While "El Teo" Teodoro Garcia Simental was the fourth major trafficking suspect to be apprehended or killed since President Felipe Calderon launched a major offensive three years ago, 20 more high-profile drug lords - including billionaire Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the leader of the vast Sinloa Cartel - remain at large.
And the vacuum created by Garcia's arrest Tuesday in Baja California is expected to fuel even more violence.
"I know that politicians are making a big deal about this arrest, but honestly there is a line of ill-intentioned people waiting to take the place of that man," said Dulce Gonzalez Armendez, a 25-year-old receptionist in Tijuana. "Not only do I believe this will not bring peace to Baja California, but I also think things will get even worse."
Oscar J. Martinez, a history professor at the University of Arizona who studies the cartels, agreed.
"It will just create more violence, mayhem and suffering for ordinary people as his associates retaliate and rival gangs take advantage of perceived weaknesses in the camps of competitors," he said.
The transformation of Ciudad Juarez into one of the world's most dangerous cities began with a fight between cartels. Guzman and Juarez Cartel boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes launched a deeply personal fight over drug routes their organizations had long shared. They have adopted increasingly brutal tactics, leading to more than 2,500 deaths last year in the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
Garcia started as an errand boy in the drug trade in the 1990s and slowly worked his way up the ranks before he made a power play two years ago to take control of Tijuana's drug trade. He broke off from Tijuana's faltering Arellano-Felix cartel, sparking a brutal street war with his main rival, Fernando Sanchez Arellano.
Beyond the expected escalation in violence, the government's crackdown has not begun to touch the financial and intellectual structures of Mexico's drug gangs, including the corrupt politicians and businessmen who launder billions in drug profits, said Victor Clark, who runs the Binational Center for Human Rights from a cinderblock apartment building near downtown Tijuana.
Still, the enhanced surveillance techniques and shared intelligence between Mexico and the U.S. that have helped authorities infiltrate the operations are seen as instrumental in the effort to bring the cartels to their knees.
Carlos Bletran Leyva
The coordination was cited in the Dec. 16 raid in Cuernavaca that led to the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva. The cartel controlled by Leyva's family, centered in northwestern Mexico across the border from Arizona, has taken the hardest recent hits.
On Dec. 30, Carlos Beltran Leyva, Arturo's brother, was captured by federal police in Culiacan. Another brother, Alfredo Beltran Levya was captured on Jan. 20, 2008, while a fourth, Hector Beltran Leyva, is still at large and believed to be the boss now.
Garcia was nabbed Tuesday when federal troops stormed a vacation home about 1,000 miles south of his Tijuana stronghold. He had become notorious, having eluded capture and horrified residents for years with violence they had never seen - beheadings, mutilated corpses and bodies dissolved in vats of lye.
Almost everyone in Tijuana had been touched - either directly or indirectly - by Garcia's reign of violence. Nearly 200 people were murdered in Tijuana since Dec. 1, many attributed to El Teo. News of his arrest was the talk of breakfast tables and offices Wednesday. Families called authorities, hoping for news of lost relatives assumed dead or kidnapped.
Children have become depressed and had difficulty eating and sleeping since El Teo's grip tightened over the past two years, said child psychologist Alejandra Ochoa. Her three children attend a school next to an empty lot where the bodies of 12 people, some with their tongues cut out, were found last year along with a note from Garcia claiming responsibility.
Now that he is in custody, Ochoa said she had mixed feelings.
"On the one hand it's good that he's fallen, on the other hand we have to live with the consequences," she said. "As citizens we do not feel safe."
Calderon, in a speech last week announcing his 2010 priorities, seemed to acknowledge that military and law enforcement might alone wasn't solving the problem. He said creating jobs and improving the economy have to accompany the hunt for cartel bosses if they want to end the terror. His government promised an influx of publicly funded social programs in Ciudad Juarez.
But picking off a top kingpin like "El Teo" at least gives the government a check in the win column.
The increased pressure is also prompting some would-be cartel bosses to refuse leadership positions, said Rafael Reyes, chief of the Mexican sector of Drug Enforcement Administration's office of global enforcement.
"They know the day that they decide to assume that leadership position is the day they have an X marked on their backs, and that's a challenge to that specific power base that these guys operated under," Reyes said.