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Latest Mexican Drug Lord Arrest Is a Fatal Blow to the Beltrán Leyva Cartel

Mexico's authorities are claiming another victory in the war on drugs, but the fragmentation of big cartels usually just leads to yet more violence.
Image via AP

With the capture this week of alleged drug lord Hector Beltrán Leyva, Mexican authorities are once again trumpeting gains in their anti-crime strategy in the ongoing US-backed drug war.

The 49-year-old leader of the Beltrán Leyva organization was detained by Mexican soldiers in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato state, on Wednesday. He was with another man identified by authorities as a top money laundering operator.


"[Soldiers] captured him without firing a shot, inside a seafood restaurant," said Tomás Zerón, chief of the attorney general's criminal investigations unit, while announcing the arrest later that night. "This is not only one more accomplishment for the security cabinet, but also [demonstrated] the coordinated action of the Mexican army."

Zerón emphasized the army's role in the operation that led to the capture, scoring useful media points for Mexico's troubled military. Eight army servicemen are facing charges in connection to a June massacre of 22 suspected gang members in a remote corner of Mexico state, near Guerrero. More broadly, Mexico's army is accused of widespread torture and extrajudicial killings by Human Rights Watch.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also released a statement praising the operation, stating: "DEA congratulates the government of Mexico and the brave individuals who carried out this operation and we pledge our continued commitment to the relentless pursuit of global drug traffickers."

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán captured in Mexico. What you need to know is here.

Hector Beltrán Leyva is the last brother standing in a dynasty of relatives who took the leadership of the Beltrán Leyva cartel after December 2009, when then-leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva was killed in a wild shootout with Mexican navy infantry in the city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.


The group, which broke off from the larger Sinaloa federation around 2008, once had a firm grip on much of southern Mexico, from Morelos to Guerrero and Mexico state. But Arturo's death ignited a string of bloody internal struggles for power in the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Analysts described this as a textbook case of "fragmentation" in criminal organizations that results from the government's capture-or-kill strategy.

Spiraling violence usually results from fragmentation after the arrest or take-down of a cartel capo in Mexico.

"In a sense, this is a good-news-and-bad news type of scenario."

In the state of Guerrero, for example, reported homicides spiked dramatically between 2008 and 2009, right about when the Beltrán Leyva group split from Sinaloa, the cartel once headed by now-jailed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. Guzmán was detained in February in Mazatlán, Sinaloa state.

While the Beltrán Leyva group then fragmented into what are now seven distinct sub-gangs, according to Mexico's attorney general's office, homicides in Guerrero grew every year until 2012, when 2,310 violent deaths were counted by federal authorities.

As with most of Mexico, the actual number of homicides in Guerrero is probably much higher, as an extremely high figure of crimes in Mexico — 93 percent in 2013 — do not get reported to police due to fear or lack of confidence in the authorities.

"I think this is the prime example of this process of fragmentation that has occurred in the Mexican underworld over the past decade. The downfall of Arturo Beltrán Leyva was the biggest accelerator of this process," Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City, told VICE News.


'I am the person who handed over El Chapo': A VICE News exclusive. Read it here.

A Mexican soldier patrols a road near Iguala, Guerrero, last week, after a police attack left at least 6 people dead there. (Photo by Pedro Pardo)

The nature of the problem has changed, too. In the early years of Mexico's military-led campaign against drug gangs, the country's national security was considered in direct danger as the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels expanded their territories and fought bitterly for control of major trafficking routes.

Today, Hope said, the fragmented organizations are mostly practicing extortion and kidnapping on local populations, proving less of an fundamental threat to the country, and more of a daily, frequently fatal, criminal nuisance that manifests itself differently across the country.

"In a sense, this is a good-news-and-bad-news type of scenario," Hope told VICE News. "The good news is we're no longer facing a major national security threat, and the bad news is we're facing a major public security challenge, with weak institutions."

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Hector — known in the criminal underworld as "El H," "The General," "The Engineer," or "La Muerte" — inherited the leadership of the Beltrán Leyva organization after Arturo's killing and the 2010 capture of Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, another figurehead in the group and a US citizen currently behind bars in Mexican federal prison.

Hector operated as a low-profile capo for his cartel, hiding as a real-estate and art businessman in the relatively tranquil state of Querétaro, federal prosecutors said. He is wanted on drug charges in both Mexico and the US, where the Treasury Department offered $5 million for information leading to his capture.

The Beltrán Leyva organization was already very weak, analysts and authorities said. With Hector's capture, the cartel is all but dismantled, although a figure known as "El Chapo Isidro" is seen as the heir of whatever operations the cartel still maintains.

"They do have some influence, but compared to the height of the Beltrán Leyva empire in 2006 and 2007, it's now a shadow of its former self," Hope said.

New evidence leads to jailing of Mexican soldiers after apparent massacre. Read more here.

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth.