then starting in 2004 in the Pacific Coast resort of Acapulco, he nurtured a reputation for extreme violence, including frequent beheadings of the Beltran-Leyva group's enemies.
The grisly reputation contrasted with his unlikely nickname, given because of his blue eyes and fair complexion — reminiscent of Ken, the Barbie doll's companion.
By 2007, Valdez-Villarreal ranked senior enough to take part in a meeting in the weekend getaway of Cuernavaca in which bosses of the Sinaloa, Juarez and Gulf cartels — along with the Gulf Cartel's armed wing, Los Zetas — gathered to hash out an end to conflict between the rival groups, Pequeno said.
Valdez-Villarreal had many enemies, but one of his bitterest feuds dated to his stint in Nuevo Laredo, where he battled the Gulf Cartel and its henchmen, Los Zetas, for smuggling routes, Pequeno said. His hatred of the No. 2 Zetas leader, Miguel Trevino Morales, alias "El L-40," was so severe it nearly caused a falling out with his own boss, Pequeno said.
Eventually, Beltran-Leyva and his underlings broke from the Sinaloa Cartel, and when the drug lord died in a shootout in December with Mexican marines, his gang was ripped apart by violence, with "La Barbie" seizing control of a faction and becoming a major trafficker in his own right.
Valdez-Villarreal entrenched himself in Guerrero state, surrounding Acapulco, but also had operations in the states of Morelos, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Quintana Roo and in Mexico City, police said.
Narcotics agents hunting "La Barbie" got a lucky break in a raid on Aug. 9 in the elegant Bosques de las Lomas district of Mexico City, which turned up evidence leading them to the accused drug lord's mountain safe house in Salazar, Rosas said.
The State Department had offered a $2 million bounty for Valdez-Villarreal and Mexican authorities held out a similar reward of around $2.2 million.
Valdez-Villarreal faces numerous federal narcotics charges in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, the earliest dating back to 1998 and the most recent announced in June in Atlanta.
Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration held Valdez-Villarreal on marijuana charges briefly in St. Louis when he was 19 but let him go, Pequeno said.
Under Calderon, Mexico has extradited scores of wanted criminals to stand trial in the U.S., breaking with the nation's past refusal to do so. Prison escapes are frequent in Mexico.
Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, embarrassed Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, in 2001 when he escaped from federal prison. Guzman remains on the loose, and rival cartels claim the government battles them but has given the Sinaloa Cartel free rein.
Other arrests in the hemisphere underscored cooperation between police and counter-drug agencies, including the DEA, in the move against "La Barbie."
In Colombia, the national police said they'd detained 11 people in the cities of Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Buenaventura and Pereira. One of them, Julio Cesar Pina Soberanis, a Mexican, is believed to be Valdez-Villarreal's emissary to traffickers in that country. Another, Denis Alvarino Gomez, is accused of serving as a go-between with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group deeply involved in cocaine trafficking.
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