A Borderland Beat post revisit especially informative for newbies and a good read for all, even if it is a re-read
On a warm morning in May a few years ago, Edgar Valdez, a drug lord who goes by the nickname La Barbie, woke up in one of the houses he owned in the resort city of Acapulco.
In the 1950s, this beautiful beach town was the premier haunt of American celebrities: Frank Sinatra used to prowl the hotel lounges, Elizabeth Taylor had her third of eight weddings here, and John F. Kennedy honeymooned on the coast with Jacqueline.
The glamour started to fade in the 1980s, but the city remained a popular vacation destination until a few years ago, when the Mexican cartels transformed Acapulco from a seaside paradise into one of the most violent flash points of the drug war.
As chief enforcer for the town's most powerful cartel, Barbie drove the celebrities away for good and made tourists nervous about straying too far into Acapulco when their cruise ships pulled into port. He felt bad about it, a little, but that is the way of the world, he thought – eat or be eaten.
Barbie has olive skin, but his nickname comes from his good looks and green eyes. He was known for his happy-go-lucky personality, though he could turn terrifying and bloodthirsty in an instant.
He preferred to dress like a sophisticated South American on holiday, favoring polo jerseys with an emblem of a horseman and a stick, the kind that real Argentine jockeys wear. In fact, the myth of Barbie looms so large in Mexico that his addiction to the shirts started what's known as the Narco Polo trend, with working-class Mexicans clamoring to buy knockoff versions in street stalls.
But his fashion sensibility wasn't the only thing that distinguished Barbie from other Mexican drug lords: He was also a gringo, a middle-class suburban jock who was born and raised in Texas.
He is the only U.S. citizen known to have risen to the top of a Mexican cartel, and the only American on the State Department's list of targeted drug lords. (The U.S. government offered $2 million for information that would lead to his arrest.)
Most of the drugs went to Memphis and Atlanta, where Barbie is believed to have been the main supplier for several violent networks, including one run by the half brother of DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia.
In the lawless world of the cartels, that kind of money made Barbie a prime target. On this morning in Acapulco, he decided to eliminate the most immediate threat he faced.
When one of the assassins stopped in the town plaza to buy a phone card to call his sister, Barbie's men punched him in the gut and hustled him into a waiting SUV. To their surprise, however, the hit man had brought along his wife and two-year-old stepdaughter, figuring he might as well enjoy a family vacation while he was waiting to kill Barbie. Caught off guard, Barbie's men hustled them into another SUV, covering their faces with towels so they couldn't see.
The hit man and his family were taken to a house surrounded by an electric fence on the outskirts of Acapulco. According to testimony, Barbie's would-be assassin was then escorted to a bedroom upstairs, where he and his three Zeta accomplices were tied up and ordered to sit on top of a bunch of black garbage bags, which had been taped together to create a large tarp.
With the camera on, he began interrogating the men, asking them where they came from and what kind of work they did for the Zetas. "I have the contacts in the army to find out about the patrols," one confessed.
"I am a recruiter for the Zetas," said another. "I worked as a 'hawk,'" said the third, adding that after he had kidnapped someone, his boss would tell him whether "they were going to take him to el guiso or not."
"What is el guiso?" asked Barbie.
"It's when they grab someone, they get information about moving drugs or money, they get what they want, and then, after torturing him, they execute him," the hit man said.
"They take him to a ranch or one of those places, they shoot him in the head, they throw him in a can, and they burn him with different fuels like diesel and gasoline."
The words came spilling forth. As Barbie questioned them, the men told detailed stories about kidnapping rivals, killing reporters, burying people's daughters. They must have thought they were going to get some concessions for divulging so many secrets. But Barbie had other plans. He raised his gun. "And you, buddy?" he asked the fourth hit man.
The man never got a chance to answer. Suddenly, a gun entered the frame and blew the guy's head off.
The hit man's wife and stepdaughter were kept in the house overnight. The next morning, Barbie's men, whom he taught to be merciful to women, gave the little girl a bowl of cereal with a banana and let her swim in the pool out back.
Barbie believed in vengeance, and in taking care of his enemies. Over his 15 years in the drug trade, he had managed to alienate the leaders of almost every major cartel in Mexico: the Zetas, the Gulf cartel, even the Sinaloa and Beltrán-Leyva cartels he worked for.
"He could have set the Guinness World Record for people who wanted to kill him."
Yet Barbie remained chillingly detached, unable to see the connection between his personal savagery and the way his own family and friends came to fear him.
"Even with all the bad things he's done, Barbie always thought the world looked on him kindly," says a law-enforcement source familiar with Barbie.
"He's just one of those blithe-living guys who thinks his life is charmed."
Like many Texans, Barbie grew up right across the border from Mexico, in the city of Laredo. The place feels like something from a Mexican postcard, with cobblestone plazas and picturesque waterfalls – except for the massive, multilane bridge to Mexico that cuts straight through town.
Until the drug war, everyone in Laredo saw the two sides of the border as one; many families, after all, had blood ties in both Mexico and the States.
As a kid, Barbie loved to visit Nuevo Laredo, a border town bustling with donkeys, food carts, girls in little embroidered dresses, shoeshine boys and the smell of roasting corn. It was like stepping into another world, and all you had to do was cross the bridge.
In high school, Barbie was in the popular crowd, horsing around in the breezeways outside of class and waging egg wars after school. On weekends, he went to keggers on ranches, played elaborate scavenger games and hung out with his steady sweetheart, Virginia Perez, a bubbly, blue-eyed blonde.
