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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

South Texan May be the Next Drug King


Edgar Valdez Villarreal: Went to Laredo United.

Laredo, Texas — In Mexico, they call him “El Tigrillo,” a kind of wildcat, and sing his praises, ranking him among those of the country's top drug lords.

In Texas, he played high school football, and a coach nicknamed him “Barbie” because of his light hair and eyes.

Over the past 20 years, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a 36-year-old U.S. citizen born in South Texas, has gone from high school jock to potential Mexican drug cartel boss — perhaps the only U.S. citizen to do so.

Valdez Villarreal was a “Siamese twin” of cartel boss Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who was killed in December, said Wendell Campbell, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Houston.

Beltrán Leyva ran his own cartel with his brother as second in command, but Valdez Villarreal was his right-hand man, a chief enforcer who traveled everywhere with the cartel boss.

Beltrán Leyva “trusted him like a brother,” Campbell said.

The house in Laredo that Edgar Valdez Villarreal lived in while he attended high school.

If Valdez Villarreal takes the reins left dangling after Beltrán Leyva's death, it's likely he will renew his feud with Gulf Cartel bosses on the Texas-Mexico border, Campbell said.

Such a feud would escalate the border violence that left at least 400 dead in Nuevo Laredo alone and decimated that city's tourism industry as people stopped visiting for fear of their lives.

The last round of violence was sparked partly by Valdez Villarreal, according to the DEA, as he helped wage a war against the Gulf Cartel from 2004 to 2006 in the northern Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, both of which share a border with Texas.

“I would think he would challenge (the Gulf Cartel),” Campbell said. “That would be his home turf.”

It's still unclear who will succeed Beltrán Leyva, Campbell said.

A significant portion of the cartel's members will support Héctor Beltrán Leyva, the only one of four brothers who hasn't been killed or captured. Others could align themselves with Valdez Villarreal.

Even the competing organizations — the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels — will try to influence the future of the Beltrán Leyva organization, either by expressing support for a specific candidate or trying to install one of their own.

But Campbell said not to discount Valdez Villarreal, to whom the slain cartel boss was a friend and mentor.

“I think it's a possibility that he could be the successor,” Campbell said.

Valdez Villarreal is a wanted man on both sides of the border. He's under indictment in Texas and Louisiana on charges of drug trafficking. The Mexican government is offering a reward of 30 million pesos, about $2.3 million, for information leading to Valdez Villarreal's arrest, and the U.S. State Department is offering $2 million.

He's the only U.S. citizen on the State Department's list of Mexican targets in its narcotics rewards program.

In fact, Valdez Villarreal is the only U.S. citizen the DEA knows about who has climbed to a second-tier position in a Mexican drug-trafficking organization, Campbell said. U.S.-born narcos populate the cartels' lower ranks, but Valdez Villarreal's rise to the top would be unprecedented.

From jock to narco

Valdez Villarreal was born in Laredo and played football at United High School on the city's affluent North Side, across town from the middle-class neighborhood where he grew up. One of his high school coaches remembered Valdez Villarreal as a hard-hitting inside linebacker who played in the varsity football team's 5-2 and 4-3 defense.

“I really don't know what he's done,” said former United High School coach Arturo Contreras. “He's a hell of a football player, that's about it.”

Valdez Villarreal's family members now live in a ritzy subdivision on Laredo's north side. They didn't respond to an interview request made through a family friend.

Valdez Villarreal is practically a celebrity in Laredo. Middle-class Laredoans who remember him from high school claim to have dated his sisters and to have recently seen him partying in Nuevo Laredo bars.

But it was Valdez Villarreal's war with the Gulf Cartel, U.S. authorities allege, that racked Nuevo Laredo with violence and created an atmosphere where many in Laredo now are afraid to cross the Rio Grande to eat, drink and shop despite three years of relative quiet. They're also afraid to talk openly about him.

Despite his celebrity and the bragging rights that come with having known him, few felt comfortable speaking on the record for this article.

A former high school teammate who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “I would never in a million years have thought he would get to where he's at.” He said that Valdez Villarreal was “kind of like a joker” who was “never really too serious.”

But Valdez Villarreal's life took a serious turn in spring 1992, near the end of his senior year. He was arrested May 29 that year on charges of criminally negligent homicide, according to court records.

According to a Laredo Morning Times report, police said Valdez Villarreal was speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road when his pickup collided with a car driven by a middle school counselor, killing the educator. A grand jury declined to indict Valdez Villarreal.

Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said he first encountered Valdez Villarreal while he was working for the Texas Department of Public Safety in the early 1990s. Cuellar was running an undercover sting and tried to sell 300 pounds of marijuana to Valdez Villarreal, then a low-level drug smuggler who recently had moved on from trafficking stolen automobiles.

The deal fell through, and it was years before Cuellar heard again about the man, who in Laredo is known simply as “La Barbie.”

When Valdez Villarreal showed up on Cuellar's radar again, he said, it was in the early 2000s after Valdez Villarreal became a major player in Beltrán Leyva's organization, then part of the Sinaloa Cartel.

“Basically, Barbie was in charge of distribution and transportation (of drugs) and picking up money and bringing it back down south,” Cuellar said.

