By Tracy Wilkinson,
Los Angeles Times
Mexican navy officers flank Mario Cardenas Guillen, also known as El Gordo, during his presentation to the media in Mexico City.
Mexico's U.S.-backed naval special forces have captured a man believed to be one of the two top leaders of the Gulf cartel, a drug-trafficking organization that once dominated the northeast border region but has recently engaged in devastating battles with the vicious Zeta paramilitary force, authorities said Tuesday.
Wearing an armored vest and his shirttail hanging out, the balding, chubby Cardenas mostly cast his eyes downward, occasionally glancing to the side.
Navy spokesman Vice Adm. Jose Luis Vergara said Cardenas was the brother of Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias Tony Tormenta, who was shot to death in a gunfight with Mexican marines in November 2010. They are brothers of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, a longtime boss of the Gulf cartel who was extradited to the United States in 2007. He entered a plea agreement in a Texas court in early 2010, receiving 25 years amid suspicion that he was cooperating with U.S. authorities.
Mario Cardenas was found with a small amount of weaponry, cocaine, money and communications equipment, Vergara said.
Mario Cardenas ran a number of drug-smuggling operations from prison beginning in 1995 until his release in 2007, Vergara said. When his brother was killed, Mario Cardenas took over. But by then, the Gulf cartel, under siege by its onetime ally the Zetas, had split. Part of the organization, instead of following Cardenas, went with another long-time cartel lieutenant, Eduardo Costilla, alias El Coss, who presumably stands today as the top capo.
Both branches of the Gulf cartel have waged brutal warfare with the Zetas over control of an ever-widening swath of Mexico, from Tamaulipas down the eastern coast through Veracruz state and into the once-tranquil, prosperous state of Nuevo Leon. By last year, the Zetas, formed originally as the Gulf cartel's armed wing, appeared to have gained the upper hand over their onetime bosses. Eventually, the Gulf cartel had to align itself with erstwhile enemy the Sinaloa cartel to be able to muster sufficient force against the Zetas.
Cardenas also faces charges in the United States, said Jose Luis Manjarrez, spokesman for the Mexican federal attorney general's office.
Mexican forces have either arrested or killed a number of important cartel leaders in the nearly six years since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against the powerful gangs. Most of those achievements have come in recent years as U.S. agencies increasingly made intelligence available to the Mexican army and, especially, the navy, which is viewed by American officials as more flexible and responsive.
But the loss of one commander often gives way to an even bloodier power struggle among potential successors. And Mexico's most-wanted kingpin, fugitive billionaire Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of the vast Sinaloa cartel, remains at large.