By George W. Grayson
President Felipe Calderón scored a hat trick recently with the elimination or arrest of three noteworthy drug-traffickers. On December 16, 2009 an elite unit of the Navy’s marines, fortified with intelligence from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the so called “chief of chiefs” (“jefe de los jefes”) near Cuernavaca in the Morelos state, 55 miles from Mexico City. On December 30, Federal Police apprehended Arturo’s low-key brother Carlos in Culiacán, Sinaloa; and on January 12, 2010, the military and Federal Police aided by DEA information, captured Teodoro “El Teo” García Simental, a former savage lieutenant of the Tijuana Cartel, who had launched his own band, in Baja California Sur.
This article addresses the Beltrán Leyva organization, also knows as the “ABLs,” concentrating on (1) its leaders, (2) its assets, (3) its prospects after Arturo’s death, and (4) recent changes in Mexico’s version of the “war on drugs.” In light of the Byzantine intrigues associated with the ABLs, the status of key actors appears at the end of this essay.
The parents of the Beltrán Leyvas produced eight children: Arturo (né Marcos), known as “Las Barbas” or ”The Beard,” in 1958 in Badiraguato, Sinaloa; Armida (1959), Mario Alberto “El General” (1960), Carlos (1962), Héctor “El H” or “El Ingeniero” (1965), Amberto (1966), Alfredo “El Mochomo” (1971), and Gloria (1972). Three of the brothers (presumably, Arturo, Alfredo, and Héctor) formed part of the 11-man inner sanctum of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Mexico’s top capo, chief of the Juárez Cartel, and the renowned “Lord of the Skies,” because he deployed Boeing 727s to ferry drugs to and from Colombia and other countries.
After Carrillo Fuentes died undergoing plastic surgery on July 4, 1997, a half-dozen ABLs (Arturo, Mario Alberto, Amberto, Carlos, Alfredo, and Héctor) gravitated to the Sinaloa Cartel headed by the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. Along with other narcos, they helped finance El Chapo’s escape, accomplished in a laundry cart, from La Puente Grande high-security prison on January 19, 2001.
Although the ABLs lived in the shadow of “El Chapo” and “El Mayo,” they worked with their fellow Sinaloans. The March 14, 2003 arrest of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, king pin of the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel, created a vacuum in the northeast. Arturo allegedly spearheaded a group of gangsters on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel to fight for trafficking corridors carved out by the weakened Gulf syndicate.
Meanwhile, the ABLs developed their own domains and hit men. For instance, in 2001, Arturo recruited as his top executioner and personal body guard Texas-born Édgar Váldez Vallarreal, known as “La Barbie” or “The Barbie Doll” because of his corn-flower blue eyes. Several years later, Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragán, a tall, venal ex-policeman in Coahuila state, left the Gulf Cartel to join the Beltrán Leyvas. Whatever the reason—competition, greed, or personal grudge—bad blood soured the La Barbie-El Grande relationship.
Two events illuminate the ABL-Sinaloa Cartel break in early 2008. The collapse of a tripartite airport swap may have impelled the first fissure. Shortly after Calderón’s inauguration on December 1, 2006, the Zambadas agreed to cede their dominance over drug smuggling and other illicit activities at the airport in Mexico City (Federal District—DF) to the ABLs in return for control of the Guanajuato, Jalisco, airport, then held by a Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, a potent Jalisco-based comrade of “El Chapo”; for his part, “Nacho” would assume command of the Monterrey airport from the ABLs.
El Mayo’s brother Jesús Reynaldo “El Rey” Zambada García had nurtured an effective and lucrative rapport with police, airline personnel, customs agents, and others whom he bribed to promote drug commerce and other criminality at the DF airport. After the takeover, the ABLs placed the mercurial, vicious “El Grande” Villarreal Barragán in charge of the giant facility. When an honest customs’ agent refused to release a large cocaine shipment to “El Grande,” he decapitated approximately ten of El Rey’s trusted contacts on December 12, 2007.
The ABLs used force and suborned federal and city police to preserve their hammerlock on the DF airport. Still, this gratuitous massacre collapsed the three-way scheme and may have incited the deadly feud between the ABLs and the Sinaloa Cartel. Arturo quickly banished “El Grande” to the ABLs’ bunker in Morelos, replacing him with “La Barbie.” The demotion of “El Grande” intensified his enmity towards “La Barbie.”
Next, the Beltrán Leyvas blamed Guzmán Loera for the arrest of Alfredo “El Mochomo” Beltrán Leyva on January 20, 2008. Nearly four months later, the ABLs exacted revenge by gunning down El Chapo’s 22-year-old son, Édgar Guzmán López, in the City Club supermarket parking lot in downtown Culiacán. The hitmen, who probably belonged to the 400-man “Special Forces of Arturo” (FEDA), used bazookas and high-powered firearms to execute not only Édgar, but also the son of Margarita “La Emperatriz” Cázares Salazar, the purported financial operator of Sinaloa Cartel heavy-weight “El Mayo” Zambada.
