In the Borderland Beat from the Rio Grande to Mexico's Valley of the Beheaded, there is no shortage of stories about "La Barbie," the top-level drug trafficker born in Laredo and arrested Monday in Mexico.
In the U.S., when the police want to display a suspect for journalists and the wider public, they commonly do a "perp walk," showing off the alleged perpetrator as they walk him to the vehicle transporting him to and from jail.
But nit in Mexico, this week masked police paraded a handcuffed Edgar Valdez Villarreal before reporters. Wearing a green polo shirt and jeans, the man nicknamed "La Barbie" for his fair complexion grinned openly as officials discussed his capture near Mexico City on Monday.
In Mexico, like many other places in the world, police and prosecutors put the captured alleged bad guy on display in a set piece that often features masked police officers or members of the military who in a show of force flank the now hapless and powerless suspect.
Mexico paraded one of its most violent drug lords on Tuesday after a police raid that President Felipe Calderon's government hopes will mark a breakthrough in its campaign against powerful cartels.
Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said the capture of Valdez-Villarreal came after a yearlong hunt that involved as many as 1,200 law enforcement officers.
Mexican authorities had been closing in La Barbie's allies in recent weeks. On July 10, marines raided a house in Acapulco and captured Gamaliel Aguirre Tavira, suspected regional chief of the Valdez faction.
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.
By last 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 a shot being fired.
The special unit that conducted the operation is “highly qualified to enter in various types of terrain, as well as in the use of all kinds of weapons,” thanks to extensive training both in Mexico and abroad, Rosas said.
Police confiscated two rifles, a grenade-launcher, nine packets of cocaine, computer and communications equipment and three vehicles.
Calderon confirmed the arrest in a short message on Twitter: "Federal police trapped 'La Barbie,' one of the most wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad." Government officials seemed to be seeking to regain support by offering abundant details about Valdez-Villarreal's background and capture.
"This is an extraordinary achievement," Felipe Gonzalez, head of the Senate commission on public security, told Foro TV. "There was an air around this guy that he was untouchable, that he would never be caught."
The arrest is certain to give Calderon, who faces sagging public support, a boost in his campaign to confront drug traffickers, even at great human cost. So yes, the capture of Valdez-Villarreal does give the president Calderon a boost 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. But the effort has produced some results, Valdez-Villarreal is the third top drug lord to be arrested or killed in nine months.
Less than a month ago, law enforcement agents in Guadalajara killed Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a drug lord in the Sinaloa Cartel who was considered the "king of ice," or crystal methamphetamine.
Certainly this arrest dealt "a high impact blow to organized crime," said Alejandro Poire, a spokesman for Calderon's national security team. Poire said Valdez-Villarreal had ties to gangs operating in the United States, Central and South America.
But the capture of Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, a Texas-born 37-year-old, may do little to halt the flow of drugs into the United States or staunch bloodshed in Mexico's most violent areas, many of them along the U.S. border.
It is unusual for an American to climb so high in the ranks of Mexican organized crime, but not unprecedented.
Texas-born Juan Garcia Abrego was captured in Mexico in the 1990s and sent to Houston, where he was convicted of drug-trafficking crimes as the head of the Gulf Cartel. He is now serving multiple life sentences.
"The operation that resulted in the arrest of la Barbie closes a chapter in drug trafficking in Mexico," senior federal police official Facundo Rosas told local television. Six other men, including another Texan, were arrested with Valdez, and police found weapons, SUVs, cocaine and cellphones at a safe house guarded by cartel gunmen.
But it's too early to celebrate, while La Barbie is now in custody, we've seen this movie before. His arrest has clearly left an opening for others to become the new kingpins.
While the United States congratulated Mexico on the arrest, officials in Washington declined to say whether they would push for Valdez, born in Laredo, Texas, to be sent to face trial in U.S. courts where he has been indicted for drug trafficking. The U.S. government had offered a reward of up to $2 million for his capture.
The El Universal newspaper reported Tuesday that Valdez-Villarreal has "one foot on a plane bound for the United States" to stand trial.
A federal indictment unsealed in Atlanta in June charged that Valdez-Villarreal, a U.S. citizen, imported tons of cocaine by tractor-trailer across the border at Laredo, Texas, and into the eastern United States between 2004 and 2006.
Valdez's Houston lawyer Kent Schaffer said his client has plenty of enemies in Mexico.
"I think he'd be much safer in an American facility," Schaffer said.
Valdez showed no signs of ill treatment and had the chance to answer reporters' questions, but declined to do so without saying a word, according to video posted on the Web by the Mexican government. But later on Valdez would be allowed to be questioned by a reported and the video was posted on the internet within minutes (see video at the end).
He is in a maximum-security prison and it remains to be seen whether he'll be tried in Mexico for charges or be shipped to the United States to face trial.
Schaffer said he was told the U.S. ambassador to Mexico requested that Valdez be returned to the United States, but officials would not confirm that.
"What will happen, I have no clue," Schaffer said. "It sort of makes sense to have the Americans deal with the case."
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."
Valdez-Villarreal got his start in the Sinaloa Cartel under Mexico’s most wanted drug lord El Chapo. When his immediate boss, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, broke away two years ago, Valdez-Villarreal went along to help him establish his own drug organization.
Beltran-Leyva was killed in a shootout with Mexican marines last December, and Valdez-Villareal sought to take over the group.
