MEXICO CITY — Mexico's capture of two rival drug gang leaders in two weeks may mark a new trend in the country's drug war, an official said Monday: drug lords surrendering without a fight when surrounded.
Drug lords – once notorious for dying in a blaze of bullets – have started surrendering, said Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Jose Luis Vergara. The capture of the rivals also may help allay suspicions that the government hits one gang while leaving its rivals alone.
"The criminals are no longer putting up resistance" when surrounded, Vergara said, referring to Sunday's arrest of Sergio Villarreal Barragan, a leader of the Beltran-Leyva drug cartel.
Villarreal was taken by about 30 Mexican marines without a shot fired in a raid at a house in the central state of Puebla on Sunday. That came a little over two weeks after the Aug. 30 arrest of his rival, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a U.S.-born trafficker known as "La Barbie," who also gave up when stopped by police.
"I think it is a sensible attitude on their part not to resist," Vergara said, referring to two previous capos – Arturo Beltran Leyva and Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel – who died while trying to fight off marines and soldiers.
"I think the case of 'Nacho' Coronel was a watershed. I think that the drug gangs now know very well the federal government has the superior force needed to arrest them, and that is why they are not putting up resistance," Vergara said at a news conference in which Villarreal Barragan was presented before the cameras.
The unsmiling Villarreal Barragan towered over marines flanking him, living up to his nickname "El Grande," or "the Big One." Vergara said he was also known "King Kong" and "The Child Eater," for reasons that are not clear.
He appears on an Attorney General's Office list of Mexico's most-wanted drug traffickers, with a reward of just over $2 million, and he faces at least seven formal investigations into alleged drug trafficking and organized crime. He is considered the second-in-command to Hector Beltran Leyva, who leads the cartel following the death of his brother Arturo.
Villarreal Barragan and Valdez Villarreal – who are not related – were bitter enemies, whose dispute led to bloodshed across the southern state of Morelos and Guerrero as they fought for territory.
In April, a policeman and five other people – including a mother and her 8-year-old child – were killed in the crossfire of a shootout between the two gangs on the main boulevard of the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco. And last week, authorities discovered 13 bodies in a clandestine grave in Morelos state, believed to be victims of the feud.
While the federal anti-drug offensive launched in late 2006 has hit all of the major cartels, suspicions have long lingered that the government may be hitting some gangs harder than others, either because a single dominant cartel might cause less violence than two warring ones, or that some officials protected specific gangs.
But seldom have leaders of two rival drug gangs been arrested with days of one another.
"The timing is very close," said former top chief anti-drug prosecutor Samuel Gonzalez. But Gonzalez stressed that, while the two were rivals, "they come from the same lineage" in the Beltran Leyva cartel.
Valdez Villarreal split from the cartel following its leader's death, and officials said he had supplied important information after his arrest, but Vergara said that Villarreal Barragan's arrest was due to a 10-month investigation – with no relation to the detention of his rival.
Both factions are now "very weakened," Vergara said.
But other cartels – like the Zetas gang or the La Familia cartel – could be poised to move in on the territory the two arrested capos were fighting over. Vergara said the territory stretches from Mexico City to the Pacific coast, along with some northern enclaves.
Nor are the cartels likely to give up while they still have weaponry and room to move. On Sunday, federal police reported they had found 90 hand grenades, 29 rifles and about 58,000 rounds of ammunition at a a suspected drug cartel safe house in the northern Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas.
More than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched the offensive against drug cartels soon after taking office in 2006.