Héctor Beltrán Leyva, a financial guru and long considered the brains behind the scenes, has formally taken over the reins of the clan. While prepared to kill if necessary, he is a businessman who prefers to fatten his bank account by hammering out accords rather than waging combat. The previously obscure Amberto Beltrán Leyva may be playing a more prominent role in this organization.
No doubt the dynasty was disgusted by widely-circulated photographs of the slain Arturo with his pants down, his shirt rolled up revealing a hirsute, bulging belly—his corpse bathed in blood, dollar bills, and amulets. The Mexican government condemned these grisly pictures, which may have exacerbated the sharp surge in violence following Arturo’s death (Violence also shot up after the January 2010 capture of psychopathic killer “El Teo” García Simental). Upwards of 800 people, including 16 teenagers at a party in Ciudad Juárez on January 30, died during the first month of this year.
The ABLs’ assets include: (1) hegemony over drug and other illegal activities at airports in Mexico, Monterrey, Toluca, Cancún, and Acapulco; (2) hotels and restaurants, constructed to launder money, in Cancún, Acapulco, Cozumel, and other resorts; (3) a working agreement with Los Zetas, once the Praetorian Guard of the Gulf Cartel and now the country’s most barbaric and dangerous criminal outfit, as well as reign over “Los Pelones,” a team of executioners in Guerrero state; (4) supply corridors for moving marijuana, heroin, and methamphetimine from the Andes to the Arctic; (5) a large trove of cocaine, (6) capability to extort, launder money, run guns, smuggle humans, promote prostitution, and carry out kidnappings; (7) operations in the D.F, Chiapas, Guerrero Mexico State, Morelos, Nuevo León, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tamaulipas, as well as in the United States and Canada; and (8) access to high-ranking public figures and Army personnel whom they have suborned, intimidated, or killed.
Public access became evident when Operation House-Cleaning (Operación Limpieza), conducted in 2008, turned up a dozen or more ranking law-enforcement officials who were on the ABLs’ hefty payroll. To the chagrin of Calderón’s entourage, among those incarcerated was Nőe Ramírez Mandujano, head of SIEDO, the Attorney General’s specialized unit for investigating organized crime.
Prospects for the ABL
The fall of Arturo and Carlos could spark at least four possible outcomes:
- Los Zetas may attempt to seize all—or part—of the ABLs’ empire. Even though the two syndicates have worked together, Los Zetas—led by Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel “El 40” Treviño Morales—are as power hungry as they are brutal. They have situational arrangements with the Beltrán Leyvas in Cancún, Acapulco, Guerrero state, Durango, and elsewhere. Still, relations occasionally frayed: the ABLs demanded that Los Zetas cut ties with a Cuban human smugglers and even dispatched a hired gun to kill a group of Cuban criminals in Tabasco state; and Arturo ordered the blood-thirsty paramilitaries to leave the posh municipality of San Pedro Garza García, adjacent to Monterrey, where Beltrán Leyva family members reportedly live and where the ABLs have forged an understanding with the mayor. Moreover, Treviño Morales, who enjoys slashing throats and wielding a baseball bat to deliver the coup de grȃce to traitors and enemies, despises La Barbie for having killed his brother. For the time being, Los Zetas must concentrate on La Familia, an ineffably sinister Michoacán-headquartered cartel that in early February 2010 declared all-out war against “El Lazca,” “El 40,” and their Janissaries.
- An internal battle could explode within the Beltrán Leyva organization, pitting “El Grande” Villarreal Barragán against La Barbie, who was Arturo’s constant companion, but surprisingly was not at the December 16 shootout in Cuernavaca when Marines pieced the three rings of protection surrounding their prey.
- Changes in relations with the Sinaloa Cartel. Optimists believe that Héctor, a consummate negotiator, could make peace with his cousin “El Chapo.” In addition, the son of Guzmán Loera’s confidant, “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, is married to ABL sister Gloria. Others analysts are less sanguine. They cite the mayhem and duplicity poisoning relations between the two cartels (the arrest of “El Mochomo” Beltrán Leyva; the execution of Édgar Guzmán López and the son of “La Emperatriz”—to mention a few) as evidence that the Sinaloans may make a grab for the ABLs’ turf and resources.
- It is also possible that the cultured Héctor, who displays the diplomatic skills of a Talleyrand and the shrewdness of a Machiavelli, can diffuse the La Barbie-El Grande rivalry even as he fends and/or buys off foes. The appearance in front of the family’s crypt where Arturo’s body reposed of a severed head, with a flower neatly tucked behind one ear, may be a message from the brothers that: “We have just begun to fight!”