Just last weekend further evidence emerged of the brutal struggle between La Barbie's gang and followers of Hector Beltran-Leyva, brother of the slain drug chieftain, for control of the criminal organization.
Henchmen strung up the decapitated bodies of four men from a bridge Sunday in Cuernavaca, a weekend getaway near Mexico City. Hector Beltran-Leyva's faction left a sign with the bodies.
"This is what will happen to all those who support the traitor Edgar Valdez-Villarreal," the sign said.
"His greed and wanton disregard for human life led to his downfall," said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Yet the arrest is unlikely to end the bloodshed that presents a growing image problem for Mexico as it struggles out of recession and seeks to hold on to tourist revenues.
Meanwhile 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.
The Rise of a Tejas Capo
Was Edgar Valdez Villarreal really a star high school football player or just an average guy whose coach nicknamed him La Barbie for his light eyes and fair-haired complexion that set him apart in the Texas border town?
And how did an American who got his start selling dime bags of marijuana have the connections to go on to lead a team of assassins, let alone climb to the summit of Mexico's criminal underworld?
"There is a lot of speculation as to what relationships he had and what relationships led up to where he is now," said Laredo police spokesman Jose Baeza. "He was able to do enough to gain the trust. There is something to be said, that he is an American-born person who reached that rank."
Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, a commissioner with Mexico's federal police, offered a resume of Valdez's criminal life.
He contends Valdez was first arrested on marijuana charges in Missouri nearly 20 years ago. While he was briefly in custody in Mexico City years later, he met Arturo Beltran Leyva, who became his narco godfather.
Valdez was later tasked with going to war with the Gulf Cartel along the border in Nuevo Laredo for control of lucrative smuggling routes into Texas. He led a team known as The Blacks, a squad that enforced the orders of cartel boss Beltran Leyva.
The fighting tore apart the every region where Valdez grew up, and the city of Nuevo Laredo has yet to recover.
He later became the chief of security for Beltran Leyva, and was among the inner circle in 2007 during a peace meeting of the leadership of each of Mexico's major cartels, according to Pequeno.
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.
The world apparently began to come apart for Valdez last December when Arturo Beltran was killed in a gun battle with the Mexican military. Some suspect Valdez Villareal betrayed his boss to the authorities. Valdez ended up not only fighting Beltran's surviving brother, but also Mexican federal agents as well as his long-time crime rivals.
“La Barbie,” however, launched his own bid for control of the gang, sparking another round of bloodletting in Guerrero and Morelos.
“What’s left of the Beltran Leyva cartel is being destroyed,” journalist and drug-war chronicler Jose Reveles said after the arrest of Valdez Villareal.
Even so, Reveles said, “a capo like ‘La Barbie’ is not necessarily the only one, there could be lieutenants waiting for an opportunity.”
Valdez is nearly a celebrity of sorts in parts of Laredo as well as Mexico. Some Boderland Beat readers have even praised him during comments about his capture and e-mails to our reporters. People tell stories about running into him in a bar. Or dating his sister.
Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal is shown to the press during a news conference at the federal police center August 31, 2010 in Mexico City, Mexico. Valdez, a Texas-born drug smuggler and leader in the Beltran Leyva cartel, was captured Monday by Mexican authorities in a residential area near Mexico City.
Officials say Valdez, as a leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel based in central Mexico, trafficked a ton of cocaine each month and was responsible for "several dozen" murders.
He is believed to be behind merciless beheadings of rivals, torture and mutilation of victims, and the slaughter of the family of a marine who took part in the killing of his former boss Arturo Beltran Leyva in December.
Among his drug gangster rivals, he was widely despised, known for viciously ordering the decapitation of his enemies.
Messages to him have been carved into bodies and painted on sheets and hung near the mutilated corpses of his soldiers.
"You'll have to find another lover. I've killed this one for you," read a placard for Valdez that was recently left with three men hanging from a bridge.
But Valdez's operations were small compared to Mexico's top gangs -- the Sinaloa, Gulf and Juarez cartels -- which smuggle the majority of the 140 tons of cocaine the United Nations estimates that Mexico exports to the United States every year.
Neither is the arrest likely to end violence in border areas like Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, or in Mexico's wealthy northern city of Monterrey, which is being sucked into the drug war with spiraling violence this year.
"Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey were not La Barbie's area of influence, his capture won't affect violence there," said a senior federal police official who declined to be named, echoing another security official interviewed by Reuters.
Valdez-Villarreal and his gang operated mainly in the Mexican states of Morelos, Guerrero, Mexico and Sinaloa, and were involved not only in drug trafficking but also money laundering, extortion and car theft.
Violence has begun to bleed beyond traffickers and security forces as cartels target mayors and migrants traveling north.
While the government hopes the capture will weaken Mexican cartels, such operations in the past have at times intensified bloodshed at least temporarily as subordinates battle for control of gangs believed to rake in up to $40 billion a year.
"The investigation has not been concluded ... and at this stage it is not clear who could replace him," Rosas said.
Valdez had been a top contender to head the Beltran Leyva cartel since its boss was killed by soldiers in December.
Born into a middle-class family, Valdez is said to have played American football at school and developed a taste for luxury before coming to Mexico to work in the drug trade.
Reuters. NPR, Chron, McClathy