MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican marines acting on U.S. intelligence seized the leader of a breakaway faction of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel, officials said Thursday, proclaiming the third such arrest in a month as a victory for a bi-national strategy focused on removing the leadership of Mexico's powerful organized crime groups.
Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as "El Taliban," was seized by a team of marines in the northern city of San Luis Potosi, the Mexican navy said. He becomes the 24th of Mexico's 37 most-wanted alleged cartel leaders to be killed or captured under President Felipe Calderon, who escalated Mexico's war on drug gangs days after taking office and who ends his term in two months.
Calderon has been praised by the U.S. for his assault on the cartels, but heatedly criticized inside and outside Mexico for an excessive focus on using armed force and arresting gang leaders.
"Calderon is in his phase where he's establishing legacy, and he wants people to say, 'His strategy was bloody but it worked,'" said Samuel Logan, managing director of the security analysis firm Southern Pulse and co-author of a recent book on the Zetas. "They're pushing forward on as many fronts as they can before he leaves office."
Critics say Calderon's approach splintered cartels into dozens of smaller factions, increasing the competition among them and fueling a brutal war for control of smuggling routes before Mexico had an adequate law-enforcement and justice system in place.
"You lose the leadership and the group starts fighting for power. We've seen that with every group that's been beheaded," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on the Zetas' home state of Tamaulipas, and chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
The government said at least 47,500 people had been killed in drug-related violence during Calderon's term before it stopped releasing figures last year. Independent observers say the death toll could be many thousands higher.
Velazquez Caballero allegedly has been fighting a bloody internal battle with top Zetas' leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, and officials have said the split was behind a recent surge in massacres and shootouts, particularly in northern Mexico.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment on the potential for more violence in the wake of the arrest.
A U.S. law-enforcement official in Mexico said the two governments were pressuring both capos and the cartels' foot soldiers, and the killing should be seen as a necessary side effect of a frontal assault on powerful criminal gangs.
"I know that we talk about it, the violence and the tragedy involved with the numbers, but that's actually a signpost of success," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for his own security. "You have to look at it and kind of squeeze it from the top and the bottom, so going after the high- level guys is significantly important in the strategy."
All three alleged cartel leaders arrested this month are accused of leading factions of the Gulf Cartel or Zetas, former allies now feuding over valuable smuggling territory along the U.S. border. The alleged heads of the two main factions of the Gulf group, Mario Cardenas Guillen and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, were seized in navy operations in northern Mexico.
"This is another big fish, it's another great catch by the Mexicans," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said of the capture of Trevino Morales. He said the arrest emerged from close intelligence sharing between the two countries.
"We're there, we assist and sometimes we try to pass along information that's beneficial. We helped them," Payne said. "We help them connect the dots. If somebody's got sources on this side of the border, we may know of somebody here who has information about what's going on south of the border, and we would pass that information along."
The Zetas are one of Mexico's two most powerful cartels and are considered the hemisphere's most violent criminal organization. They have been blamed for a large share of the Mexico's drug war deaths, though other gangs also have repeatedly committed mass slayings.
The head of the other dominant cartel, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains free, and there have been far fewer arrests of his associates.
Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said marines acting on unspecified intelligence were patrolling in the city of San Luis Potosi when they spotted a group of men leaving a house. When the men spotted the marines, they moved suspiciously back into the house, Vergara said, and marines followed, arresting Velazquez Caballero and two other men inside.
Also known as "Z-50," Velazquez Caballero had a 30 million peso ($2.3 million) reward on his head. Masked marines displayed the burly, handcuffed suspect alongside two alleged accomplices and a table of guns and other contraband seized during his arrest.
On Sept. 14, eight men were found shot to death and one hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, territory that officials say was traditionally controlled by Trevino Morales, alias "Z-40."
Analysts say 14 bullet-ridden bodies stuffed in a van in mid-August in San Luis Potosi were men loyal to "El Taliban," and may have been left there as a warning by Trevino Morales' underlings.
"If 'El Taliban' had groups of gunmen under his command, violence could be unleashed, because they've only captured a leader and not his subordinates," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "But when someone's been switching sides, no one knows how many forces he's got."
A U.S. official said Velazquez Caballero appeared to have formed an alliance of convenience with the Knights Templar cartel based in the southern state of Michoacan for his fight with Trevino Morales. A Mexican navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said Mexican officials had heard the reports of the alliance but had yet to confirm them.
Banners signed by various elements of the Zetas and hung from overpasses in several Mexican states appeared to confirm mutual hatred between Trevino Morales and Velazquez Caballero. In the obscenity-laden banners, the two accused each other of betraying fellow traffickers and preying on civilians.
The development could strengthen Trevino Morales, who allegedly shares leadership of the Zetas with Heriberto Lazcano, alias "El Lazca."
Vergara, the navy spokesman, said Velazquez Caballero controlled drug-smuggling territory in the states of Zacatecas and Aguascalientes and parts of Guanajuato and Coahuila states, and also commanded Zetas foot soldiers in the city of Monterrey. Velazquez Caballero was also described as the one-time financial head of the Zetas, with responsibility for the group's money laundering.
Vergara confirmed that Velazquez Caballero had feuded with Trevino Morales and said that he had been seeking an alliance with the Gulf Cartel.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.