The Beltrán Leyva brothers grew up in Culiacán, in the western Mexico state of Sinaloa. Their family has trafficked contraband for generations, DEA's Campbell said. Arturo Beltrán Leyva got his start in the 1980s, joining the Sinaloa Cartel.

In 1993, Sinaloa boss, and Mexico's most famous narco, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, went to prison in Mexico. It was that year that Beltrán Leyva became a major player in the organization, Campbell said.

Meanwhile, he said, Valdez Villarreal was having problems at home. In the early 2000s he had a conflict with the Gulf Cartel and fled Nuevo Laredo, said Campbell, who could not give more details about the falling out.

Valdez Villarreal landed in Monterrey, a major manufacturing center about 150 miles south of Laredo. Many of the nearly 10,000 commercial trucks that cross the border over Laredo's bridges every day are going to or coming from Monterrey. It was there the smooth-talking and ruthless Valdez Villarreal fell in with Beltrán Leyva, Campbell said.

“His charisma, his personality, the way he held himself probably put him in the good graces of the cartel leaders,” Campbell said.

Leader in a turf war

Valdez Villarreal joined Beltrán Leyva during a period of turmoil in Mexico's underworld. In 2001, Guzmán escaped from a Mexican prison. In 2003, Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was arrested in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville.

Guzmán began his war that year against the Gulf Cartel, Campbell said. The goal was to grab Gulf-held territory in northern Mexico. Leading the effort was Arturo Beltrán Leyva.

Valdez Villarreal was in charge of prosecuting the war in cities along the Rio Grande. Opposing him were the Gulf Cartel's enforcers, the Zetas.

Valdez Villarreal has gained notoriety for his exploits as a fighter and as a businessman. He's the subject of a narcocorrido, a ballad extolling his virtues as a drug trafficker accompanied by an Internet video featuring pictures of severed heads, drugs, guns and scantily clad women. The song brags about Valdez Villarreal's intelligence and says he's like a son to Beltrán Leyva.

In 2005 and 2006, Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 500,000, racked up nearly 200 murders a year. During that same time across the border, Laredo police arrested and secured convictions against 17 hit men for the Gulf Cartel and 10 hit men for the Sinaloa Cartel.

The conflict mostly came to a halt by 2008 when Beltrán Leyva formed a truce with the Zetas.

Since then, the homicide rate in Nuevo Laredo has fallen more than 80 percent. Laredo's homicide rate has been cut in half to 11 murders in 2008, down from 24 two years earlier.

The Sinaloa Cartel had a bad year in 2008. Mexican authorities arrested Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, one of Arturo's brothers, in January in Culiacán. In May, gunmen killed Guzmán's son, Edgar, also in Culiacán.

The Beltrán Leyva organization split that year from the Sinaloa Cartel, Campbell said. The brothers realigned themselves with their former enemies the Zetas to protect their drug-trafficking routes from Guzmán's enforcers.

Bad blood

There's still no love lost between the Zetas and Valdez Villarreal, Cuellar said.

The Zetas' second in command, a Nuevo Laredo native named Miguel Treviño Morales, lost a brother during the fighting in that city and blames Valdez Villarreal, he said.

The pressure on Beltrán Leyva's organization hasn't let up. In early December, the U.S. Treasury Department moved to freeze assets of 10 companies it tied to the Beltrán Leyva organization. Then, on Dec. 11, Beltrán Leyva and Valdez Villarreal narrowly escaped capture by the Mexican government at a party in the central state of Morelos, according to reports in Mexican news media.

Five days later, Mexican commandos tracked Beltrán Leyva to an apartment in the city of Cuernavaca and gunned him down.

Retribution from the drug traffickers was swift. Within hours of the burial of the only commando who died in the raid that killed Beltrán Leyva, gunmen killed the commando's mother, aunt, brother and sister.

The Mexican government continued to apply pressure, and on Dec. 30, authorities arrested another Beltrán Leyva brother, Carlos, in Culiacán.

In the wake of Beltrán Leyva's death, narcomantas, hand-made banners cartel members hang in public places, have been displayed in central Mexico that both express support for and attack Valdez Villarreal. Mexican news media have reported a rumor that Valdez Villarreal sold out his former boss.

Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Austin-based global intelligence company Stratfor, said the allegations that Valdez Villarreal gave up Beltrán Leyva likely were manufactured by the Mexican government to drive a wedge between cartel leaders.

“It's good if you can create factions and exploit them,” he said.

It will be difficult for Valdez Villarreal to assume command of the organization, Stewart said. Héctor Beltrán Leyva handled the organization's finances and is a logical successor.

What happens next is up in the air, DEA's Campbell said. Any number of scenarios could play out, including Valdez Villarreal returning to the Sinaloa Cartel; stepping aside and letting Héctor Beltrán Leyva assume control; or taking the organization for his own.

“I think it is interesting, though, that La Barbie had the enforcer end of the house, so to speak,” Campbell said. “I think he's probably got some good guns on his side right now.”

In a world populated by figures who can be gregarious one minute and cold-blooded the next, it's Valdez Villarreal's U.S. citizenship that makes him stand out among the narco bosses.

“It just shows the guy is obviously very bright,” Stewart said. “I mean, he's psychotic, but he also seems to be very bright, and that's why he rose so quickly in the hierarchy of the cartels.”

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