The ABLs’ setbacks yield several insights. First, the Mexican Navy, which has a first-rate intelligence service and Marine units resembling U.S. Navy Seals, will become increasingly important in the struggle against the cartels. The Army’s three-year intense involvement in the drug war has led to greater corruption of its personnel and hundreds of human-rights abuses. The coziness of leaders of the Army’s 24th Military Zone in Cuernavaca meant that the government dispatched Marines from Mexico City to pursue and apprehend Arturo.
Second, Los Zetas are beyond contempt. They executed the family, including the mother, of a Marine who died in the violent foray against Arturo. Not even the Sicilian Mafia attacks the loved ones of members of the armed forces.
Third, the abuse of Arturo’s corpse and the theft of several of his cell phones suggest that “public servants” in Morelos, possibly in the state’s forensics team, have dirty hands. Imagine the value of information that might be found in these devices.
Fourth, the killings spree on the heels of Arturo’s (and El Teo’s) demise indicates that decapitating criminal bands spurs violence, at least in the short run. December 2009 and January 2010 were two of the deadliest months in Mexico’s anti-cartel crusade.
Finally, U.S. intelligence agencies have finally found an eager partner with which they can work effectively: the Mexican Navy. Much of the Army brass remains suspicious of foreigners, especially Americans. In contrast, when Mexico’s version of the Seals receives an assignment, they execute it—without the deliberations and delays that often characterize the Army after receiving information about the whereabouts of bad actors and their resources.
Status of Key Players
- Beltrán Leyva family (ABLs): Amberto, Alfredo “El Mochomo” (killed January 20, 2008), Amida, Arturo “las Barbas” (killed December 16, 2009), Carlos (captured December 30, 2009), Gloria, Mario Alberto “El General,” and Héctor (presumed current leader).
- Cárdenas Guillén, Osiel: boss of the Gulf Cartel; extradited to the United States on January1 9, 2007.
- Carrillo Fuentes, Amado “Lord of the Skies”: headed Juárez Cartel; died July 4, 1997.
- Cázares Salazar, Margarita “La Emperatriz”: financial operator for Mayo Zambrano García; at large.
- Coronel Villarreal, Ignacio “Nacho”: drug baron in Jalisco state and close ally of Sinaloa Cartel; at Large.
- Esparragoza Moreno, Juan José “El Azul”: linked to Sinaloa Cartel; skilled negotiator; at large.
- García Simental, Teodoro “El Teo”: Tijuana-based sadist; captured January 12, 2010.
- Guzmán Gómez, Édgar: El Chapo’s son; killed May 8, 2008.
- Guzman Loera, Joaquín “El Chapo”: kingpin of Sinaloa Cartel; at large.
- Lazcano Lazcano, Heriberto “El Lazca”: leader of Los Zetas; at large.
- Morales Treviño, Miguel “El 40”: leader of Los Zetas; at large.
- Ramírez Mandujano, Nőe: former head of Siedo; imprisoned November 19, 2008, for accepting princely bribes from ABLs; in prison.
- Váldez Villarreal, Édgar “La Barbie”: dangerous lieutenant of ABLs; at large.
- Villarreal Barragán, Sergio Enrique “El Grande”: dangerous lieutenant of ABLs; at large.
- Zambano García, Ismael “El Mayo”: a leader of Sinaloa Cartel; at large.
- Zambano Gárcia, Jesús Reynardo “El Rey”: El Mayo’s brother; captured October 20, 2008.
George W. Grayson is the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary. His latest book is Mexico Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (Transaction, 2009). He is an associate scholar at FPRI, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and a board member of the Center for Immigration Studies. He has made more than 200 research trips to Mexico and other Latin American Countries. This article first appeared at FPRI (http://www.fpri.org) and is reprinted with permission.
1. “El Barbas, de frente y de perfil,” Rio Doce, December 21, 2009; although not well-known, this Culiacán, Sinaloa, weekly, directed by Ismael Bojórquez, provides a gold mine of information about Mexico’s drug business. I am indebted to Professor James Creechan, a Toronto-based scholar, for bringing the invaluable publication to my attention.
2. “La vacante sangrienta,” Noroeste.com, January 1, 2010.
3. Authorities discovered severed heads in areas around the airport; see, for example, Miguel Ángel Serrano, “Encuentran dos cabezas cerca del aeropuerto capitalino,” El Universal, January 14, 2008.
4. Samuel Logan, “Beltran Leyvas Down but Not Out,” ISN Security Watch, January 8, 2010.
5. “Capturan a Carlos Beltrán Leyva,” Informador.com.mx, January 4, 2010.
6. “Infiltra el narco también al Ejército,” El Universal, October 30, 2008.
7. “PAN Candidate Acknowledges Negotiating with Cartels,” Under the Volcano: Notes on Mexican Politics,” Zemi Communications, June 13, 2009.
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