He grew up in a middle-class development on the outskirts of Laredo, a kind of no man's land where Burger Kings didn't begin to sprout up until the Nineties.
Even the people of Laredo considered it "Indian territory," an area rife with dope and illegal immigrants. Barbie's parents raised him and his five siblings in a tidy, orange-trimmed home with palm trees in the front. "They're regular Ozzie and Harriets," says Jose Baeza, a spokesman for the Laredo police department. "They're business owners, PTA, morning-jog people."
At school, Barbie was an inside linebacker on the football team in a year when the United Longhorns won the district championship. He was a solid player, getting a sack or two a game, but he was never a star.
His nickname came from his coach. "We called him Ken Doll, mostly because his hair was blond and kinky like the doll's," says a friend from that time.
"Then the coach upped the ante to Barbie, and it took off like wildfire." Barbie took the teasing in stride. "He was a joker with a good sense of humor, walking around in his jockstrap and snapping his towel," recalls a teammate.
When he got an infection his senior year and had to be circumcised, he showed it off in the locker room, telling everyone, "Hey, look, guys, I got my turkey neck cut off."
Barbie never sold drugs in high school, according to friends, but he and his buddies engaged in a common teenage exploit in Laredo: roping cows in the middle of the night, loading them onto trailers and selling them to the highest bidder.
One night, two months before graduation, he collided with another car. The other driver, a middle-school guidance counselor, died instantly. Barbie faced trial for criminally negligent homicide but was cleared of all charges.
"I don't know how it affected him," recalls a friend. "The weird thing is that right away, Edgar came back to football practice, and he seemed exactly like the same guy, just horsing around."
When Barbie graduated from high school soon after, his dad pushed him to go to college. But Barbie, who was a terrible student, decided to pursue a more lucrative career path – one that didn't involve hitting the books.
Before long he was hanging out at border nightclubs, being flashy with his cash. "One night at Sombrero's bar in Nuevo Laredo, the bartender told me that el güero" – a white guy – "wanted to send over some bottles of alcohol," says a friend from high school.
By age 20, Barbie was deeply involved in drug dealing. Laredo is the biggest commercial land crossing on the Mexican border, and customs agents can check only a small fraction of the 8,000 trucks that pass through the town every day. Barbie knew that if he could smuggle pot from Mexico in his truck, the resale price would instantly skyrocket.
He started out bringing in small quantities, just to pocket a little extra spending money. But once he realized how much there was to be made, he and a friend began smuggling as much as 150 pounds of pot over the border at a time. Eventually, they expanded into cocaine, making their initial sales by FedExing the drugs to midlevel traffickers in Louisville and Memphis.
The year Barbie turned 21, his family's fortunes took an unexpected turn when one of his sisters won $1 million in the Texas Lottery. The Valdezes began making plans to move to the ritzy part of town, and Barbie married Virginia, his high school girlfriend. But the sudden influx of cash did nothing to stem his drug dealing. He had a good eye for deals – and, even more important, for when to walk away.
"I met him at a Popeye's in town to do a deal for 300 pounds of marijuana," recalls Martin Cuellar, a sheriff in Laredo, who was working undercover at the time. "He seemed ready to work with me, but then he stopped answering his phone.
I guess he smelled something." Even when those close to him got busted, Barbie always seemed to elude jail. At one point, the cops captured a trafficker in Mexico who was supplying Barbie with cocaine. When they dug up the guy's backyard, they found the bodies of a missing Texas couple.
Finally, in 1998, Barbie's luck ran out. Police succeeded in planting an informant among Barbie's men, and he and a dozen members of his crew were indicted in Laredo for shipping at least 700 pounds of marijuana to San Antonio and 133 pounds to St. Louis.
Terrified, Barbie pursued the time-honored path for criminals on the lam: He fled across the border into Mexico. Instead of putting an end to his career as a drug dealer, the indictment inadvertently paved the way for his rise to the top of the Mexican cartels.
For a 25-year-old drug dealer on the run in the Nineties, Nuevo Laredo was an ideal spot to do business. The violence among the Mexican cartels had not yet exploded, and there were pockets along the border where the drug trade remained largely free from their influence.
Barbie was one of about 20 independent traffickers who worked under the eye of Dionisio Garcia, an established trafficker who sold them coke and required them to pay $60,000 a month as a piso, or tax, which was used to pay off corrupt border agents.
From the start, Barbie liked operating on his own. Over the next decade, he learned how to gather intelligence on the cops and other dealers through a network of "falcons" – a league of spies composed of cab drivers, waiters and street vendors.
But the calm along the border didn't last. Within a few years, the big cartels started warring for regional control, and Nuevo Laredo, one of the jewels of the trafficking trade, suddenly became too valuable to remain independent.
By 2002, the Zetas began to move into the area in allegiance with the Gulf cartel, which was run by Osiel Cardenas, better known by his nickname, the Friend Killer. Cardenas' first order of business was to get rid of Garcia, who was left to die a grisly death in his red underwear.
Then Cardenas took over and immediately jacked up the price of cocaine. "From now on," he told the independent suppliers, "you're going to buy coke from me, or you're going to pay me the tax."
Barbie was angry about the killing of Garcia, but all he could do was bide his time. It didn't take long for Cardenas to run afoul of the law: Within a year, he was captured by the Mexican army.