The Arizona Republic
MEXICO CITY - Mexico braced itself Thursday for revenge killings and a possible drug-turf war along the Arizona-Sonora border, a day after Mexican marines stormed an apartment complex and killed one of the country's most-wanted drug kingpins.
The death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva is seen as a major victory for the Mexican government, which has been fighting an increasingly bloody war against drug cartels since December 2006. But his death could also create a leadership struggle and reignite a battle for control of valuable drug routes in northwestern Mexico, experts said.
"This is a spectacular strike for the government, no doubt about it," said Gerardo López Cervantes, an expert on drug cartels at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "But when they kill one chief, two or three new ones always spring up."
On Wednesday night, 200 Mexican marines raided an exclusive housing enclave in the central city of Cuernavaca and were met with a hail of bullets and grenades. Beltrán Leyva, six of his bodyguards, and a marine were killed in the ensuing firefight in the apartment complex.
In Arizona, state Attorney General Terry Goddard called it proof that Mexico's moves against drug gangs "are succeeding and destabilizing the cartels at even the highest levels of power."
Beth Kempshall, special agent in charge of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona, said the flow of drugs could decline as Beltrán Leyva's gang struggles to sort out its chain of command and re-establish contacts with Colombian cocaine suppliers.
But there were also fears of more violence. Mexico's attorney general, Arturo Chávez, warned Thursday the killing could trigger a leadership struggle. And Kempshall predicted a flare-up of violence on the Mexican side of the Arizona-Sonora border, where the Beltrán Leyva gang has competed for drug routes in the past.
"It could be possible (that violence will rise) as the cartels are trying to get control," Kempshall said. "But this is also a sign of progress ... because when things aren't normal, they lash out."
Kempshall said DEA intelligence helped Mexico track down Beltrán Leyva.
The Beltrán Leyva Organization used to be part of the Sinaloa Cartel that operates drug routes through northwestern Mexico and into Arizona, according to a May report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
In January 2008, the army arrested the gang's then-leader, Arturo's brother Alfredo Beltrán Leyva. Arturo Beltrán Leyva blamed the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel for betraying his brother.
A wave of revenge killings followed as the two sides fought over drug routes and Arturo Beltrán Leyva forged new alliances with two other gangs, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. State Department.
The turf wars seemed to have ended in an uneasy truce toward the end of 2008, said Scott Stewart, vice president of Stratfor, a global intelligence consulting firm based in Austin, Texas.
"There had been an understanding, or an impasse, at this point," Stewart said. "But it is entirely possible that if this (killing) creates a leadership vacuum, that Sinaloa will make a grab."
In the last year, Beltrán Leyva had also carved out a corridor for Colombian cocaine shipments through the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero, putting it at odds with the La Familia Michoacana, a rising drug gang in neighboring Michoacán state, Stewart said.
In recent weeks, several alleged La Familia members were found dead with notes signed "The Boss of Bosses" - one of Beltrán Leyva's nicknames.
Another Beltrán Leyva brother, Héctor, may take over the gang, or it could become folded into the Zetas, which are eagerly expanding their territory, Stewart said.
Despite U.S. and Mexican claims that they have struck a serious blow, any disruption of the drug flow is unlikely to last for long, said Oscar Martínez, a historian at the University of Arizona who has studied trafficking on the border.
"In the big picture, these things don't make much difference," Martínez said. "There may be disruptions in the operations, but pretty soon things return to normal. What needs to happen is U.S. consumers need to stop using drugs."